Shikhar Dhawan proves his resilience & resourcefulness… yet again

Shikhar Dhawan, with his exuberant disposition, infuses the team with a sudden lightness. If there indeed hung a heavy air of tenseness around the team, with off-field developments stewing in the background, Dhawan’s presence provided the perfect antidote. There was the usual broad smile and laughter, jokes and banter flying round, as he and Virat Kohli breezed through their partnership — suddenly it felt like the good old times again — and there was a sense of India enjoying their cricket again. If he had converted his 79 into a hundred, he could have pulled out the moustache-twirls and thigh-slaps too.

Dhawan came back as though he had never been away; as though he had always been there, like an invisible shadow. And not someone who is, these days, reduced to sporadic appearances, like resourceful but bit-part actors.

The last time he turned up for his country was in August, during a bilateral series in Sri Lanka, skippering the young team in the absence of most seniors, but with as much intensity and earnestness as he shows in any given match. In a year the priorities of Team India fluctuated between the T20 World Cup and Test series, Dhawan, like the format of the game he is considered for these days, was a forgotten figure. India played just six ODIs, Dhawan featured in all of them, and scored reasonably heavily to end the year as India’s highest run-getter. But who remembers? His career could be a metaphor of ODI’s decadent glory.

But he barely betrayed signs of someone who has not played international cricket for a while. He fitted in smoothly — the throws from the deep were as accurate as ever before, the energy on the field was infectious, and he batted with the composure and fluency of someone who had never been away from the game. There was no sign of rustiness or nervousness, of rage or rancour in someone who has not been celebrated as much as he should have been.

On a hideously slow surface, on which almost every Indian batsman and most South Africans struggled, Dhawan batted like a dream, in his characteristically unhurried and uncomplicated manner. Nothing troubled him — apart from an edged boundary off Marco Jansen in the early exchanges and the misjudgement off Keshav Maharaj that ended his knock — neither the lack of pace nor the lack of practice. On a difficult surface to drive, Dhawan drove regally, the front foot striding out emphatically, and flicked nonchalantly whenever the bowlers strayed onto his body.

The slowness of the track helped his horizontal bat shots; he needn’t worry about getting hustled. Gangly left-armer Jansen was majestically pulled, before he was cut with the ruthless finesse of a swordsman. Dhawan unsettled the spinners by sweeping, stepping out and cutting them, all the while knocking them around for singles and twos.

Striving to get better

Indian batsman Shikhar Dhawan in action during the first ODI match between South Africa and India in Paarl, SouthAfrica, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Halden Krog)

If there had been accusations in the past that he soaks too many dot balls, Dhawan has massively improved, and is as much a master in the art of tip-and-run singles as Kohli. Like the former India captain, he has nuanced the craft of ODI batsmanship. His stats are golden — 6,105 runs at an average of 45 and strike rate of 93, and runs coming everywhere and in big tournaments too. Had he lived in a more glamorous era of ODIs, he would have been bestowed superstardom, like Kohli, Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul.

But beneath the warm smile and bright laughter runs a tragic streak. Dhawan had his flaws in Test cricket, but worked around them insanely to score tough runs. He opened in some of the most capricious conditions abroad, but was not afforded a longish run. He is almost completely out of the race in Test cricket, but in eight innings before his last, he had scored a hundred. Eight failures in England in 2018 – he got starts in four – he was dumped. He is a retooled T20 cricketer, and scores his runs at a faster clip than before, but was overlooked for the T20 World Cup. He was Delhi Capitals’ highest run-getter in the last two editions of the Indian Premier League, yet was not retained before next month’s mega shuffle.

Circumstances could conspire against him in ODIs too. When Rohit, the designated ODI captain, returns, Dhawan’s slot would be uncertain. Now that Rahul is vice-captain, it’s unlikely that he would be pushed down the order. Kohli has locked the No. 3 spot, and vacancies are drying up in the middle order. Anyway, at this stage of his career, the sunset fast approaching, it would be too late for the left-hander to spin his game to suit the middle order. Such a fate would be cruel on one of the most remarkable ODI players of his generation. But Dhawan is no stranger to setbacks and misfortunes that swim beneath his warm smile and bright laughter.

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