Mahendra Singh Dhoni's aggressive unbeaten 91 in the World Cup summit showdown against Sri Lanka matches the greatest innings played by a captain in a final of the showpiece event, according to former England captain Mike Atherton.
Atherton said Dhoni's 79-ball knock could be compared to the match-winning 102 by West Indian captain Clive Lloyd in the 1975 final against Australia.
“Dhoni's unbeaten 91, topped off with a towering six over long-on to win the match, was an astonishing innings. It was fashioned under pressure but with a freedom found mostly a peg or two down from the kind of stage upon which a World Cup final is played,” Atherton said.
“The greatest innings ever played by a captain in a World Cup final was Clive Lloyd's monumental hundred against Australia at Lord's in the inaugural tournament in 1975 and if this was not its equal then it was not far behind,” he wrote in his column for ‘The Times' newspaper.
“Lloyd was in Mumbai in his role as chairman of the ICC's Cricket Committee and as Dhoni past him on the stage to collect his man of the match award, the West Indian would have recognised a fellow traveller,” he said.
Atherton was all praise for Dhoni's leadership qualities, especially when he was under intense scrutiny throughout the tournament.
“Nobody, except Sachin Tendulkar, has been under more scrutiny. Every decision, every move, every statement has been pored over by an army of writers and pundits. After the defeat against South Africa, Dhoni criticised his batsmen for playing to the gallery rather than for the team and it was as if he had tossed a meaty bone to the most voracious pack of jackals imaginable ... they gnawed on this juicy offering for days to come.
“When, in the same match, he gave Ashish Nehra the final over instead of Harbhajan Singh, an instinctive move that was perfectly reasonable but one that was backfired, it was a ploy that was commented upon and chewed over ... And why, everyone wanted to know, was Ashwin not playing at all?” wrote Atherton.
“Throughout, though, Dhoni has carried himself with the air of a man for whom such matters were trivial. Not once, until he let the mask slip on the podium, did he complained about the spotlight; not once did he lose cool on the field.”
The former England captain said there was no doubt that India had the talent to win the World Cup but the question was whether they would be able to soak the pressure and come out triumphant. He said with Dhoni at the helm the team went on to do its job calmly and with confidence.
“This was a triumph of leadership, pure and simple. The question throughout was not whether India had the talent to win the World Cup but whether they had the men to do it. Could they cope with the round-the-clock scrutiny, the suffocating, all encompassing demands of public for whom anything other than the ultimate victory would have been unacceptable. In short, did they have the bottle?
“They had it all right _ whole jeroboams of it _ and, on a magnificent and moving night in Mumbai which sealed the glorious career of one modern master whilst bringing down the curtain on another, nobody embodied this strength of mind and character more than their captain Dhoni. His calmness throughout has been a key factor in enabling this team to reach its potential,” wrote Atherton.
Leading from the front
Atherton felt Dhoni's move to promote himself up the order in the final was the perfect example of a captain taking upon himself the responsibility of leading from the front.
“From the very first ball, which he blocked, but with such crispness and determination in his footwork, it was clear that Dhoni was ready to seize the moment and shape his team's destiny:”
“When he came into the Indian team he was a bit of a showpony, if truth be told, riding his man of the match bike around the outfield, and playing crazy shots almost for the sake of it. Few would have guessed that a mature leader was lurking within”.
“Yet there he was on Saturday evening, as the fireworks lit the Mumbai skyline, millions hanging on his every word and waiting for the moment when he would become only the second Indian captain to grasp the World Cup in his hands.”