West Indies 189 for 9 (Lewis 35, Kyle Hope 35, Umesh 3-36, Pandya 3-40) beat India 178 (Rahane 60, Dhoni 54, Holder 5-27) by 11 runs
By Sidharth Monga
The wine is oxidising fast. Add Antigua 2017 to the list of matches MS Dhoni has failed to finish off since 2014. He scored India’s slowest half-century in 16 years as they failed to chase down 190 on a slow pitch against a spirited attack that managed to tide over a costly drop and a tactical blunder in the concluding stages. Jason Holder compensated for bowling Roston Chase in the 44th over with a maiden five-for, but it was Kesrick Williams, playing only his second ODI, who frustrated the hell out of Dhoni, conceding just 13 in four overs after the 40th and taking Dhoni out with the last ball he bowled.
Four years ago, in the West Indies, Dhoni found himself in a similar situation on a similarly slow track, chasing 202, leaving himself 15 to get in the last over with the last man for company. He got it in three hits.
Here, India needed 16 off the last two, but Dhoni couldn’t inflict any damage against Williams’ mix of slower deliveries and quick length ones. Perhaps it was the bigger boundaries than Queen’s park Oval’s from four years ago, perhaps he doesn’t trust himself that much anymore, but here Dhoni pulled the trigger sooner. He could have taken a single off the last ball of the 49th and left himself 13 to get in Holder’s final over, but he blinked first and drilled a length ball straight into the lap of long-on.
Moments after the match, Dhoni was seen sitting dejected in the balcony, a little lost even, when a member of the India squad had to shake him physically to shake his hand. Dhoni knows this is the kind of chase he has built his reputation on. It will be harsh to talk of him when the batting around him failed more miserably, but everybody – Dhoni himself – knows these are Dhoni finishes.
When Dhoni walked in, he brought a sense of calm to a faltering batting. Shikhar Dhawan departed early, not respecting the slowness of the pitch and driving Alzarri Joseph on the up. Joseph’s grandmother, operating the manual scoreboard at Sir Viv Richards Stadium, cheered on.
The bigger blows were to follow. West Indies’ adherence to their bowling plans has never been more apparent than when they have bowled to Virat Kohli when he is new at the crease. They believe he doesn’t like the bowl up at his throat, and 41% of their bowling to Kohli has been in their own half. Different batsmen react differently to plans against them. Kohli hates to watch a plan succeed for a while before overcoming it. He wants to dominate. Out went his trusted weaving and ducking, and in came the hook shots. Holder’s third bouncer in the sixth over produced the top edge, and we had a game on now.
Dinesh Karthik, replacing the injured Yuvraj Singh, and playing ahead of Rishabh Pant presumably because he was selected in the squad before Pant, did worse against the bouncer. After taking 13 balls to get off the mark, he top-edged one that was barely chest high.
In came Dhoni to join Ajinkya Rahane, who had again looked comfortable against the new ball and had been dropped on 23. The two began to bat cautiously; the asking rate was not an issue at this point. The old maxim of “India win if they bat 50 overs” still held true even as Rahane and Dhoni laboured through their 54-run partnership.
West Indies were markedly different from two nights ago when they had failed to squeeze India after taking two early wickets. Here there were no easy singles as first Williams and Devendra Bishoo, and then Ashley Nurse, dried up the runs. While Rahane did get the odd boundary, Dhoni said an absolute no to taking any risk.
By the time Rahane took his last risk, sweeping Bishoo against the turn, the asking rate hovered around 4.55. It was still in Dhoni’s control. You still felt Dhoni just needed to bat through. However, Dhoni was not batting like Dhoni does. He struggled to time balls, but more worryingly failed to find gaps. Bishoo and Nurse bowled 68 balls to him for 28 runs, slower than his innings strike rate of 47.36. Dhoni was even forced to play a sweep shot, which is the ultimate last resort for him against spin.
As Kedar Jadhav fell, bat-pad to Nurse with Shai Hope leaping from behind the stumps, the asking rate closed in on a run-a-ball. Hardik Pandya ramped one for four to buy some breathing space, Dhoni began to take risky singles, and in the 40th over, India needed more than six per over. Would it still be an India win if they batted through?
Dhoni definitely thought so. He kept waiting for the mistake from the opposition, a principle he has built the second half of his limited-overs career on. A tenet of captaincy he has handed down to Kohli. The mistakes weren’t forthcoming, though, as Williams began to bowl the gun overs perfectly.
Holder is a leader by example, but his being at the forefront had cost West Indies 65 runs in 4.5 overs at the death in the last two matches. Perhaps he wanted to do the prudent thing. Perhaps he wanted to continue with offspin after Nurse’s success. Whatever be the reason, after three conservative bowling innings, with 55 required off 42, with that painstakingly increased asking rate at stake, Holder asked Chase to bowl his offspin for the first time in the series. Chase proceeded to gift Dhoni a boundary down the leg side – his first in 103 balls, then bowled a wide and then went for a six to Pandya to bring the equation down to 39 off 36. Surely now India win if they bat through?
Surely not. Holder came back immediately to make amends with a leg-stump yorker to send back Pandya. In came Ravindra Jadeja who has got a bit of a reputation of being headless under pressure in limited-overs cricket. When the singles ought to do it, he went for the big hit, sending a Holder slower ball down long-on’s throat, making it 17 off 15. Dhoni should still have it, right?
It seemed so as he took a single next ball, leaving Kuldeep Yadav, batting for the first time in ODIs, two balls to face from Holder. Both were dots. Williams began the 49th with a slower ball. Dot. Then, calmly, still as if in the middle overs of an innings, Dhoni pushed a single. Nothing wrong with it. That’s how Dhoni is. Last over it shall be, one on one, me vs you.
Williams, though, squeezed out two dots against Kuldeep before bringing Dhoni back on strike for the last ball. And that’s when Dhoni blinked. That’s when he did the uncharacteristic thing. After having backed himself for so long, Dhoni didn’t back himself to do it all in the last over.
Holder finished the innings with a flourish, making up with his bowling for the direction and purpose they lacked with the bat. When West Indies batted, you wondered if they would choose not to bat at all if there was a provision for the two captains to just negotiate and decide a total India had to chase. They would still have brokered a better deal than the 189 that they got, joint second-lowest total for a side batting first and playing out its allocation of 50 overs since the 2015 World Cup; the lowest belonged to Zimbabwe.
If the lack of direction showed in the 192 dot balls faced by West Indies – at one point, Evin Lewis, a T20I centurion against India, had faced 15 straight dots from Umesh Yadav – they managed only tame dismissals whenever they tried to push the scoring rate. However, there was another factor at play, the slowness of the pitch, which they exploited decisively in the second half of the match.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo