AHEAD of his IPL debut for the Mumbai Indians in April 2013, Rishi Dhawan was a bundle of nerves. He remembers feeling uneasy and spent sleepless nights thinking about the big day. What left him excited and anxious was the opportunity to share the dressing room with his idol Sachin Tendulkar. As Dhawan strode out for the season’s first practice session, he stood in awe. The presence of Tendulkar left him dumbstruck. Thankfully for Dhawan, the senior player took the initiative to break the ice. After a brief stint at the nets, Tendulkar greeted the franchise’s newest entrant and patted him on his back saying, “I have seen you at Ranji Trophy…you have the potential to become a great all-rounder for India.”
A little more than two years down the line, Tendulkar’s words turned out to be prophetic. Dhawan has been included in India’s ODI squad that will tour Australia. For the 25-year-old, his induction into international cricket has not been a smooth ride.
His IPL debut turned out to be a tepid affair. Dhawan featured in just five games, and his returns were meagre. He didn’t mind though. Instead, he looked to delve on the positives, as the IPL was his major international tournament. “Honestly, my performances were not upto the mark…but then it was my first season, and getting to be play alongside other key international players and the presence of Sachin paaji, changed my perspective about the game,” Dhawan says.
Like many other youngsters of his age, Sachin Tendulkar played a key role in shaping Dhawan’s cricketing aspirations. As a teenager, growing in the hilly terrains of Mandi, all he wanted to do was bat like Tendulkar. Destiny, however, had other plans in store for him.
After the initial struggle, he finally managed to break into Himachal’s Ranji squad, which boasted of batting stalwarts like Sandeep Sharma and Manvinder Bisla. He found it difficult to make his presence felt as a batsman. In a bid to add utility, he started bowling medium pace in the nets.
With time, bowling became a more regular affair. He gained several yards in pace, and in four years since his Ranji debut, Dhawan had established himself as Himachal’s premier all-rounder.
“I started off as a lower middle-order batsman. With time, I switched to bowling medium pace…where I honed my skills, improved my fitness levels and my pace. Soon I was opening the bowling for my side with Vikramjit Malik,” he says.
The all-rounder tag is something he relishes, but admits he had no plans of being one when he made his Ranji debut eight seasons ago. “In the beginning, all I wanted to do was bat like Sachin. However, circumstances and opportunities made me an all-rounder,” he gushes.
Natural swing bowler
Dhawan is known to be a natural swing bowler, touching the 130kmph mark consistently. There has been criticism from several quarters about him being effective only on the helpful green tops at his home ground in Dharamsala. The 25-year-old is however, quick to quash such talk. “How can you say that when I have taken 11 wickets in a Ranji match bowling on the dustbowl in Agartala?” he asked.
Since his IPL debut, Dhawan has slowly but steadily risen through the ranks in the domestic circuit, turning into Himachal’s No.1 cricketer. In the last three seasons, he has averaged more than 40 with the bat, and was one of the top wicket-takers. His performances may have tapered off a bit this year, but he continues to lead the wicket-takers list with 28 scalps in 8 matches.
His amazing consistency levels at the domestic circuit have made him a regular in the India A squad, first at the quadrangular series in Australia last year, then against Bangladesh and finally the tri-series this year featuring Australia and South Africa. Dhawan played key roles in these series with both bat and ball.
His ice-cool temperament came to the fore against Australia A in Darwin last year, in which he scored a match-winning fifty.
“That was a special knock for me. It was a tense chase and we had lost key wickets in the middle-order. I am glad my knock helped my side win ,” he adds.
His ODI call was in his own words a realisation of his “childhood dream”. He values this more than his IPL stints.
“This is what we play for. The IPL and India A tours are all good, but playing for the national team is what I have always aspired for,” he says. Australia will prove to be an acid test for the 25-year-old, but Dhawan hopes to make most of whatever opportunity he gets. “My plan is to play my natural game and stick to my basics,” he says.
Whatever be the outcome in Australia, Dhawan’s inclusion is momentous because he is the first player from his state to be drafted in the national side.
The all-rounder though doesn’t think this is a big deal. What he is concerned is playing to his potential, which will put him in the reckoning for the World T20, which begins in March. “For me, the inclusion (in ODIs) is just the first step. Going forward, I want to be part of World T20 side and also play Tests for the country.”
For the moment though, Dhawan is on a vacation, spending time with his family and friends in his hometown Mandi.