Under-fire Mahendra Singh Dhoni marked his return to form with an unbeaten 92 as India recorded a 22-run victory over South Africa in the second One-Day International to level the five-match series 1-1 at the Holkar Cricket Stadium, in Indore, on Wednesday.
Electing to bat, Dhoni bailed India out of trouble with his 86-ball knock to take the team to a respectable 247 for nine after the top order had failed to make it count. But the Indian bowlers produced an impressive showing with the ball, bowling out the Proteas for 225 to record their first win on South Africa's current tour.
Going through the toughest phase of his international career, Dhoni played a captain's knock and then made smart bowling changes to bundle out South Africa in 43.4 overs.
Axar Patel (3-39) and Bhuvneshwar Kumar (3-41) claimed three wickets each, while Harbhajan Singh bagged two wickets to script India's superb turnaround with the ball on a flat wicket not offering much to the bowlers.
At one stage, South Africa looked the favourites as they were comfortably placed on 134 for two before the wicket of J P Duminy (36) proved to be the turning point. The left-hander was trapped leg before wicket by left-arm spinner Patel, who also accounted for Faf du Plessis after he had stroked a fluent 51.
Earlier, the nudges, quick singles, shot-arm jabs, pulls, cuts, lofted shots over the bowler’s head all were on full display as Dhoni answered back his critics with his knock that came off 86 balls, decorated with seven boundaries and four sixes to rally India after a poor start.
He batted with tail-enders with a calm head as India scored 82 runs off the last 10 overs to put on a board a decent total, which at one stage looked impossible.
India were 165 for seven at one stage in the 40th over but Dhoni found great support from Harbhajan Singh (22) with whom he added 56 runs to lift the total in the final few overs.
Up the order, Ajinkya Rahane yet again batted well, scoring 63-ball 51, his second consecutive fifty.
For South Africa, Dale Steyn (3/49) picked up three wickets while Morne Morkel and Imran Tahir scalped two apiece.
The hosts suffered a big setback in the form of Rohit Sharma, who was cleaned up by young paceman Kagiso Rabada in the second over of the innings.
Shikhar Dhawan (23) and Rahane played cautiously to resurrect the Indian innings with a 56-run second wicket stand. With the two batsmen finding it difficult to get the boundaries after the early dismissal of Rohit, Dhawan finally broke the shackles with a splendid cover drive off Rabada in the fourth over.
Rahane was not to be left behind as he showed his class by driving on the up, cutting and flicking Morne Morkel for three boundaries in the next over.
South Africa skipper AB de Villiers introduced part-time off-spinner JP Duminy into the attack in the 12th over and Dhawan welcomed the bowler in style, pulling a loosener to the midwicket boundary.
But just when it looked Dhawan was slowly getting back his mojo, the left-hander once again gave away his wicket after getting a start. It was a soft dismissal as Dhawan chipped a slow off-cutter from Morkel straight to Duminy at short cover.
To add to India’s woes, Virat Kohli’s poor run with the bat continued as he became a victim of a horrible mix up and was run out for 12.
In the last ball of the 18th over by Morkel, Rahane was dropped by a diving Farhaan Behardein at mid-off following which the batsmen take a single. Kohli wanted a second run and sprinted back but Rahane stood his ground at the non-striker’s end holding his hand up in the air and in the process both the batsmen ended up at the same end and the bails were whipped off by wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock at the other side.
A livid Kohli had no option but to leave the ground distraught, thereby paving the way for an under-pressure Dhoni to take control of the innings.
Rahane brought up his second consecutive fifty in 59 balls with a cheeky four off Morkel over the keeper’s head. But after doing all the hardwork, Rahane would be cursing himself as when India needed him to play a big innings, especially after the Kohli mix-up, he too threw away his wicket. He was bowled around the legs by leg-spinner Imran Tahir in the 23rd over as the batsman went for the sweep shot.
Suresh Raina did not disturb the scorers. The left-hander completely looked at sea against Morne Morkel, who resorted to short balls directed on his body, during his brief five-ball stay and was eventually caught down the leg side by De Kock for a duck as India slumped to 105 for five in 23.4 overs.
Axar Patel (13), brought into the side in place of Amit Mishra for his all-round abilities, gave Dhoni brief company and in between struck the first six of Indian innings in the 29th over before he was out leg before wicket to Steyn as wickets kept tumbling from one end and Dhoni standing as a spectator.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar (14) too gave Dhoni good support down the order as the duo shared 41 runs for the seventh wicket to keep India’s scoreboard ticking before he was cleaned up by Tahir.
Harbhajan, who replaced an injured Ravichandran Ashwin, made a run-a-ball 22 and provided Dhoni good support.
Dhoni kept his cool in a pressure situation and brought up his 60th ODI fifty with a six off Duminy. With last man Mohit Sharma at the other end, Dhoni took most of the strike and in the final over after five dot balls, finished off the innings in style clobbering Rabada over the square-leg fence.
South Africa started their chase on a quick note, stitching a run-a-ball 40-run partnership for the opening wicket between Hashim Amla (17) and Quinton de Kock (34).
De Kock was the aggressor of the two but was lucky as a diving Rohit Sharma spilled a tough chance off Umesh Yadav in the fourth over.
With both his frontline pacer proving ineffective, Dhoni introduced spin from both ends in the sixth over. The move yielded instant result when Axar had Amla stumped after the batsman danced down the wicket.
De Kock was going great guns with five boundaries when he fell trying another risky shot, caught by Mohit Sharma at long-off off Harbhajan, leaving the Proteas at 52 for two inside the 10th
The fall of two quick wickets hardly bothered Faf du Plessis (51) and JP Duminy (36) as the duo batted with ease to keep the asking rate in control through the middle overs.
The duo brought up South Africa's 100 in 19.5 overs and shared 82 runs off 87 balls for the third wicket to keep the visitor's in the hunt.
But just when it seemed the match was going out of India's grasp, Axar picked up the wickets of Duminy and Du Plessis in consecutive overs to bring the hosts back in contention.
Patel trapped Duminy leg before wicket before he dismissed Du Plessis in his next over, caught by Virat Kohli at covers.
Bhuvneshwar made it triple delight for India in the next over when he induced an edge from David Miller and Dhoni took a fine diving catch to reduce South Africa to 142 for five.
South Africa skipper De Villiers made 19 off 20 ballsbefore Kohli took a brilliant diving catch off Mohit Sharma on the off-side.
Farhaan Behardien kept South Africa in the game in the company of Steyn and Kagiso Rabada but Behardien got a dubious caught behind decision from umpire Vineet Kulkarni down the leg side before Kumar polished off the tail with two wickets in the 44th over.