Dhoni's blitz tears Pakistan asunder

S. SUBRAMANIUM

Pakistan thought it had given itself at least an even-money chance. Until Dhoni changed the match into a one-beast race, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

One-day chases strain the toughest of wills; masters of other situations have, in the past, turned jelly-kneed novices when confronted by targets. When M. S. Dhoni bustled out to bat under lights at the Gaddafi Stadium, India still needed 99 off 92 to go 2-1 up. An hour later, he walked back to the Indian dressing room, whose members couldn't wipe grins off. Sixty minutes of distilled Dhoni adrenaline floored Pakistan after Sachin Tendulkar, clinically, and Yuvraj Singh, the great man's equal that day, set it up with body blows.

What caught the eye wasn't the outrageous brilliance of the strokes the wicketkeeper from the backwaters of Jharkhand pulled off, nor their scary power nor even his scant disregard for where Inzamam chose to place his fielders. How can someone step into the crucible of India-Pakistan cricket, with seemingly no regard for its red heat? How can one be so nerveless?

For an air of inevitability hung over Dhoni. He launched at the ball with his considerable muscle, and — as if to crook a thumb at the purists — played the elbow-led cover drive. When the Pakistani pacemen inadvertently sought his legs, he either opened his shoulders or flashed his wrists. Even one-handed, he packed enough to find the fence. And in between times, Dhoni, incredibly, found the mental stamina to smile. He hit Pakistan like a mule's hoof to the teeth, and turned the game, winning India's 11th successive run chase.

"When we got Tendulkar out, the match was in our control," said Pakistan skipper Inzamam. "But Dhoni was outstanding. To chase seven an over is not easy but Dhoni's innings was special and took the game away from us. I think Dhoni's innings was the turning point of the match."

The 24-year-old is a big part of India's brave new world, averaging 113 in victories. "Dhoni was outstanding," said Indian captain Rahul Dravid of his mate's unconquered 46-ball 72. "It's terrific for someone new in international cricket to handle the pressure so well. "He can adapt his game to the situation, knows what his team requires, and has got a good head on his shoulders. His performance over the last six to eight months has been critical in our success."

India's pursuit of 289 didn't begin well. Mohammad Asif, in particular, and Umar Gul kept the new ball on a leash and cut it off the track. Twelve for two as India's two most technically accomplished batsmen were brought together.

CRUCIAL ROLE. Sachin Tendulkar dealt Pakistan severe body blows.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

Tendulkar was magnificent,his bat flow smooth, his footwork precise. Asif and Gul gnawed at his ego; he fell back on Sunil Gavaskar's dictum that if one knew the balls to leave alone, the ones to hit would come along. And when they did come along, Tendulkar showed just why the talk of `Endulkar' is a lot of hot air, driving majestically. "I think he (Tendulkar) assessed the situation beautifully," said Dravid, who chipped in with 22 and added a crucial 72 for the third wicket with Tendulkar. "He realised there was something happening with the ball, realised we needed to keep wickets." Yet, for all his watchfulness Tendulkar ended with 95 off 104 balls, no slow poke that.

"The way he controlled the game, played positively without doing anything risky, was great to watch. He scored at a great pace on a difficult wicket in difficult conditions. I thought it was one of his best. There are so many he has played but this was really a special one."

Yuvraj's unbeaten 79 was the third leg that propped India's chase. It was an innings of two parts — the first more frenetic part played out in Tendulkar's company and the second, the rudder that guided India home. It contained, like most Yuvraj creations, the sumptuous drive and the lacerating cut. What it also had was the affirmation the left-hander had taken the next step in the evolution of his batting.

"Sachin, Yuvraj and Dhoni all played critical parts in this win," said Dravid. "All three played different kinds of knocks in different stages. Yuvraj's maturity in stepping back, after playing positively initially, when he realised he needed to be there till the end shows that he's a very good cricketer. This tour has taken him to another level."

Pakistan, during its turn with the bat, had fought back from the despair of 128 for five. Inserted on a pitch that allowed deviation off the seam and in conditions that aided swing, the host crumpled up.

India did itself no favours by dropping three catches in the first 15 overs.

R. P. Singh, not at full tilt, still managed to get the white ball to rear off a length and scalped three. Pathan's swerve had given India the early breakthroughs, and when Tendulkar, bowling seam-up, snaffled Inzamam, the tourists might have considered the pleasure of an early night.

But Shoaib Malik and Abdul Razzaq refused to go quietly, putting on 86. Malik, the match's lone centurion, ironically ended up on the losing side. The off-spinner — projected by coach Bob Woolmer as a long-term Test opener — has plagued India in recent times.

Malik, who also bowls off-spin with a dodgy action, took 120 balls for his 108. Eighty-nine came in the last ten overs, as India struggled to keep control. By the end, Pakistan thought it had given itself at least an even-money chance. Until Dhoni upped the ante, and transformed it into a one-beast race.

"My 148 (maiden hundred) helped my team to win and it was at a crucial time," said the barnstormer, putting his 72 in perspective. "It was an opportunity to grab for me but the amount of pressure here was much more. This was a much better innings that way."

THE SCORES

India v Pakistan, 3rd ODI (day/night), February 13, 2006, Gaddafi Stadium, Lahore.

Pakistan innings: Salman Butt c Gambhir b Pathan 0; Shahid Afridi c Kaif b Pathan 19; Kamran Akmal c Pathan b Singh 34; Shoaib Malik c Dravid b Pathan 108; Mohammad Yousuf c Dhoni b Singh 1; Inzamam-ul-Haq c Dhoni b Tendulkar 16; Younis Khan c Dhoni b Singh 16; Abdul Razzaq (not out) 64; Naved-ul-Hasan (run out) 7; Yasir Arafat (not out) 1; Extras (lb-5, w-11, nb-6) 22; Total (for 8 wkts, 50 overs) 288.

Fall of wickets: 1-0, 2-39, 3-75, 4-82, 5-128, 6-158, 7-244, 8-277.

India bowling: Pathan 10-2-49-3; Sreesanth 10-0-74-0; R. P. Singh 10-0-51-3; Agarkar 6-1-21-0; Tendulkar 10-0-52-1; Khan 4-0-36-0.

India innings: G. Gambhir b Mohammad Asif 2; S. R. Tendulkar c sub (Imran Farhat) b Abdul Razzaq 95; I. K. Pathan c Kamran Akmal b Mohammad Asif 0; R. Dravid run out 22; Yuvraj Singh (not out) 79; M. Kaif lbw Umar Gul 0; M. S. Dhoni (not out) 72; Extras (lb-11, w-6, nb-5) 22; Total (for 5 wkts, 47.4 overs) 292.

Fall of wickets: 1-12, 2-12, 3-84, 4-189, 5-190.

Pakistan bowling: Mohammad Asif 10-0-47-2; Umar Gul 10-1-42-1; Naved-ul-Hasan 8-0-72-0; Yasir Arafat 9-0-53-0; Shahid Afridi 3-0-24-0; Abdul Razzaq 7.4-0-43-1.

Pakistan full substitute: Umar Gul (Mohammad Yousuf, India innings, 0.0 ov).

India full substitute: Zaheer Khan (A. B. Agarkar, Pakistan innings, 28.0 ov).