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India's strongest suit turns weakest link in Madchester drama

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Agarkar: Dhoni might have lost his ability to finish games (1:48)

Ajit Agarkar and Daniel Vettori discussed whether MS Dhoni should've made more of an impact towards the end of India's innings. (1:48)

Just a heartbeat short. That may well be the enduring memory of this wrencher of a match for Indian fans. A million dreams had already died and been reborn, in a flicker first and then in a flame, but now it lay irretrievably in the ashes, with Martin Guptill having found the stumps from square leg to beat MS Dhoni's lunging bat by just a few inches.

WATCH on Hotstar (US only) - Highlights of India's chase

Less than a foot and India's World Cup hopes were now a farther four years away, and for Dhoni - whose resounding six to win the 2011 World Cup final, India's first in 28 years, is imprinted on every Indian cricket fan's heart - it's probably forever gone. Dhoni, the maker of countless Indian dreams, the mightiest of finishers, for whom no chase has even been over until it's over, but a man now raging against time and diminished physical -- and possibly mental prowess -- now makes his forlorn journey from the far end of the pitch with the stadium in near hush, head bowed. Possibly a bit slower than usual, not much emotion betrayed, not even a slight shake of the head, and he is gone, just like that, perhaps for the final time in Indian colours.

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A moment as poignant as any. The finish hadn't been memorable, but it will always be a memory, an aching one, yet defining, because he had played the innings that had represented the final leg of his career. Battling, workmanlike, poised, and yet full of dot balls, with a solitary four and a last-gasp six. He had kept India alive, in the company of Ravindra Jadeja playing the innings of his life, but had failed to haul them over the line when all depended on him. His performance will divide Indian opinion tomorrow and in days to come.

WATCH on Hotstar (India only) - Highlights of Dhoni's fighting fifty

From 71 for 5 and then 92 for 6, India would have sunk rapidly without his steadying hand, and yet, despite the 59-ball 77 from Jadeja, the run rate had mounted to over 15 when Jadeja was dismissed. To that 116-partnership, Dhoni had contributed 32 off 45 balls with 20 dots that comprised, remarkably, a few leaves outside off. Without him, the chase would have been dead long before but the question that will linger is: did he not also make it nearly unachievable?

But to remember the Indian chase only for Dhoni would be a disservice to Jadeja, who played with the spirit of a lion and the passion of man whose fire had been lit, with stroke-making skills to match. As Kane Williamson was to say later, it was as if Jadeja was playing on a different surface altogether. He hit four sixes, each a clean and emphatic strike, on a pitch where New Zealand had managed only one.

Not part of India's plans till the last match of the round-robin stage, but a central part of a social-media storm that he himself ignited by reacting sharply to Sanjay Manjrekar's suggestion that he shouldn't be in the playing XI on account of being a "bits-and-pieces player", he was, by some distance, the game's best performer: the top scorer, the most frugal bowler along with Mitchell Santner, conjurer of as brilliant a run out as that by Guptill, and India's best fielder. The cruelty of sport is that he will now be remembered as a side story: with a blow or two more, his would have been among the greatest-ever World Cup performances. And the unlikeliest.

And to remember the chase by how it fell short will also obscure the real story, which is now part of an eerily familiar pattern that has followed India since the 2015 World Cup. Unbeaten till the semi-final that year, they fell to Australia in their first knockout match; this time, they topped the league stage with only one defeat. In between these, there was the loss to Pakistan in the Champions Trophy final. The common thread: the top three batsmen stomp through the league phase as if the stage belongs to them, but fail to turn up in the final.

The numbers couldn't be starker. Put together, the top three contributed 3378 runs in these tournaments at an average of 73 but in the three matches that India needed to win, their total contribution was 109 at 12.1.

In 2015, the chase of 328 was derailed when Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli were dismissed in the space of 15 runs after a bright start; Rohit and Kohli were gone by the third over in the final of the Champions Trophy, and Dhawan joined them five overs later to leave India at 33 for 3. And here, perhaps in congruence with the relatively smaller target, the top three contributed three runs jointly. No one has scored more runs in chases than Kohli, but his scores in three of India's biggest matches have been 5, 1 and 1.

Mohammad Amir found two perfect balls for Rohit and Kohli in the Champions Trophy final, and today, New Zealand found the perfect storm: overcast skies, a responsive pitch, some swing and two bowlers who didn't put a ball wrong for nearly ten overs. And, as it often happens with a collapse, as indeed it happened to New Zealand against Pakistan in the group game, when the dice turns for or against you, it feels like divine intervention.

Rohit had been dropped three times and survived a run-out chance during four of his five hundreds. Here he nicked the first ball that tested him and it was caught; on another day, the lbw umpire's call would have gone for Kohli, and the ball would have eluded's Rahul edge; Dinesh Karthik, after defending resolutely against Boult, fell to a stunning catch by Jimmy Neesham. Neesham later dropped a difficult chance off Rishabh Pant, and both Hardik Pandya and Jadeja mis-hit balls in the safe areas. But the match had swung decisively in the first ten, when India had been reduced to 6 for 3, and then 24 for 4.

The middle order was India's known soft spot. At No. 4 to No. 6 today, they had a rookie who was drafted in as a replacement; an x-factor allrounder without demonstrated defensive skills; and the back-up wicketkeeper possibly at the end of an international career that hardly ever took off. All in their first World Cups. The young ones did the team no disservice, but that India remained in striking distance till the final overs was entirely due to a player who was very nearly an afterthought.

This was the worst nightmare of Indian fans - a top-order meltdown exposing an unproven middle order and Dhoni, unable to, or unwilling to, shift gears - come to pass at the most inopportune moment. In reality, they were well short.