Birmingham: Indian captain Virat Kohli and two of the sport's greatest superstars defended MS Dhoni after the batsman's strike rate became a point of debate in India's shock World Cup exit.
Dhoni (50 off 72 balls) and Ravindra Jadeja (77 off 59) were left with a major recovery job after India had slumped to 3-5 in 19 balls and then 6-92 in the 31st over chasing 240 for victory in a rain-marred first semi-final at Old Trafford that required the reserve day to be used.
While Jadeja was able to find or clear the rope, thumping four sixes and four boundaries, Dhoni managed only one of each and preferred to bunt the ball around. This meant the required run rate remained great, with the pair at one stage needing 81 off 55 balls to win, before Jadeja thumped a six over long on.
They shared in a seventh-wicket stand of 116 before Jadeja was caught but his departure in the 48th over still left India needing 32 for victory.
Dhoni looked to get going with an upper-cut six over cover off Lockie Ferguson in the 49th over but two balls later was brilliantly run out by direct hit from behind square by Martin Guptill when attempting a second run. India eventually fell 18 runs short.
The debate was whether Dhoni, a middle-order craftsman who has mastered the art of hauling in a significant target over the years, had this time left too much to do at the death. He appeared to shed a tear after he was dismissed.
Kohli, who fell lbw for one to a well-conceived plan by left-armer Trent Boult and later admitted to being broken-hearted, defended his former captain.
"Well, look, it’s always, you know, a safer option to look at it from outside and say: 'Maybe this could have happened'. But I think he was batting with Jadeja and there was only Bhuvu [Bhuvneshwar Kumar] to follow after so he had to hold one end together in my opinion," he said.
"And because Jadeja was playing so well you needed a solid partnership and to get a 100 partnership from that situation, I think it had to be the right balance of one guy holding an end and Jadeja playing the way he did, his knock was outstanding.
"So, as I said, when you don’t win, in hindsight, a lot of things can reflect in different manners but you have to understand how the game panned out and until what stage did the game go.
"And you would, obviously, expect New Zealand to fight back at some stage because the target was steep after losing five or six wickets, but the way they batted together, I think it was the perfect tempo for that situation, in my opinion."
Australian great Shane Warne and Indian legend Sachin Tendulkar also defended Dhoni, the latter having also been criticised through this tournament because of his modest strike rate.
"He was only a couple of boundaries away from winning the game when he got out. We’re watching it thinking he’s leaving it too late but he may have timed it perfectly had he not been run out. That being said, he does rely a lot on his partner," Warne said on Sky Sports.
This was Dhoni's 350th one-day international and Indian media had reported the 38-year-old could soon announce his retirement from international cricket.
Tendulkar said victory should have been achieved "without any doubt" and also took a stand for Dhoni.
"It's not fair all the time to expect Dhoni to come and finish the game. He has done it time and again," Tendulkar said.
India and England had been the pre-tournament favourites to claim this World Cup. But India, despite losing only once in the pool-group phase, are left to now turn their attention towards the 2023 World Cup that they will host.
"It breaks our hearts because you work so hard to build momentum and finish number one in the table. Then, a spell of bad cricket, and you're out of the tournament," Kohli said.
"But you have to accept it. We will come out better cricketers because of this setback."
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