At the end of it, when the story is told about how Shikhar Dhawan performed in the Indian Premier League (IPL), he may look back on Friday’s 77 as the catalytic knock if it has carried him back into the Indian team.
Late into his knock on a hazy evening in Mohali, Dhawan stepped outside his off-stump, opened up his body and whipped Mohit Sharma’s delivery that had pitched on middle and off to the fine leg fence. It was unorthodox from him. It was how he had been all night.
An over earlier, Dhawan had pre-meditated a sweep. He was in position to sweep KC Cariappa’s mystery spin, but the bowler out-thought him and bowled it flatter outside off. Despite it not being in the slot, the left-hander went ahead with the shot. The sweep went to the long-off fielder instead of the leg side. But by going ahead with the shot, it was clear Dhawan had buried the tentativeness that would often hinder his one-day game.
But, Dhawan was not done yet. A couple of balls later, the opener attempted a reverse sweep. He missed the delivery Cariappa had fired outside off, but the intent to innovate was apparent. This was not the Shikhar Dhawan the world has known; an eccentric version of that Shikhar Dhawan was on display against the Kings XI Punjab on Friday.
The regular Dhawan is defined by the elegant drives and cuts. When he is among the runs, his game brings along immense joy to the spectator. But on most occasions, it does not excite the spectator. He can score at a fast click, but he does not have the means to break out of jail if the bowlers manage to tie him down. His rigid movements do not allow him to move around the crease too much either.
But Saturday was different. Dhawan was different. There was little rigidity about him against the Kings. He was all over the place in order to disturb the bowlers’ rhythm and produce T20-special shots.
Ishant Sharma started off impressively with the new ball. The ball nipped around under the lights. And, in what appeared to be a well thought of ploy, Ishant crammed Dhawan for room. The hosts did not want Dhawan to flourish with his trademark cuts and drives outside off. But the Hyderabad opener was not going to be perturbed by the leg stump line for once.
Dhawan parked his front foot forward and flicked another of the leg-stump delivery by Ishant over square leg for a flat six. That was the first real sign of the unconventional Dhawan that was going to grace the night.
Even when the 31-year-old brought up his second fifty of the league, there was no twirl of the moustache, nor was there any show of the usual bravado. He raised his bat half-heartedly to acknowledge his teammates, but was aware that his job was not done yet. It was, though, by the time Dhawan walked back to the dugout.
The helmet was off, and so were the gloves, as Dhawan strode back to his applauding teammates. It was not a normal walk. It was his characteristic, intimidating gait. Now, Dhawan was back to his normal, imperious self. 77 off just 48 balls had meant his team would post a daunting 207 for three. It would also mean that the Sunrisers would eventually win by 26 runs to enjoy their first away triumph of the season. Most importantly, it meant that Dhawan had not just knocked on the selectors’ door, but he had all but broken the door open.
“(I) Enjoyed the innings. I batted with a smart and aggressive approach,” Dhawan said at the end of the first innings, re-emphasising on the attacking undertone to his knock that had proved to be the differentiator on the night.
Injuries and woeful form had meant Dhawan was out of the Test team in the initial stages of the grand Indian summer of cricket. He had not played T20Is for the country in over year, though there haven’t been too many of those games. But what must have stung him most was the axe that fell on him after the second ODI against England in January this year.
With Rohit Sharma injured, the ODIs against England was an ideal opportunity to reinstate his hold over the opener’s slot, what with KL Rahul lurking in the background. But Dhawan missed out, and was replaced by Ajinkya Rahane at the top.
Rahane is India’s fourth-choice opener in one-day cricket, but he replaced Dhawan, who had occupied that spot for the last four years, against England.
Post the drop, Dhawan went back to domestic cricket. He plundered runs in tournaments like the Deodhar Trophy and warmed up for the IPL.
Fortunately for Dhawan, he enjoyed a sturdy start to the IPL. Along with his captain, David Warner, he posted strong starts for the team. But his strike-rate flattered to deceive. There was a preview of the kind of Dhawan that would be on show later in the tournament against the Delhi Daredevils a couple of games ago. But it was against the Kings XI Punjab that Dhawan’s reinvention was complete.
The knock, apart from it coming in a winning cause, could not have been timed better. The announcement of the Indian squad for the Champions Trophy has been delayed thanks to the standoff between the Board of Control for Cricket in India and the International Cricket Council. The delay has allowed other players like Robin Uthappa and Gautam Gambhir too to stake a claim for the opener’s slot, especially with KL Rahul set to miss the event owing to an injury. Yet it was Dhawan’s innings that stood out.
India, too, would give an in-form Dhawan preference over alternate options as Rohit’s partner for the ICC event in June. The duo had led India’s title-charge back in 2013 in the same country. With both of them at the top once again, India could harbour aspirations of a repeat, come June.