When Shikhar Dhawan was dropped from the final two tests in England, many—including yours truly—believed that his time was up. He had blossomed late in life as an explosive opening batsman, but now he was being exposed on the very same pitches he shot to fame during the 2013 Champions Trophy. It wasn’t so much his low scores as it was the way he kept getting dismissed. Short ball to the body, or length ball moving across him, where he’d poke at it and provide the slip fielders with some practice. He wasn’t learning, and all his aggression and moustache-twirling felt like a thing of decades ago.
He had played a few gutsy innings in New Zealand, like his predecessor Sehwag, raising expectations of a nation that had gotten used to an aggressive opener for whom pitches seldom mattered. His struggles had become high-profile because of how successful he was in 2013, because of the way he exploded onto the world scene with the fastest test century at Mohali on debut.
What’s more, in the limited overs format, where he is traditionally stronger, he began to scratch around and fall the same way. He had an additional threat of Rahane breathing down his neck on one day, and Rohit another day—because 3 openers surely couldn’t play on the same team. However, the management found a way to make that happen, and Rohit’s 264 simplified matters considerably for them. Dhawan was to stay, simply because he was a southpaw who provided variety and would make bowlers change their lines and lengths. His slashes and cuts often went straight to gully, and there’d always be the one edge that would zip past second slip early in his innings. He was far from assured at the crease, and he became more of a sympathy vote for his captain. Every post-match conference was dotted with “He will come good”, instead of “He is consistent and a match-winner.” Rohit began to get all the luck, and Rahane’s solidity left him an insecure and vulnerable player, unsure of his technique.
But to Dhawan’s credit, he never changed the way he played.
He continued to play shots on the go, he continued to feign confidence even when he had no clue where the ball would swing. He didn’t cut out his shots, he just played them more, and got out faster. A high-risk and lucky game, Dhoni says, and only a matter of time before he regained touch. And little did anyone know he was building towards the biggest stage of his career. The World Cup, who would have thought?
In hindsight, it is easy to say that he has peaked at the right time. He is back in touch. His scratchy innings in the warmup game mattered. But it is only Dhawan who knows how much he needed early luck to get going. He was getting his 20s and 30s, but almost always perished at the wrong time. With Rohit failing twice, it was his turn to show the world where he was hiding for a year.
He wasn’t hiding. He was just hoping. Someone had to drop an early catch for him to go on. Amla did just that, and Dhawan didn’t look back. He scores briskly, and doesn’t play as many dots as Rohit does. He rotates the strike, and he is the most likeable and infectious presence at the crease.
Nobody will forget his Richards-style across-the-wicket casual flick for a six off giant Morne Morkel. That could be the shot that defines India’s World Cup. For once, ICC tournaments are turning them on.