Shikhar Dhawan is a hard man to drop. He inevitably hits a purple patch whenever there’s talk of him being dropped from the Test side. He has repeated the script at the Asia Cup in the UAE with two tons after a miserable time in the UK. MSK Prasad & Co will need to take a tough call on Wednesday when they sit to pick the squad for the two Tests against the visiting West Indians.
Though some sources in the know have hinted at his up-and-down series in England, and the two dismissals at The Oval, as being tell-tale signs of his time being up in whites, it won’t be an easy call. It never is with Dhawan. There will be other decisions to be made in the wake of Hardik Pandya’s injury, the expected return to Kuldeep Yadav and potential breaks to a few seamers. But the Dhawan question is likely to dominate.
The decision around Dhawan will of course be a long-term one, at least for now, with regard to the four Tests in Australia later this year. It’s likely that his Test future hangs in the balance. Retention at the top of the order against a bowling attack led by Shannon Gabriel & Co. could keep the door open for a possible second Test tour Down Under. But if he is left out for Rajkot, it would be a clear sign that the selectors have finally moved on, and perhaps opted for a debut for Prithvi Shaw.
The runs Dhawan scores in his prolific periods might not always come against the best of opposition or in the most testing of conditions, or even in whites.
But it must be acknowledged that he has scored a lot of ODI and T20I runs and centuries in Australia and England too during these periods.
Let’s rewind to 2014. Dhawan averaged 20.33 in three Tests in England. But between then and the Indian Test squad for Australia being announced on November 10 of that year, he averaged 57.50 in 11 matches, albeit in limited-overs cricket, including ODI fifties on English soil.
The Delhi opener averaged 27.83 in three Tests Down Under, but followed it up with a stellar World Cup campaign and never looked back.
The next two years, Dhawan mainly played in the subcontinent or the Caribbean while also missing out a chunk of time in late 2016 owing to injury. Despite his poor numbers in more testing climes around the world, he was picked for the South Africa Tests earlier this year, after averaging 68.75 in five Tests, all against Sri Lanka, with two centuries.
Dhawan only played the opening Test in South Africa and scored twin 16s at Cape Town before being dropped-another recurring theme of late in his Test career in challenging climes. In the next 22 matches across formats – which included a solitary Test against Afghanistan where he scored a hundred in a session – he averaged 46.85, including an ODI century in Johannesburg.
The Afghanistan Test though, if anything, was the selectors’ best chance of taking a tough call. But by picking him against Afghanistan, the selectors once again left themselves with little choice but to take him to England. There he duly played the first Test and was dropped again.
While Dhawan’s struggles overseas get highlighted often, it must be said that his fellow openers, Murali Vijay and KL Rahul, have barely done enough to shut the door on him. In England, Vijay was left out after two Tests and sent home subsequently, opening the door for the 32-year-old Delhi left-hander.
Dhawan did show glimpses of adjusting his game and played a key role in setting up India’s win at Trent Bridge, scoring 35 and 44. But he slid back to his old ways from thereon, and looked familiarly out of depth in the final Test.
Some sources believe The Oval Test was the best chance to blood Shaw and give him a taste of the big league.
But the other side of the argument is whether in a series where openers from both sides failed miserably, Dhawan had relatively not failed as miserably as perceived – especially with his match-setting exploits in Nottingham.
Like always with Dhawan — who averages 40.61 in 34 Tests overall, which is slightly better than Vijay and slightly below Rahul — the jury is still out, and his Test career is at the crossroads for the umpteenth time.
Shaw, the obvious replacement
Rahul, of course, provided a timely and much-needed reminder of his potential with a century on the final day of the series and will be inked in rather early for Rajkot. If Dhawan does go, then Shaw, who’s been on a rampage in the Vijay Hazare Trophy, would be the obvious choice to replace him in the XI.
But will it then set the Mumbai teenager up as a long-term investment, including for the Australia tour, or will the selectors be tempted to give Vijay a final go, especially after his run of scores for Essex and his stellar tour Down Under four years ago?
With the focus of the present team so much on winning abroad, at least on the basis of what they say frequently, the Dhawan decision will also show whether the selectors are on board too with that philosophy.
Wednesday will be as good a chance as any to fathom what long-term plans the five-man panel has for India’s Test squad, and where Dhawan fits into it, if at all.