Birmingham had seen enough rain to force the abandonment of Australia’s clash with New Zealand. In the couple of days that followed, it had been overcast and damp in the lead up to fiery encounter between India and Pakistan. Though the sun had peeked out for a bit before the two sides took the field, Edgbaston promised to assist the bowlers, especially till the shine on the ball was intact.
Mohammad Amir stood at the end of his mark, adjusted his grip on the ball and waited to unleash his swaying bolts of fury after Pakistan had opted to have a crack at the Indian batsmen.
Amir has been Pakistan’s most lethal weapon with the ball since his return to the national fold last year after he had served his spot-fixing suspension.
At Edgbaston, Amir had the conditions and a global platform to rock the traditional rivals. It was his best chance to make survival difficult for the Indian batsmen, and it was one he was determined to capitalise on.
Rohit Sharma, with two ODI double hundreds and runs across the world, settled into his stance. Amir sprinted in.
Amir invited Rohit to push forward to a delivery outside off. But he slanted the delivery away enough to beat Rohit, who was surprised to have missed the ball despite being in position. There was disbelief in Rohit’s eyes. Amir stared into those eyes.
Next ball from Amir was even better. It was closer to off-stump. Rohit had no choice but to play it. He did. But Amir drifted it away, again. Beat him, again. Rohit’s disbelief multiplied. Amir’s stare was now accompanied by words reminding Rohit who the boss was in that moment.
By the time Amir went past Rohit’s drive, the Indian batsman had been beaten on three of the first four deliveries of the innings. Amir ended the over well. Rohit got bat to ball once, but did not manage a single run in the over. All he had managed to do was be ruffled by Amir’s fire with the ball and fumes with the words.
Pakistan’s bowlers have historically been a feared lot. The first over on Sunday was a reminder of it. It also promised to frighten the Indian batsmen for the next three hours.
All along, Shikhar Dhawan was a spectator at the non-striker’s end. He saw Amir befuddle Rohit repeatedly. He saw Amir’s thunder. He saw Rohit’s helplessness. He was not on strike, but he had played and missed the deliveries with Rohit. He was tentative even before he had faced a delivery.
Injuries and the subsequent drop in form had meant Dhawan lost his place as India’s Test opener during the home season. But he still held his place in the ODI set up.
Back at the top when England returned for the ODIs earlier in the year, the left-hander had the opportunity to remind the world of his quality. But he fluffed his chances. Two failures in the first two games meant he was benched for the final ODI.
With India not scheduled to play another ODI before the Champions Trophy, Dhawan’s ODI career sat unsure in the same wobbly boat that held his Test future.
Fortunately for Dhawan, he managed a couple of months of runs for the Sunrisers Hyderabad in the IPL. That decent run coupled with an injury to KL Rahul, who was in contention to take the opener’s slot along with Rohit, meant Dhawan had a backdoor entry to a tournament through which he had announced himself to one-day cricket four years ago.
But Dhawan’s berth to England was viewed with skepticism. He was no longer a part of the Indian Test or T20 sides. He had been dropped the last time he played for the ODI team too. While he had scored runs in the IPL, the relaxed pace of most of his knocks questioned his ability to swiftly switch gears.
A 40 against the Kiwis and a 60 in the Bangladesh game to warm up for the Champions Trophy was not enough to silence the doubters, who were sure that come the main event, Dhawan would flounder.
All Dhawan would have heard or read about in the lead up to the intense battle with Pakistan would have flung doubts over his selection. All he had witness, 22 yards away in the first over from Amir that squared up Rohit, would have magnified the pressure on him. Before the start of the game, he had to score runs to justify his selection. Now he had to score them against a fired up bowling attack.
But that is not where Dhawan’s challenge ended. For days in the build up to the game, he would have practiced and visualised taking on one of the Pakistan pacers. But captain Sarfraz Ahmed threw a surprise at him and welcomed him with the Imad Wasim’s spin.
If the splendid first over had fogged Dhawan’s mind, the sight of Imad with the ball in hand would have sent his preparations for a tumble. Understandably, two runs from a misfield were all he managed in the over. But, importantly, he had survived the pre-match pressure and the match pressure.
As the start of the tenth over, Dhawan was on 12. He had faced only 22 balls but there had been no intent to attack the Pakistan bowlers, to force them out of the rhythm they had settled into. But again, importantly, he had survived.
It was now that Dhawan decided to move beyond mere survival. The tenth over’s first ball had been tossed up by Imad. The Indian opener went down on his knee and swept it over mid-wicket to the fence. Soon, he upper-cut the pace and bounce of Wahab Riaz over point to the boundary. The tentativeness was on its way out. The confidence was on its way back.
A couple of overs later, Dhawan destroyed Wahab. Cut, glance, cut earned him three consecutive boundaries. He followed it up with a double and brought up his fifty. A batsman who had barely handed the fielders a workout in the first ten overs had now crossed his half-century in 48 balls.
By the time he had danced down to Shadab Khan’s googly and lofted it over midwicket for a six, Dhawan’s confidence of 2013 was back. Only the moustache twirl was missing.
And the twirl, usually Dhawan’s mode of celebrating a century, had to wait because he slapped a full toss from Shadab straight to midwicket. But the impact of his 65-ball 68 was priceless.
A batsman, who was not meant to be in the squad, and was not expected to score once he was in England, had ensured India were off to a blazing start in a match that brings pressure for reasons beyond cricket.
But, most importantly, it allowed Rohit a smooth return to international cricket. The opener from Mumbai had last played for the country in October before injury kept him out of cricket till early 2017.
Rohit had struggled on his return to domestic cricket. He even endured a quiet IPL season, though his team, the Mumbai Indians, was crowned champions.
On his touchdown in England, Rohit had a forgettable few minutes in the middle against Bangladesh. With just one run in the warm-up tie, Rohit was likely to take time to settle down. And, Dhawan’s assault had allowed him that time.
When Dhawan was dismissed, Rohit was on 64. But he had consumed 83 deliveries. He was in no rush. He was allowed the comfort of these deliveries because Dhawan’s aggression had ensured that India’s start was not just wicketless, but also brisk.
Rohit finished with 91 off 119 deliveries. The runs may have been more than Dhawan but it was Dhawan’s attacking stint in the middle that had allowed Rohit to play himself back into international form.
The duo had set the 2013 Champions Trophy ablaze. But a repeat looked unlikely as they entered the 2017 edition with a host of hurdles. Sunday, however, has earned them another shot at stunning the world with their combined prowess. Together, they survived and conquered not only the threat of Amir and Co but also their personal apprehensions. Now, together, they could return to handing bowlers sleepless nights.