MS Dhoni is not called destiny's child for no reasons. But he's much more than that. Behind his unflappable exterior, there's a man of astute cricketing brain with unswerving resolve. His scintillating innings on Sunday sent the Australian bowlers scurrying for covers as he notched up his maiden double century and broke several records to put India in a commanding position in the first Test against Australia at Chennai.
He came at the crease after Sachin Tendulkar was cleaned up by Nathan Lyon for 81 and India's score was 196 for 4. The match was nicely balanced at that point and the Australia were looking to impose pressure and run through India's lower middle order and tailenders. Dhoni drove the second ball he faced to mid on and scampered for a quick single to get off the mark. Virat Kohli was batting at the other end and had just completed his half-century. Dhoni decided to play second fiddle and pinched singles and doubles with consummate ease. He hit his first boundary off the 22nd ball he faced, lofting Lyon over mid-on.
Lyon had castled Tendulkar with a beautiful delivery and the offspinner also troubled Kohli on a couple of occasions by sharp turn and steep bounce. He was pitching the ball in the rough patch outside the off stump, making it difficult for Kohli. That's when Dhoni stepped up and took the tweaker to the cleaners deploying his brute force to good use. In Lyon's next over, Dhoni cracked two more boundaries.
Dhoni's audacious assault scuppered the offspinner's rhythm and wrestled back the momentum as the sudden counter-attack by India took the Australian bowlers by complete surprise. At lunch, India reached 263 for 4 with Kohli and Dhoni batting on 83 and 37 respectively. Australia took the second new ball three overs after the lunch but Dhoni made a smart move by targeting James Pattionson, who had removed the Indian openers with the first new ball, thumping him for consecutive boundaries in an over. He then took apart Mitchell Stac and blasted three boundaries in his over. Dhoni reached his half-century off just 64 balls by clipping Pattinson's attempted yorker away to the deep square boundary.
In the next over, Moises Henriques was thrashed with disdain by Dhoni as he walked down the pitch and crunched the bowler for a six over extra cover and followed it with a whack over mid-on. Dhoni's machinations worked big time as it thwarted the new-ball advantage and left Australian pace bowlers - Pattinson, Mitchell Starc and Henriques - bruised and battered. However, the competent Aussies came back with quick wickets of Kohli, Ravindra Jadeja and R Ashwin. Dhoni was unmoved by all that.
He continued his untrammelled dominance over the Australian bowlers and reached his 6th Test hundred, carting Peter Siddle over square leg for a boundary. India went past Australia's first innings total of 380 in the 109th over as Dhoni squeezed Siddle past point for a couple of runs. Harbhajan Singh played a slapdash shot off Henrqiues only to see his off stump getting uprooted. Harbhajan's terrible shot left Dhoni miffed and disappointed as India lost their eighth wicket.
Though India had overhauled Australia's score, it was crucial for the hosts to take a substantial lead in order to give their bowlers enough runs to take a go at the visitors in the second innings. Dhoni's ability to lead from the front in crunch circumstances is well-documented and he did no different this time around as well. He took charge of the situation and went the whole hog in a bid to muster quick runs as he was running out of partners. Lyon came in for another session of severe pasting as Dhoni launched him into the stands three more times. He stopped taking singles on most occasions and encouraged Bhuvneshwar Kumar to hold one end firmly which the medium-pacer did with finesse.
Dhoni racked up his maiden double century, and the first double hundred by an Indian wicketkeeper, by dabbing Lyon to short third man for a single and acknowledged the thunderous response from the boisterous Chennai crowd with his trademark tranquility. He was unbeaten at 206 off 243 balls when the day was called. The Aussies looked worried. Even the usually calm Clarke looked highly uptight and fidgety.
Dhoni's innings couldn't have come at a better time. His captaincy is under fire for last one year with India losing one series after another. His own form in the longer format until today has been patchy unlike his incandescent showings in ODIs. His defensive tactics and team selection have been flayed and mocked at by a number of former cricketers. Some have even questioned his place in the Test team. There must have been tremendous pressure mounting on him but seldom did he lose his composure and always stuck to his guns backing his instincts and vision which has made him one of the most successful captains India have ever produced.
From being at the top of the world after winning the World Cup in 2011 and propelling India to the No. 1 Test team in the ICC rankings to become the most reviled and vilified person in India, Dhoni has seen the whole broad of spectrum and his cricketing sojourn has truly been fascinating. His rise to the prominence was as spectacular as his dramatic dip.
This innings might prove the rite of passage in his cricketing career and resurrect his flagging fortunes. There's no denying the fact that he's India's best ever wicketkeeper-batsman but questions are still rippling around about his technique to survive and excel in alien overseas conditions and his notoriously defensive mindset as a captain in Test arena. A lot will also depend on how India do as a team in the longer format as a team is 'almost' as good as its skipper. It is to Dhoni's credit that he has managed to pull off such a sensational innings at a critical juncture under immense pressure. It could prove his career-defining innings if Dhoni, as a captain, and Team India go strength to strength from here and quell the aforesaid question in the best way they can - performing and delivering results on cricket's holy bastion.