"You never know when, and how, life will change": Shikhar Dhawan in 2013
From being in the wilderness to riding the crest of a massive wave to fighting for a place in the national side in all the three formats, Shikhar Dhawan's life has changed quite a few times in his seven-year international career so far. Having been lost in oblivion for almost two years following a sedate start in international cricket, Dhawan made a breathtaking comeback, slamming the fastest century by a debutant in Tests, against Australia in Mohali in 2013.
The innings sparked a drastic turnaround but the trip since then has been far from smooth, riddled with peaks and troughs in what has been a bumpy ride. Four years after that blistering comeback, Dhawan again finds himself on the edge of a precipice, nervously looking down into the abyss below. After losing his place in all three formats for India, the southpaw has been handed a lifeline with the selectors opting for experience over flamboyance. While Dhawan's past Champions Trophy exploits might have played a part, what helped Dhawan's cause immensely was KL Rahul's failure to recover from injury.
The Champions Trophy could prove to be a 'now or never' moment for Dhawan and the pressure will be immense. It's not that his performance levels have drastically plummeted, it's just his inconsistency that has made him face the wrath of the fans. Dhawan in full flow is a sight to behold, but an out-of-sorts Dhawan can be equally frustrating. He's been subject to constant trolling and flak on social media. His selection for the Champions Trophy too raised a lot of eyebrows. Well, some of the criticism might be true but to be fair to Dhawan, it's his Test form that has had the ramifications on his ODI career.
It all began with a poor Test series against West Indies last year where he was dropped for the final match in Port of Spain following a string of mediocre scores (138 runs from four innings at 34.50). He made his comeback in the second Test of the New Zealand series in Kolkata a couple of months later.
After scores of 1 and 17, luck deserted him as a broken thumb sustained in that match resulted in him getting ruled out of the final Test, as well as the subsequent ODI series and the England Test series. He had already lost his place in the T20 side after a below par performance in World T20 (43 runs from four innings at 10.75). So the comeback was always going to be tough with lack of form and injury concerns. He started off rustily on comeback in the England ODIs with scores of 11 and 1, and despite averaging 57.40 in his previous ODI series, against Australia a year ago, he was dropped for the final ODI against England.
Boom! Gone from all three formats.
His domestic form took a hit too with mediocre performances in the Ranji Trophy (average: 25), Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 (average: 29.87) and Vijay Hazare (average: 19.80) tournaments which didn’t help. The insecurity might have further aggravated his problems. He got the starts but often lost his way and somewhere down the line, it seemed that he failed to strike a balance between caution and aggression.
His career was, again, on a wrong track. But with Dhawan, logic demanded that life had to change again. The resurrection process began in the Deodhar Trophy where he destroyed the inner demons to hit a century and a fifty playing for India B, ending up as second highest run-getter in the tournament (223 runs from three innings at 74.33). That instilled the crucial momentum for the Indian Premier League (IPL) where he ended up as the third-highest run-getter (479 runs at 36.84), yet still occasionally drew criticism when he failed to keep up with his opening partner David Warner’s fireworks. Though not being able to catch up with Warner's pace isn't something that one should be punished for.
The free-flowing Dhawan was yet again on show and the key to resurgence was an uncluttered mind.
"Waqt ne mujhe sahi kar diya (Time has helped sort things out for me)," Dhawan told ESPNcricinfo ahead of the Deodhar Trophy final. "I didn't really worry too much about what I needed to do. I just went in and enjoyed myself. I was more relaxed this time. Actually, I enjoyed my cricket more in these [last] few months because there was less pressure on me and I was free," he added.
Dhawan has found some much-needed confidence ahead of the Champions Trophy. He's got into the groove with a 40 against New Zealand and 60 against Bangladesh in the warm-up matches. However, there will be tremendous pressure heading into the tournament. Pressure to perform. Pressure to shut the trolls up and critics. Pressure to vindicate selectors' trust and to win back his place in all the three formats. With Rahul performing in every format, Ajinkya Rahane waiting in the wings and youngsters like Rishabh Pant and Shreyas Iyer breathing down his neck, there is no room for error. A blink of an eye and you are gone. This is where Dhawan's 'Big tournament' success might play a crucial role in completing his resurrection.
Dhawan has always performed on the big stage in 50-over ICC tournaments. In three of them, he's averaged a healthy 71.11 with seven centuries and three fifties. It all started with the U-19 World Cup where he ended up as the highest run-getter (505 runs from seven innings at 84.16). Then, he made his comeback in ODIs in some style scoring the most number of runs in 2013 Champions Trophy, playing a pivotal role in helping India lift the trophy. He was the highest run-getter for India (fifth highest overall) in the 2015 World Cup.
"I love performing on the big stage. I feel I have the required skills and temperament to be successful in all conditions. I have always worked hard and tried to improve. My struggles have made me more mature. I value my days of struggle in the same manner as I do my periods of success. Struggle and success haven't changed me as a person," Dhawan told Cricbuzz back in 2015.
Dhawan has struggled for consistency largely in Tests and T20Is. However, the Delhi opener averages a decent 42.91 in ODIs (third highest for India amongst the current lot with more than 3,000 ODI runs). He has 26 50-plus scores from 75 innings i.e. one 50-plus score every three innings and since his comeback in 2013 he has failed to score a fifty in only two ODI tournaments in which he played more than two innings. He averages 74 in ODIs in England which might infuse inspiration heading into the marquee tournament.
"I am pumped up to play the Champions Trophy. I have some good memories of the tournament and I had a great one the last time we played there." Dhawan told iplt20.com.
A free mind coupled with love for the big stage presents a deadly combo and the Champions Trophy might just bring back a smiling, thigh-patting, moustache-twirling Shikhar Dhawan that international cricket has missed.
With statistical inputs from Umang Pabari