Ajinkya Rahane was asked to open with Rohit Sharma during India’s 2016 World T20 semi-final against West Indies at the Wankhede Stadium. His brief was simple: act as a buffer to his opening partner; consolidate and set a platform for the big-hitters to follow. Rahane did exactly that. Except, by the time he was dismissed in the 16th over, he had consumed 35 deliveries for his 40 runs and could muster only two boundaries. India lost that match despite scoring 192/2, taking first strike. That some of India’s belligerent hitters such as Suresh Raina, Hardik Pandya and Manish Pandey did not even get to bat suggests the team paid a huge price for their defensive mindset. The West Indies loss also highlights a fundamental aspect about T20 batting: It’s not about conserving wickets, but how smartly you utilise your batting resources.
Of late, Shikhar Dhawan has begun to mirror Rahane of the 2016 World T20 semi-final. He bats sedately and prefers to be the buffer of either Rohit or Virat. In their absence, Dhawan goes more into his shell, unsure about how he should approach a T20 game.
This was the case during his painstaking 42-ball 41 vigil against Bangladesh at the Feroz Shah Kotla on Sunday. The 33-year-old’s credentials as an ODI opener is well documented but IPL and in T20Is have thrown open some glaring inadequacies. A tally of 1,454 runs at an average of 27.96 and a strike-rate of 128.6 with nine fifties suggest that he has been largely consistent over a prolonged period of time in this format. In fact, there’s not much of a difference with his IPL numbers either – 4,579 runs in 159 matches at an average of 33.42 and striking it at a shade over 124.
However, it’s Dhawan’s inability to push the scoring that has led to his team’s calamitous implosions. Since the 2016 World T20, India’s run-rate during field restrictions is 8.2 that puts them in the middling sixth position, behind England, Australia, Ireland, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Since 2014, Dhawan has played 48.8% of dot balls during Powerplay — the highest percentage for an opener. This explains his poor strike-rate during this period in T20is.
Things improve only marginally for him even after field restrictions are taken off. Post Powerplay, he strikes at 134.5, which is only a six-point rise from his overall career strike-rate. On the other hand, his opening partner Rohit Sharma and captain Virat Kohli, make it count during in this period, striking at an impressive 169.5 and 171.4 respectively.
This stat underlines Dhawan’s inadequacies further – that even after getting set – he rarely goes on to make it count like Rohit or Virat. It’s still too early to push the panic button, but the loss to Bangladesh puts Dhawan’s role under the spotlight.
In August, when he was struggling in West Indies in the T20 series, his captain Kohli had backed him. “You know this format will give him space and time to just ease himself into it and not necessarily to have a go after the bowlers. I think he is an experienced player to know how to build an innings and get big runs.”
This seems to indicate that the management is fine with a cautious start as long as he makes up later – which he has failed to do for a while now. But even that sedate-start tactic of the team needs to be questioned and jettisoned.
Considering Rohit Sharma too likes to take a couple of overs in to settle, India can’t afford to have both openers adopt a similar approach. Also, Dhawan’s slow-coach approach is likely to have an impact on Sharma; force him to attack earlier than he prefers and upset his batting plans.
If you have Kohli in mix – another batsman who prefers to bide his time at the start – then India has its top three who don’t like to explode on arrival. Even if Sharma and Kohli do accelerate later, can the team afford a sluggish top three in T20?
The poor strike-rate aside, Dhawan has even struggled to convert his starts. Following his 76 against Australia in Brisbane in November last year, he has gone 11 innings without a half-century. In the ensuing period, he has consistently notched up scores of 30s and 40s, but has always remained under the shadow of either Rohit or Virat, who have taken their team past the finish line through their sheer individual brilliance.
These twin anomalies came to the fore during Sunday’s match, where he struggled with timing and placement, and just when he looked like he had got the measure of himself, he was dismissed. An indifferent Dhawan also put strife on the likes of KL Rahul and Shreyas Iyer, who perished in a bid to up the ante.
Dhawan likes the ball coming onto the bat and relishes facing pace upfront, which is why he enjoys batting on Australian pitches. However, his home turf at the Kotla tends to be slow and grips on the surface, which brings spinners into contention. Against Bangladesh, it was a combination of spin and pacers, who cramped him up for room by bowling around the wicket that hindered his free-flowing stroke-play.
Making every ball count
Following their 2016 World T20 triumph, Phil Simmons, former West Indies coach summed up a batsman’s approach in this format: “Every ball, you have to re-evaluate the situation for the next ball. In Tests you assess by sessions; in ODIs you assess it by overs; in T20 cricket now you assess by balls. Every ball is an event,” he said.
There’s little doubt that Dhawan, Rohit and Virat have been India’s trump-cards in white-ball cricket for a while now. However, with the 2020 World T20 in Australia less than a year away, the team management needs to re-calibrate their plans. Instead of continuing with the conventional conserve-your-wickets policy that saw their exit at the previous showpiece event, they would do well to inject a few wild-cards who, as Simmons suggests, have the ability to make every ball in a T20 game count. The shortest format has evolved at such a frenetic pace that six-hitting has replaced singles, doubles and even boundaries as the main currency.
It’s little wonder why big-hitters are so much in demand. During this year’s IPL, Sunrisers Hyderabad profited by inducting two ultra-aggressive openers in David Warner and Jonathan Bairstow.
An Australian and an Englishman’s pairing was an unlikely one, but they set the template of how T20 openers ought to operate – insouciant and seizing the initiative from the first delivery – a consequence of which Hyderabad invariably got off to rollicking starts.
A misfiring Dhawan could just stake the claim for propping up Rishabh Pant as Rohit’s opening partner.The idea may not seem that outlandish because the wicket-keeper has had precious little to do while batting down the order. Getting the full 20 overs might just unshackle him and his pyrotechnics will not only give India the desired momentum during Powerplay, but will also help ease the pressure on Rohit.
With a limited time-frame, the idea is to get your big-hitters in as early as possible so that they can face majority of the 120 deliveries a T20 game offers. There’s always an element of risk involved in this move. But on the night it comes off, no total will look inconceivable and no target unachievable.