During his initial appearances in ODIs for India, Shikhar Dhawan gave this impression that’s still stuck in the mind: More often than not, he batted like a good batsman who is slightly out of form. He would seem late on the pull, a shot that he used to bully the bowlers in domestic cricket. And amidst the feisty punches, the ball would rush past the edge or limp off the bat far too frequently. He was the poster boy for the gulf between first-class and international cricket.
He worked hard to improve his game, and reached a point where prefixes like “on his day” began to be used to describe his aggressive game. On his day, Dhawan can display a con man’s intuition about bowler’s thinking, and show ballsy confidence. On his day, which haven’t been frequent in the recent times, his bat flows unimpeded by any self-doubts, as if he knows where the ball is going to land, and with confidence that he can knife through line and length as he desires.
It won’t be a surprise if he hits a hundred in Mohali in the first Test against South Africa and shuts up murmurs from his critics. It also won’t be a surprise if by the end of the series, or soon after, his place is questioned again by a few. After a few dreamy months that followed his sensational Test debut (187 against Australia in Mohali), he has shown a knack of just doing enough in a series to get by.
Against South Africa in 2013, he failed against some hostile pace bowling and managed just 76 runs in the two Tests in Johannesburg and Durban. In New Zealand last year, he was dropped after four ODIs and bounced back with a century in the first Test in Auckland and followed it up with 98 in Wellington.
In England, he was dropped mid-way through the Test series, and came back with a 97 in an ODI. In Australia, at the start of this year, he was again dropped after three Tests and bounced back in the World Cup.
In Sri Lanka, last month, he hit a fine responsible hundred in the first Test but had to sit out of the other two after he injured fractured his right hand. And has now failed in the limited-over series against South Africa. Dhawan piques the interest by his Jekyll-and-Hyde game. When the ball isn’t deviating off the track, he can be a treat to watch. The ball would repeatedly plummet through extra cover or squirt through cover point as he would punch and carve with impudence. Then there are those bad days.
It doesn’t even necessarily require a pitch that has something in it for seamers though that certainly will hasten the process.
He will validate the observation made at the top of this piece. Like a good batsman slightly out of form.
A short ball, like it did in the Chennai ODI, can beat him for pace and brush the glove. A regulation delivery, the one that just tails away with the angle, can catch the edge of an iffy drive, like it happened in the Rajkot ODI. A length delivery going across him can be chipped straight to short extra cover like in the Indore ODI.
A full delivery — straight and cramping him — can trap him lbw as at times he can struggle to wrist them to the on side, like in Kanpur game. The most common failure of course is against the delivery angling away from him — not even seaming away from the track but even the ones just rolling away with the angle can cause him trouble, like most other left-handers.
It says much about a batsman when his failures don’t trigger much surprise. Not many were surprised when he failed in English conditions and neither did eyebrows shoot up when he sank in Australia. It isn’t a nice perception to have, but that’s the way his career has gone so far.
Enough good knocks for the casual observer to say they were entertained , and enough failures for others to wince a bit when prodded about him. In the last Test he played, in August in Sri Lanka, he anchored the innings with a responsible hundred.
This Test series against South Africa has come in a vital juncture in his career. His eye-catching Test debut, and the run-packed few months that followed, had come on the back of the decline of Virender Sehwag.
Now, India have had KL Rahul and even Cheteshwar Pujara scoring hundreds as opener in the recent times.
Dhawan can’t afford to slip up as India will probably still be best served by an in-form attacking Dhawan at the top, instead of hit-and-miss Rahul or a converted opener in Pujara. While he already has the reputation for being an attacking batsman who can set up games for India, and hence has been rightly backed by the management, it’s time he buries a few doubts. He has to prove that he isn’t just a flat-track bully and that he can be consistent through a series rather than just coming up with the spot-saving, self-preservation knocks.