Champions Trophy 2017: Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma breathe fresh life into India's opening stand again

Jigar Mehta, Jun, 10 2017

As Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma strolled to yet another century stand, against Sri Lanka at The Oval, it seemed as if someone had switched on the highlights reel of 2013 Champions Trophy, played over and over again. Calm heads, watchful start, seeing off a tough first hour, clever rotation of strike and then sustained acceleration.

Nothing had changed.

The 2013 Champions Trophy witnessed the birth of the Rohit-Dhawan opening stand and four years down the line, it has grown into the third-most prolific ODI opening stand in history of Indian cricket.

Rohit Sharma (L) and Shikhar Dhawan in action against Sri Lanka. Reuters

Rohit Sharma (L) and Shikhar Dhawan in action against Sri Lanka. Reuters

Four years ago, MS Dhoni's master move would go on to change Rohit's career and provide new lease of life in limited-overs to Dhawan, making his comeback into the ODI side. It proved to be a virile antidote to solve India's opening woes. And it all started on the big stage at the Champions Trophy.

In the one year period before the 2013 Champions Trophy (5 June 2012 to 5 June 2013), India's average opening partnership in ODIs was 23.92 – the second lowest among top-10 teams. India had just one 50-plus opening stand during that period.

But then Rohit and Dhawan got together and added most runs by a pair in the tournament – 382 runs at 76.40 with two century and two 50-plus stands. Their partnership played a crucial part in helping India lift the trophy and set the tone for the future.

"I believe the decision to open in ODIs changed my career and it was a decision taken by MS Dhoni. I became a better batsman after that. In fact, it helped me understand my game better, react better according to situations," Rohit told PTI in January this year.

"He (Dhoni) just came up to me and said 'I want you to open the innings as I am confident that you will do well. Since you can play both cut and pull shots well, you have the qualities to succeed as an opener. He told me that I shouldn't be scared of failures or get upset by criticism. He was looking at the bigger picture as the Champions Trophy was scheduled in England that year.

"The Champions Trophy in England made me confident that I can open and ready to face challenges of playing the white ball in English conditions in the morning," Rohit added.

Dhoni's vision had revived two careers. Lazy elegance was laced with flamboyance and since then, the Rohit-Dhawan stand has flourished like a cricket outfield in British weather.

What makes the pair special is their no-nonsense approach. There has always been a similar theme to their partnerships – watchful start, pressure-relieving singles, seeing off the tough period, punishing the bad balls and then manufacturing shots to press the accelerator button – yet, the opposition has failed to crack their code. The two can bide their time in the middle and accelerate at will when needed and that makes them really dangerous. They thrill. They frustrate. They kill the opposition softly. It's the camaraderie and concordance between the two that stand out. And the fact that India haven't fiddled much with the combination has allowed them to settle down.

"It's been three or four years now that I've been opening with Rohit, so once you know the person, on and off the field you get that comfort level and we both know each other's game. Today I started off a bit aggressively but then I slowed down and he took off. We create that balance for each other. It's not that we have to say it, we just understand automatically. We've been opening for a long time and that stability creates consistency," Dhawan added.

"We have a good camaraderie between us," Rohit said after the Sri Lanka game. "We understand each other really well (personally) and each other's batting too. The way we steal those singles in the middle is very important. Strike rotation is very important. And the left-right combination always produces problems for the bowlers. They need to change their line and length when the strike changes," Rohit added.

Heading into the 2017 edition of the Champions Trophy, India had opening problems, not quite of the gargantuan proportions of 2013, but the opening pair had averaged 22.75 in the last eight innings, starting the New Zealand series with not a single 50-plus opening stand. Rohit and Dhawan hadn't played together in these matches because of injuries and somehow the Rohit-Ajinkya Rahane and Rahane-KL Rahul combinations didn't click.

A rusty Rohit was heading into the Indian Premier League (IPL) on the back of a poor New Zealand ODI series and a five-month injury lay-off which, by his own admission, had scared him. And Dhawan was finding himself at the crossroads of his international career following poor Test form.

The fact that Rahul was excelling in all the formats only made the competition for the opening slot intense.

However, the selectors' faith in Rohit coupled with Rahul's injury and Dhawan's resurgence in the domestic circuit brought the two together on the big stage again.

Under the pump, it was a tough challenge to straightaway head into the high-voltage clash against Pakistan. But the pair brought tremendous calm amidst the cacophony of 25,000 at the Edgbaston and a fire-breathing Mohammad Amir. All the experience was on display as they went about their business without any fuss, adding 136 runs to lay a solid platform. They continued the momentum against Sri Lanka with a 138-run stand.

"Whenever we are out in the middle, we keep telling each other we must keep rotating the strike every ball," Rohit said after the Sri Lanka match. "This will build the pressure on the opposition batsman. We did that well in both the matches (Pakistan and Sri Lanka) and that's why we were successful in building up big partnerships."

At Edgbaston, it was Dhawan who took over the aggressor's role, allowing Rohit to slowly get into the groove. While at The Oval, the roles reversed. It was Rohit who took the risks while Dhawan played himself in. The southpaw ended up getting a century and became the fastest to 500 runs in the history of Champions Trophy. Rohit and Dhawan became the first Indian pair to add three consecutive century stands.

"Great foundation laid by the openers," Rohit said with a cheeky smile after India's innings against Sri Lanka. "Pretty happy to have played a part. We understood the importance of playing tight cricket in the first six overs," Rohit added.

In the pre-departure press conference, captain Virat Kohli had said that apart from the fast bowling and fielding one of the massive factors for which played a crucial role in India's successful campaign in 2013 was the opening partnership.

"The revelation of Rohit (Sharma) and Shikhar (Dhawan) as an opening pair was a great thing to see for all Indian fans and for the Indian team as well. So that was the massive factor in us winning the Champions Trophy," Kohli had said.

The Rohit-Dhawan pair has become the most prolific in Champions Trophy with 656 runs at an average of 93.71. Their average partnership of 49.52 is the second highest among all the opening pairs which have at least added 2,000 runs in ODIs.

The Champions Trophy has provided Rohit some much-needed rhythm and Dhawan a new lease of life, but most importantly, it has again brought to light the importance of the Rohit-Dhawan pair.

The duo has come back and breathed fresh air into India's opening stand again and if they continue with the same domination and consistency then they are not far away from entering the pantheon of greats.

With stat inputs from Umang Pabari.

Published Date: Jun 10, 2017 | Updated Date: Jun 10, 2017

Rank Team Points Rating
1 India 4493 125
2 South Africa 3395 110
3 England 4097 105
4 Australia 3087 100
5 New Zealand 3114 97
Rank Team Points Rating
1 South Africa 5957 119
2 Australia 5505 117
3 India 4717 115
4 England 5645 113
5 New Zealand 5123 111
Rank Team Points Rating
1 New Zealand 1625 125
2 England 1962 123
3 Pakistan 2417 121
4 West Indies 2222 117
5 India 2183 115