Over the years, Indian cricket fans took a special liking towards MS Dhoni calling the shots on the field. And, why not. Under his leadership, the Indian cricket team scaled new heights (needless to mention the World T20 triumph in 2007 and World Cup title win in 2011).
But, then, came a change - one that brought a more expressive and aggressive leader to the fore. Virat Kohli took over the reins as India's new captain and his never-say-die attitude created a new environment in the dressing room. But, despite being the captain, Kohli doesn't shy away from seeking out Dhoni on the field.
Whether it's about placing the fielders in the right positions, taking DRS calls or even giving advice to the bowlers, Dhoni has pretty much been the unofficial captain whose experience and know-how of the game is being wisely used by his successor Kohli. Such has been Dhoni's judgement that not only Kohli but Rohit Sharma - who has often been seen leading the Indian side as stand-in captain - also looks up to the former Indian captain for advice.
But, on 5th March, the Indian cricket fans witnessed a rare moment of magic when all these three captains combined their acumen to eke out a thrilling eight-run win over Australia at the Vidarbha Cricket stadium in Nagpur.
Defending a below-par total of 250 runs was always going to be difficult in the modern-day setup. And, India never looked in complete control of the match against the Aussies. As the match reached its climax, Kohli was contemplating the idea of using Vijay Shankar for the 46th over. But, a brief discussion with Rohit and Dhoni saw him changing his decision as he gave the ball to Jasprit Bumrah.
"I was thinking of using Vijay in the 46th over, but I spoke to Rohit and MS, and they said, let's stick with Shami and Bumrah, and if they get some wickets we're on top, and that's exactly what happened," Kohli revealed after the game.
The decision bore fruit immediately as Bumrah dismissed Nathan Coulter-Nile and Pat Cummins in the 46th over to put pressure on dangerous-looking Marcus Stoinis. The seesaw battle between the two sides eventually boiled down to 11 runs off the final six deliveries. The situation looked tailor-made for death-overs specialist Bumrah, but he had already bowled his quota of 10 overs. And, that's when Kohli pulled another ace in the pack following yet another crucial discussion with Rohit and Dhoni.
"We had a discussion on whom to give the final bowler. We had a thought that if a spinner's delivery comes in the radar, then it will be easier to step out and hit it for a six. There was reverse swing on offer for a fast bowler. So, I was hoping that Vijay would be able to reverse swing a bit," Kohli said.
"If he bowls in the right areas, the batsman might go for a swing and miss, which happened on the first ball. And then it reversed a bit on the final ball, and we won. So we were hoping he could exploit the swing on offer. 11 runs were needed in the final over, so I knew it could be easier for Vijay. Because then the batsman had to go for a big hit. And they just had two wickets left," he added.
It was a battle of nerves as the Indian skipper tossed the ball to Shankar, who had earlier aided his team with a gem of an innings. The first delivery of the over saw Stoinis getting trapped in front of the stumps and even a review couldn't save him. The second ball allowed Adam Zampa to score two runs. And, the third delivery - a perfect yorker - resulted in another wicket and dashed Australia's hopes.
"I was ready to bowl that over. Only if I do it will people know I can. It was just about being mentally clear, not be crowded mentally. Wanted to hit the hard lengths because it was reversing a bit, and I told myself to bowl at the stumps. I think when you play for the country you have to be ready to do whatever the team needs. I keep telling myself to work on all aspects of the game, and when the opportunity comes, be ready to grab it. I thought I was timing the ball well, rotating the strike in the middle overs. I was confident of doing that and it was a good partnership," Shankar said.
Kohli, too, heaped praise on Shankar and his contribution in India's 500th ODI win. But, the sight of three important members of the side coming together and sharing their experiences and tactics is what stands out in India's triumph. The likes of Dhoni, Kohli and Rohit will be key for India's chances in the ICC World Cup in England & Wales, not just in their assigned roles, but also in making crucial decisions for the team.
"Vijay kept it stump-to-stump, kept it simple, and it worked. It's always nice to speak to Rohit, he's the vice-captain, MS has been around for so long, and you go and speak to the bowler as well. Invariably they're all on the same page. Bumrah is a champion, two wickets in an over, just turned the game, happy to have him in our team. Just coming through these kinds of games gives us confidence. It's important to look ugly at times, and come through and win. We might get these low-scoring games in the World Cup as well," Kohli concluded.