Before the 2016 World T20 in India, Shikhar Dhawan, who had occasionally led his franchise team Sunrisers Hyderabad, was selected for the World Cup amidst little furor. It was the age-old disease of Indian selectors acting up again: trust short public memory and select the one at the forefront of conscience, irrespective of which format it is. For a year, Dhawan had been in and out of form, but almost always a direct opener-slot selection for the Indian team in both ODIs and Tests. What always worked in his favor was that he is a left-hander; MS Dhoni loves variety at the top, and Virat Kohli doesn’t mind coming in after the left-hander has altered bowlers’ lines a little.
But Dhawan, till then at least, had been an utter failure in the shortest format. Not many noticed it, and the selectors tried to pull a fast one over everybody, because Dhawan’s T20 international average was almost in single figures at the start of 2016.
At the World T20, Dhawan looked woefully out of sorts. But he somehow cobbled together two half centuries, and his average now stands at a towering 20 after 22 games. Look at these numbers from any angle, and he shouldn’t be an opener in an international team. And so, he was dropped in the semifinal against West Indies, where Ajinkya Rahane took his place alongside Rohit Sharma. Dhawan had enjoyed enough luck in ODIs and even Test matches (where he’d score a century in Bangladesh, get injured, score another century in Sri Lanka, get injured and find himself back for another series). His average in ODIs, to be fair, is almost 44 after almost 3000 runs – a remarkable number for an opener, which goes to show that, despite his ugly struggles at the crease, he manages to convert his starts better than others. He has nine ODI centuries in 71 matches, a stunning number, only second to Hashim Amla’s start to his career.
In Tests, he averages 40 with four centuries – one of them his marauding debut 187 against Australia in Mohali a couple of years back. He made his Test debut at age 28; he is now 31, and has defied convention and form and logic to remain in a team filled with natural strokeplayers. He has kept Rahane out of the team in ODIs (one suspects it won’t be too long), and guys like Cheteshwar Pujara, KL Rahul and Rohit Sharma out of Test squads.
More than his form though, it’s the way he operates solely on confidence and momentum that can be worrying. Earlier, this was his strongest attribute – he would capitalize on a good run, like he did down under in the 2015 ODI World Cup – but lately, poor dismissals seem to result in more ridiculous dismissals. He is one of the rare Indian batsmen who has no idea what to do when the ball is sliding down leg; he is not a natural flicker, gets in a tangle, and looks as uncomfortable as Suresh Raina with a short ball.
Dhawan is predominantly, in every way, an offside player – that is, to say, if the ball is bowled on middle, he will make room and prefer an inside-out drive. It isn’t easy, but he continues to play that way. His chops and cuts are almost disrespectful, even when his favourite area is packed with players. He rarely bends or crouches when playing a shot; he is annoyingly straight-backed, depending a lot on his hand-eye coordination and slashing power. His default mechanism is to step forward and slash through covers, irrespective of the length and line of the ball. This makes him natural susceptible to in-swingers and leg cutters, and balls aimed at his head in general. For so many flaws, the man still manages to frustrate his opponents while they concentrate on the more dangerous Rohit Sharma and the madly fierce Virat Kohli. He cashes in a lot, and, of course, being the side’s only left-hander at times (Suresh Raina doesn’t play Tests, and even ODIs much), always helps his cause.
And most importantly, Dhawan is a specialist opener, unlike his ‘competitors’ for the spot; Rahane plays first-class cricket in the middle order, same with Rohit and Pujara. Dhawan can’t play at any other spot, a position that makes him sort of a team’s non-keeping keeper; he must be selected, irrespective of form, because there is literally nobody else who has experienced the position as much as him. And, once in a while, this experience shows.