That, for most of my life, is what it has been like watching India chase. The record India have built does not merit this skepticism, but there it is. I believe India can win from the most hopeless positions. I also believe that they will find a way to lose from the most dominant positions. I believe in India the most when they are down, and the least when they are about to win.
Things have changed. Maybe it is because I have gotten older. Maybe it is because India do win way more these days than they used to back in the days of Sourav Ganguly and Debashish Mohanty.
I'll confess something here. When India were chasing in the World Cup Final, I wasn't worried. Not even when Tendulkar fell to Malinga making it 31/2. I knew it was a question of a couple of decent stands. What's more I was reasonably confident those stands would come. It was an eery feeling. To know, on the morning of a World Cup Final, that your team was going to win simply because it was better and because it would play better than the opposition.
I felt it again today, watching the last 10 overs of a final I hadn't planned on watching at all. I kept an eye on the score off and on for the first half of India's chase. When I checked back, India were 8 down, still 40 away. Cricinfo's headline said "Dhoni India's last hope". I've been thinking about how I felt when I saw that headline. It should have worried me. It would have 10 years ago. It would have even with Tendulkar batting. 8 down, lost 4 very quick wickets, collapsing, tricky pitch, momentum with the opposition, big final, trouble.
That, I've come to the conclusion, is the M S Dhoni effect. India have other fine batsmen. They have other gifted stroke makers who can score at any pace. They have players who on their day, can do anything against any opponent.
There is, in each cricket fan, a core belief. Deep down. Far below rationality and intellectual honesty, deeper down than the gut even. We know what our team is capable of. The facts have something to do with it, but at the same time, they don't. When India concede a 200 run first innings lead, And Dravid and Tendulkar are batting together with the score on 35/2, I dream of a double hundred stand. But deep down I know its more likely to be three hours of extremely hard graft against a bowling attack which is trying their hardest, at their very best concentration. Deep down, I've always known that it was a miracle too far.
In ODI cricket, while Dhoni is still to have his say, at that very core of my being as an Indian fan, I harbor only total confidence that the thing can be done.
That is the Dhoni effect.
I have never seen a player so infallible at such violence. Has Dhoni ever played a shot in anger? Even when he takes a chance, it is surgically chosen. It has taken a while, but Dhoni's India is like no other.
M S Dhoni first made his name in the Indian uniform in 2005. India were playing Sri Lanka at Jaipur. The visitors had made 300. They had gone 5 years without losing a game defending 250 with Muralitharan in their ranks or more upto that point. Dhoni looked and batted like a great protagonist of the theatre might appear to people who never went to the theatre. There was a distance in the dramatic flourish of his follow through. His bat would reach out, arms fully stretched out, as though he had once been punished for not following through properly, and since learnt never to do so by half measures. He made 183 in 145 balls. In the next game at Pune, India had fallen to 180/6 chasing 262. They needed 82 in 15 overs. Dhoni made 45 not out in 43 balls. He made 17 from his first 33, and 28 off his last 10. It was a chase crafted with a sophistication seen only from India's (and the world's) very best batsmen.
Since then, the hairstyle has changed, but the precocious ability to judge a run chase hasn't. In 96 innings batting second (in 116 matches), Dhoni has remained undefeated 35 times. India have won 33, lost 1, and tied 1. In those 35 innings Dhoni has made 1612 unanswered runs at a strike rate of 91. In Dhoni's 116 games batting second, India have won 72 and lost 41. When Dhoni hasn't been around at the finish, India have won 39, and lost 40.
How does he do it? He's offered many explanations. They are usually pithy. He once spoke of trying to reduce the heart rate - trying to calm the chase down before launching a blistering assault in the last 3-4 overs. Today, his analysis was disarmingly simple. 10 overs out, he had worked out how Sri Lanka would distribute their overs, which bowler he wanted to keep the other players away from, and who would deliver his runs. The "inexperienced" bowler was the one he would take his chances against. His ability to hit boundaries to order is perhaps unrivalled in Cricket since Viv Richards. I dare say that he is perhaps the greatest middle order ODI batsman since the great Antiguan. But more than his individual skills and talents - hitting the ball hard and clean and long in most directions, reading games, picking bowlers - it is his mastery of his own cricketing person that is breathtaking. He never seems to make any sudden moves. Never does he seem to react off balance. On the limited overs cricket field, reality seems to come upon Dhoni after he has already figured it out.
This is perhaps why he instills this deep core confidence in me. I know his batting technique is limited. But I also know that he knows this too, perhaps better than anyone else. The basis of the Dhoni effect is the Indian captain's almost yogic command of his own actions. Ian Chappell used to speak of Sachin Tendulkar's "peripheral awareness" - the ability to read situations and make those readings count by keeping him (Tendulkar) two steps ahead of the opposition. Dhoni has this same quality in ample measure. Unlike Tendulkar, he also has, in large part thanks to Tendulkar, a gifted team. He is able to sit back in the lower order and finish things off when the others don't. But he is not shy of moving up and taking charge.
Knowing that Dhoni plays for India gives me some insight into what it must have been like to be an Australian cricket fan and know that McGrath and Warne were going to bowl for your team.
It is a privilege to experience something like that. It is a privilege to watch MS Dhoni play cricket.