A gloomy Edgbaston was cast under clouds of silence when the curtains were drawn on Yuvraj Singh’s masterpiece against Pakistan. However, the lull was broken in a flash by a wave of hysteric applause and chants in anticipation of MS Dhoni’s arrival. It did not take too long, however, for the gloom to reappear as the energetic Hardik Pandya jogged out instead of the poised former India captain.
For almost 49 minutes on Sunday, the crowd had been charmed by the vintage elegance of Yuvraj’s blade that had destroyed the Pakistani bowlers in their Champions Trophy opener. They now wanted to be enchanted by the genius of Dhoni. But the sight of Pandya had dampened their hopes. The crowd, heavy with India fans, collectively let out a sigh of hopelessness, maybe even sharpened their daggers, to threaten Virat Kohli with once Pandya had fluffed his chance in Birmingham.
One and a half overs were all that remained of India’s innings. One and a half overs were all Edgbaston hoped to be treated to Dhoni’s time with the bat. Instead, they were left with no choice as Pandya was forced upon them. But with three towering sixes off the first three balls of the last over (which led to India scoring 23 runs in the final over), Pandya had blown the gloom away. The cameo meant that Edgbaston was at its boisterous best when the teams broke for lunch.
Pandya may not have managed to do a Dhoni, but he had announced the arrival of a Pandya. The lack of this Pandya had forced Dhoni to scream from every national and international rooftop about the need for one. The lack had led the former captain to launch a nationwide search for that Pandya. Most disturbingly, the lack had forced Dhoni to become the batsman he never was.
For years, there were very few batsmen who could instill the kind of fear Dhoni could in bowlers. But the last couple of years have been different.
Dhoni was still the mainstay of the Indian one-day middle-order. He was still the best wicketkeeper-batsman in the country. But he was not the Dhoni cricket had known. The helicopter would be taxied more often than it would fly. The bludgeoning power that defined his game was replaced by a meticulously planned knock. He would still win India games, but not with the consistency that had earned him the crown of a one-day legend.
India were in the middle of a winless Australia tour in early 2015. They were about a month way from the World Cup. Though they were the defending champions, it just did not feel right. Among all the puzzle pieces that did not fit well, Dhoni’s inability to launch attacks and, thus, not be the architect of India’s triumphs regularly glared through. Naturally, concerns were raised during the tri-series in Australia.
The tri-series, with England as the third team, was the curtain raiser to the World Cup. It was India’s best chance to pick up a couple of victories before the global event was hosted by the Trans-Tasmanian neighbours. But India lost to Australia. They lost to England. And, they remained winless through the tour.
Dhoni, then the India one-day captain, was asked if the country could expect the return of the marauding Dhoni for the World Cup. Much to the disappointment of the eager ears, he ruled it out, at least till he could rely on his lower-order to share the burden.
“The lower-order contribution is something that is a key factor. We can’t really have four to five batsmen in the lower order that will get out quickly because you want to make the most of 50 overs,” was Dhoni’s logic in Perth in January 2015. He believed that he had to bat conservatively because had he fallen, he did not bank on the men to follow to complete the unfinished business.
The Indian lower-order was imperfect. It did not have a Ben Stokes or a Corey Anderson or a Glenn Maxwell to finish off innings. Thus, Dhoni continued to bat responsibly, but left the monster hits at home, to shield his lower-order. Unsurprisingly, India failed to defend their World Cup crown.
A year and a half later, the situation was the same. India were being handed a scare by New Zealand at home. With the pressure on the rise, Dhoni even admitted to have forgotten the art of annihilating attacks. “To some extent I am losing my ability to freely rotate in the middle, so I have decided to bat up and let others finish,” he exclaimed in October 2016.
The reason was the same — the absence of a finisher. “It is one of the most difficult things to do in cricket,” he explained. “Once you find a good finisher, they are the ones that keep batting at that slot for eight to 10 years.”
But with less than a year to go for the Champions Trophy, another global event of which India were reigning champions, the situation looked bleak.
After India scratched past the visiting Kiwis, a one-day series against England earlier this year was their only assignment in coloured clothes before the ongoing Champions Trophy.
For the few months that Pandya had been a part of the ODI team up until then, Dhoni had used him as a bowler first, batsman later. By the time the England one-day series came by, Kohli had taken over as the captain of India across formats. Suddenly, there was an emphasis on, and confidence in, Pandya’s batting.
Pandya repaid the faith in his batting ability when he ensured India chased down England’s monumental 350 in Pune with an unbeaten 40. He backed it up with an impressive 56 in Kolkata. Though India fell short of England’s 321 by five runs, Pandya’s knock had gifted India hope. In a matter of three games, Pandya was now as much a batsman as he was a bowler.
Dhoni would have smiled as he witnessed the transformation from the background after he had handed over the leadership to Kohli. It was the Pandya-kind of lower-order batsman that Dhoni as a captain had yearned for and Dhoni as a batsman had needed.
Dhoni did not waste too much time to celebrate the arrival of Pandya the batsman. After the Baroda lad had finished off India’s chase in Pune, Dhoni showed a glimpse of his older self in Cuttack with a 122-ball 134. The version of Dhoni that had gone missing for years had been found. All it took was a batsman in the lower-order to bat freely and assure Dhoni that there was life after him in the batting line-up.
Pandya showed glimpses of his batting prowess in the IPL too for the Mumbai Indians. It enabled him to warm up for the Champions Trophy, which he kicked off with a blistering, unbeaten 80 against Bangladesh in the warm-up tie.
But the first game of the Champions Trophy would bring its own pressure. The pressure would only multiply because it was against Pakistan. The runs in the warm-up tie would account for little if Pandya would muster a drab show with the bat against the traditional rivals.
Kohli’s faith in Pandya’s batting talent, however, knocked once again when the 23-year-old was promoted above Dhoni. Yuvraj had provided the innings the impetus. But the occasion demanded a blockbuster finish. And, the three consecutive strikes over the fence in the last over from Pandya provided just that.
“It was unbelievable the way he came out. We switched in the end, they asked whether we should send Hardik ahead of MS and everyone agreed because he can just strike the ball from ball one, (he has) unbelievable ability so I think those three sixes and a boundary was probably a little bit of difference as well in the end,” the Indian captain said while speaking of the defining call that was taken at the last minute in India’s Champions Trophy opener.
Pandya’s blitzkrieg at the end was the final shove that pushed Pakistan off the cliff on Sunday. It was also another giant stride for the Indian team. While it established his credentials as the team’s hot property lower down the order, it was the next step in the continued liberation of the vintage Dhoni.
After all, Pandya’s consistency with the bat could be the catalyst required to ensure that the bludgeoner in Dhoni does not go into hibernation again.