Just after lunch, when Hyderabad’s left-arm spinner Mehdi Hassan began tracing his run-up, Shikhar Dhawan’s impulses kicked in. “Mein isko marunga,” he later admitted was his first instinct. But then the rational voice in his mind said: “Team ki haalat achi nahin hai, mujhe lumbi paari khelni hai“.
As Kotla toggled between bursts of sunshine and gloom, it was engrossing to watch Dhawan curb his natural instinct while scoring his 25th first-class hundred, his first in 18 months. His unbeaten 137, in Delhi’s total of 269/6, was the only narrative on Day 1 at Kotla.
So rather than taking on Hassan from ball one with cuts, sweeps and slogs, the Delhi opener kept defending or working him off his legs. The situation and condition had warranted a cautious approach. Dhawan was frequently losing his partners, partly due to the surface that helped movement and also due to injudicious stroke-play. Delhi kept facing trouble. They were 4/2 at one stage, later it was 100/4 and 128/5.
But not for long before the instincts snuck in. There was an unseemly trigger too. On 67, medium-pacer Ravi Kiran induced an outside edge of a rare reckless Dhawan drive. The overjoyed bowler gave the Delhi star an elaborate send-off. For a moment, Dhawan stopped and stared at the bowler, who was being pulled away by his teammates. Much to the embarrassment of the visitors, the third umpire confirmed the field umpire’s doubt that Kiran had over-stepped.
For the next 30-odd minutes, until he reached his hundred, Dhawan went on instinct mode, ripping the spinners with a flurry of sweeps and lofted drives. The team was still precariously placed at 128/5, the last of Delhi’s batting specialist, Lalit Yadav, too had departed. Hyderabad bowlers were bowling with their tails up. But then Dhawan threw caution to the chilly wind that was slicing through the stadium.
Instincts kick in
He skipped down the track and consigned left-arm spinner Tanay Thyagrajan into the locked Gautam Gambhir stands. The ball, retrieved after a delay, bore more of his fury, as he slog-swept him twice through mid-wicket for boundaries. Hyderabad reintroduced Mohammad Siraj, he was gloriously driven down the ground and then flicked.
Hassan bounded in, only for Dhawan to pile on more misery. A slog-swept six took him to 99, before a late-cut double rounded off his hundred. The celebrations were muted. It was a “normal jaisa” hundred, he would say later, downplaying the effort.
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As he hit two more boundaries post hundred, it looked Dhawan would continue with the carnage. It would have make sense, too, for he was steadily losing partners at the other end. But then he switched on the guarded mode again. With sun-beaten Kotla track drained off nip, and his partners, Anuj Rawat first and then Kunwar Bidhuri, stroking boundaries, at will, Dhawan was sedate.
Though the conditions were different from what it was in the first 30-odd overs, he chose the same block-or-leave method that helped him survive initially. He calls it “Box” cricket. Not the trivial version of indoor cricket which goes by the same name, but a more serious way of playing the ball as close to the body as possible. It’s batting’s fundamental principle, but one that’s hard to achieve on a consistent basis, most batsmen would admit.
Fighting muscle memory
It’s a fight against your own muscle-memory. In the past, his instinct-defying attempts have been backfired. Like slowing down his bat-swing in England to counter swing or shuffling back-and-across the stumps in South Africa. But on Wednesday, his outside-the-off-stump discipline, barring a couple of instances he couldn’t resist driving, was impeccable. Siraj and Co continuously tested his conviction, repeatedly tempting him by bowling outside the off-stump.
Dhawan would keep leaving, and only when it hummed on off-stump or thereabouts did he offer the full blade. Just a stout block. No thrust, no flourish, no reaching for the ball. He resisted the drives, the cuts and slashes. Often, he would shape up for the expansive shot, before pulling away.
And with a glint of satisfaction, he says: “The shots that I would have played when I was 21 or 22 years old, I didn’t play here. I didn’t drive any of those deliveries. I didn’t play most of the deliveries outside the off-stump. Some of our young guys fiddled with those deliveries. Now, this comes with experience. You have a look at the wicket and you know what shots you will play.”
Typically, he pleased the crowd to no less an extent that they started chanting, almost pleading: “(KL) Rahul se zyaada mar lay.”
He later admitted of not harbouring such thoughts: “I had nothing (of competing with Rahul) on my mind. Jo cheez aani hai woh aa jaati hai, I am a very relaxed person and I don’t make my mind heavy with extra thoughts. The way you guys think, I don’t think like that.” But given the sheer determination he demonstrated in curbing his instincts, there could yet be a chapter waiting to unfold in his career.
Brief Scores: Delhi 269/6 in 66 overs (Shikhar Dhawan 137 not out, Anuj Rawat 29, Kunwar Bidhuri 22 not out) vs Hyderabad.
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