Shikhar Dhawan was India’s most in-form batsman going into the Champions Trophy. But it’s unlikely many would have thought that. And it’s not just because he’d scored more runs in the IPL than every other colleague of his in the national team. Virat Kohli had looked strangely out of sorts for Bangalore, as had MS Dhoni for his franchise. Rohit Sharma was feeling his way back from injury, while Yuvraj Singh was feeling his way back into international cricket. Still, somehow, it was Dhawan’s form and his place in the side that was under scrutiny.
To the extent that his half-century in the opening game against Pakistan was greeted with relief, and the impact it had on India’s match-winning total consequently underplayed. The sensational hitting from Yuvraj Singh towards the end played a role in doing that, too. For many, it was the one slightly worrying cog in Kohli’s otherwise well-oiled and successful machine that had been fixed. And his century at the Oval was his eighth since the last Champions Trophy — the same number now as Rohit in that period — and one where he looked at his convincing best. In that period, only his opening partner and Kohli had scored more ODI runs for India. And his average in the last five ODI innings before the Champions Trophy was 56.8, with two half-centuries and a century — only that those came nearly 18 months ago. But that’s pretty much been the story of Dhawan.
Dhawan is a paradox — the most misinterpreted person in Indian cricket. At 31, he’s among the older members of team. But he’s rarely looked at as being part of the senior bunch. Yet, he’s not part of the brat-pack either. He’s been part of the ODI setup for nearly four years now. But he’s still felt like being on the periphery. He’s not a man of too many words, but often it’s he who’s seen leaving his teammates rolling on the floor during practice sessions — at times literally, like Yuvraj was on the eve of the match. The same can be said about his batting.
Dhawan has a reputation of being a stroke-maker. But he’s not blessed with an assortment of them. If anything he’s got three strokes that he depends on the most. There’s the cut, there’s the bottom-handed flick —that he uses at times to hit aerial shots too —and the drive where he lets his hands tap the ball on the up without any great flourish, technical or aesthetic.
He’s not the most technically gifted either. But his success has come despite it. There have been many theories about getting Dhawan out, with most focused around his weakness outside the off-stump. At times in Australia two years ago, he would get squared-up and be nicked out by Ryan Harris with straight balls simply angling across him. But that was with the red-ball. The white-ball, perhaps because it doesn’t do as much early on, hasn’t bothered him the same. And the need to score runs — which is what comes naturally to him — from the word go in ODI cricket and not having to bother too much about spending long hours at the crease and setting up an innings has helped him. That kind of explains the consistency he’s enjoyed in the format. Except one period between late 2013 and 2014 where he went eight innings without a half-century, the longest stretch between two 50+ scores for Dhawan has been five innings, and that’s happened only once. And the Sri Lankans made it a lot easier for him here by hardly bowling a ball where he least likes it, full and on off-stump even if the ball wasn’t swinging much, and rather letting him have his way with length bowling.
If anything it’s his struggle to cement a Test spot that has often gotten mixed with his very established spot at the top of India’s batting line-up, to an extent that his place forever remains under a cloud, or so it seems.