Chennai: The heart went out to Mahendra Singh Dhoni on Sunday. An unbeaten 113 off 125 balls, that will rank among his very best, went in vain as Pakistan held their nerves in the closing stages to go 1-0 up in the three-match one-day series.
Nasir Jamshed, who held the innings together with a chancy unbeaten 101 off 132 balls and was involved in an unbroken 56-run stand for the fifth wicket with Shoaib Malik, showed responsibility in finishing the job in 48.1 overs.
But it was Junaid Khan who had run through the top-order in the morning to make things tougher for India. The left-arm fast bowler's four for 43 in helpful conditions restricted India to 227 for six in 50 overs.
Dhoni, however, earned the Man of the Match award, though it wouldn't be enough of a consolation.
A victory in this match would have elevated India to the No.1 spot in the ICC ODI rankings, but they couldn't show the zeal and determination to achieve the goal. Having lost five wickets for 29 runs within the first 10 overs, India could do little to get back on track. But for Dhoni's classic innings, things could have been far much easier for the visitors.
But then, not everything looked lost when Pakistan came out to chase India's moderate total. As Bhuvneshwar Kumar struck off his first ball to get rid of opener Mohammed Hafeez (0), the Indians were hoping for a turnaround. Bhuvneshwar got rid of Azhar Ali (9) too, but a 112-run third wicket partnership between Jamshed and Younis Khan ((58) put paid to India's hopes.
Jamshed was certainly Pakistan's hero in the six-wicket victory. Never in a hurry but clear in his plans, the opener stayed there for 132 balls to see the team through with the help of five fours and one six.
Yet, India would regret the fact that Yuvraj Singh dropped Jamshed at point off Ashok Dinda when the batsman was on 68. Perhaps, it could have been the turning point of the match. Dinda, by then, had already sent back Younis to the pavilion.
In fact, nothing went right for India from the moment they were put in to bat. The Indian innings was a tale of early breakdowns. However hard Dhoni, Suresh Raina (43) and Ravichandran Ashwin (31 not out) tried to repair the damage, the cracks that appeared in the first 10 overs stayed there.
Dhoni's was a great knock under trying circumstances. True, compared to the early overs, there was less moisture on the wicket when the Indian captain came to bat, but credit should go to him for steering India out of a hopeless situation.
Showing resolve, Dhoni faced 125 balls and was rarely beaten except for once when his Pakistan counterpart, Misbah-ul Haq, dropped him at 16 at midwicket off off-spinner Mohammed Hafeez. The rest of the knock was a tale of caution, aggression and most importantly grit. The humid conditions led to cramps and the India captain was visibly struggling. But like the Pakistan bowlers, the cramps too were beaten by Dhoni. That he went on to keep during the Pakistan innings speaks volumes about the man's fitness.
So careful was Dhoni during the first part of his innings that it took him 79 balls to hit his first boundary when he despatched Umar Gul to the fence. It was the last ball of the 40th over. Thereafter, Dhoni hit five more fours and three sixes. Dhoni completed his century in style lifting Junaid, Pakistan's most successful bowler, over cover for a fine six in the penultimate over.
Earlier, India lost their top-five batsmen in 9.4 overs for 29 runs with Junaid taking four wickets in a sensational spell. Out of the five batsmen, four were bowled.
The match started an hour later than schedule because of a wet outfield caused by rain during the past two days. The Indian batsmen returned to the pavilion almost as quickly as they emerged.
That was until Dhoni rescued the innings in his customary style.