Mumbai: Mahendra Singh Dhoni did all he could with the willow but England still gatecrashed his party by three wickets, leaving a packed house made up of loyal fans more heartbroken than the home team dressing room, in his last match as leader of an Indian side.
England gave themselves a much-needed boost by beating the Dhoni-led India A side in their first warm-up match ahead of the limited overs series.
Ambati Rayudu top-scored with a fine century, while Kuldeep Yadav returned a five-wicket haul but Dhoni was the cynosure of all eyes as he bludgeoned his way to an unbeaten 68 off 40 balls, albeit in a losing cause.
England had enough in reserves to edge out India A and deny Dhoni what would have been a fitting win in his captaincy swansong.
Chinaman bowler Yadav sent England, who chased the home side’s challenging score of 304 for five, scurrying for cover but Sam Billings made 93 to push the tourists close to the victory target in the first of two practice games.
Although Billings departed when 15 runs were needed, England completed the win in the 49th over when Chris Woakes (11 not out) struck Mohit Sharma for successive fours to take England to 307 for 7.
Apart from Billings, who hit eight fours in his 85-ball innings before being dismissed by Hardik Pandya in the 47th over, openers Jason Roy (62), Alex Hales (40), Jos Buttler (46) and Liam Dawson (41) made important contributions.
Yadav was the pick of the home team bowlers with five for 60, but the others disappointed and the fielding was also below par on a good batting track at the Brabourne Stadium.
Asked to bat first, Rayudu played the sheet-anchor role for the home side before retiring to the pavilion after scoring exactly 100 to pave the way for Dhoni to entertain the big crowd.
Opener Shikhar Dhawan, coming off an injury lay-off, and Yuvraj Singh, recalled to the ODI and T20 squads to play against the visitors, made attacking half centuries by making 63 and 56 respectively to warm up nicely for the battles ahead.
Dhoni finished the home team innings on a high note by smacking England’s Woakes for 24 runs in the final over, carting the fast bowler for two sixes and as many fours.
The Dhoni ‘special’, which helped the total breach the 300 mark, started off with an imperious flicked six over square leg that brought up the wicketkeeper’s 50 off just 35 balls.
The huge crowd was given the full worth of their journey to the stadium and free entry by Dhoni’s pyrotechnics. It all happened only because Rayudu retired after compiling his century in 97 balls with one six and 11 fours.
The earlier part of the innings was dominated by Dhawan, the recalled Yuvraj, and their partnerships with Rayudu, who has not been included in either the ODI or T20 team.
(REOPENS DEL 87)
Dhawan and Rayudu added 111 runs in 126 balls for the second wicket after they came together at the early fall of Mandeep Singh.
And after the left-handed opener fell edging to wicketkeeper Buttler, Rayudu combined forces with Yuvraj to put on 104 runs for the third wicket.
Yuvraj started shakily and was also hit on the helmet as he tried to take evasive action. But once he got past the initial rustiness, the senior batsman played with freedom and also lofted Rashid in one over for two sixes, beyond the straight-field rope.
Yuvraj holed out to long off while trying to clear the fence when facing Ball, and his innings was a timely one in the tune-up to the first ODI at Pune on January 15.
Woakes was expensive and wicket-less while left-arm David Willey took 2 for 55. Ball grabbed 2 for 61 while Moeen Ali was the most economical with figures of 0-42.
England were off to a good start when openers Jason Roy and Alex Hales put on 95 for the first wicket before they suddenly found the going tough against the two wrist spinners – Kuldeep and Yuzvendra Chahal – and slumped to 112 for 3 in less than four overs.
Yadav sent back both Roy and Hales, while orthodox leggie Chahal scalped rival captain Eoin Morgan cheaply to help the home side wrest the initiative.
England made a recovery before Yadav picked up two wickets in three balls to make the task seemingly difficult for the hosts, but Billings put on 99 runs for the sixth wicket with Liam Dawson (41) to guide them home.
Billings and Buttler had steadied the innings earlier with a stand of 79 for the fourth wicket before Yadav struck twice in the space of three balls to pack off the latter and Moeen Ali to raise India A’s hopes.
After Billings and Dawson came together to stitch a near-century stand, both departed in quick succession to raise the home side’s chances but once again they were dashed.
England will have their second warm-up practice game here on January 12 against another India A side to be led by Ajinkya Rahane.