India in 2006-07 cut a somewhat sorry figure away from home. They weren’t abominably poor – that phase was to come in 2011 – but their performances were dreadful nonetheless. The Fab Four were no longer as fab, and in the bowling department, experience was restricted to Zaheer Khan and Anil Kumble. The openers were newcomers and the tail completely incapable of putting up a resistance with the willow. Off the field, tensions were high with Greg Chappell’s retirement as coach and Indian cricket going through a controversial period.
Set on such a backdrop, the opening Test of the 2007 England tour posed a quandary for the Indian selectors. Dinesh Karthik was looking to gradually make his mark in Test cricket, and was the only available – though not the ideal – choice to open the batting with Wasim Jaffer. Now, Karthik’s inclusion threw up a two-way battle for the No. 7 position. One option was to entrust Karthik with wicketkeeping responsibilities and include allrounder Yuvraj Singh, while the other was to let the opener focus on his batting and hand over the gloves to Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
As it turned out, the selectors decided to go with the latter and India ended up fielding only four bowlers – three pacers and Kumble. In retrospect, it had not been the greatest of decisions, for India barely managed to ‘get out of jail’, as Rahul Dravid later put it, that too, courtesy the rain gods and one man’s obstinacy.
The first three innings of the match panned out with nothing extraordinary to offer. Batting first, England collapsed from 252/2 at one stage to 298 all out. India managed something similar, losing their last five wickets in a matter of 28 runs. England’s lead was now a substantial 97. They added 282 more in their second innings with Pietersen finally scoring a century and set a demanding target of380 runs for India.
Familiar woes greeted the Indian batsmen as they took the field on Day 4. Jaffer perished in the 11th over and Dravid followed suit in the penultimate ball of the 14th. Even the mighty Sachin Tendulkar could not stick around for an hour. Ganguly joined Karthik at the crease and the duo put up a 59-run partnership, but by the end of the day, India was looking towards a probable defeat.
Fortunes, however, seemed to favor VVS Laxman and MS Dhoni as they nudged at deliveries and poked at those that beat the edges. Dhoni, in particular, survived quite a few tricky situations. He was dropped on 14 by Paul Collingwood. Had that catch been taken, Dhoni would not have scored 52 more and the match would have gone in England’s favor long before the rains came.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man
Surprisingly, during their stay, it was Laxman who supported the youngster instead of the other way round. Once the veteran was dismissed, India’s innings was all about Dhoni. He stayed unbeaten till the end, grueling for 203 minutes, but it was what unfolded during those 159 balls he faced that gave birth to veneration for Dhoni.
Stuck in a pressure cooker situation with the tail that hasn’t been known to wag often, Dhoni churned out a judicious innings, uncharacteristic of his belligerent style. It was the day the long-haired impulsive boy metamorphosed into a responsible man. If ever there had been one single innings which matured a cricketer by leaps and bounds, this was it.
As wickets continued to fall at regular intervals at the other end, Dhoni refused to surrender timidly. He could not do anything about the bowling that was relentlessly good, but he ensured he did what he could – preserve his wicket. Boundaries had become a luxury by then, so Dhoni resorted to running. He ran comfortably most times and with the heart in his mouth at others, but never did he give up.
His half-century came up in 120 balls – a strike-rate that’s unbelievable by his standards. He acknowledged the fact that he was not reading the wily Englishmen well, so he used his feet trying to get to the pitch of the ball at every possible instance. He maneuvered the ball adamantly to find the gaps in Vaughan’s well-placed field, and sometimes those efforts yielded a single or two. These were the ones that later added up and saved the match for India from the throes of certain defeat.
Fortune favors the brave
Dhoni’s was never the classic risk-free innings though; in fact, it was far from that. On the 16th ball he faced, Dhoni was led into a dilemma by a short-pitched Anderson delivery angling towards him. Unable to decide whether to leave or play, he half-heartedly jabbed at the ball. It was similar to how he was dismissed in the first innings, but this time, the ball flew over the slips for a lucky boundary.
On another instance, two overs after Collingwood had dropped Dhoni, Monty Panesar rapped his pads deep inside the crease only to learn that the impact was just outside the line. A couple of edges off Anderson followed until the audacious lunge at a Michael Vaughan delivery that fell just short of the fielder at cover.
Dhoni tried everything from paddle sweeps to obscene jabs; he misread the ball on a number of occasions, but ultimately survived. If not technique, he showed plenty of heart and resolve that day. He protected RP Singh and Sreesanth, declining singles and facing 5-6 balls per over, desperate to save the match for his country. The rains may have denied England a win, but Dhoni had definitely done the same for 20 overs prior to that.
The weather plays spoilsport
The courage and defiance, however, would have accounted for nothing had the English weather kept its notoriety in check. The match had already been severely truncated courtesy rain and bad light, and the looming grey clouds towards the end of Day 5 only made it worse for England who were in sniffing distance of a triumph.
At one time, Vaughan was compelled to restrict the bowling to himself and Panesar in an attempt to stay on the field. The latter even came agonizingly close to sending Sreesanth back, but umpire Steve Bucknor decided otherwise. Meanwhile, the Indians continued to complain of fading light until Bucknor and Simon Taufel were finally convinced.
Moving on, India made most of their psychological advantage with an inspired bowling effort at Nottingham that sealed a 7-wicket victory. The next Test culminated in a tame draw, and India eventually won the series 1-0 with Zaheer Khan and Anil Kumble hogging the limelight at Trent Bridge and The Oval respectively. History, however, had already been scripted at Lord’s, and to this day, many allude to this innings when Dhoni’s finest Test knocks are brought up.