It is highly unlikely that India would have ever had a more productive opening day in a Test series. It is the sort of start that would have warmed the cockles of coach Ravi Shastri’s heart. He is aware that the team, and he, by extension, would be under intense scrutiny and what better way to push back at detractors than an opening salvo that might well set the tone for the series.
The catalyst for the remarkable turn of events was undoubtedly Shikhar Dhawan, the left-handed opening batsman from Delhi whose domineering display flattened the Sri Lankan team within hours of taking the field.
Galle has been an acknowledged Sri Lankan bastion. The imposing heritage fort and the warm waters of the vast Indian Ocean form a beautiful backdrop. In these scenic settings Sri Lanka’s spinners have repeatedly made a mickey of many a visiting team, including India who were bowled out for a meagre 112 while chasing 176 in the fourth innings in 2015, the last time these two nations clashed in a Test at this venue.
The toss, so vital in the home team’s scheme of things, went to the Indians and skipper Virat Kohli gleefully opted to bat first. The light rains that fell almost as soon as the toss was completed must have seemed ominous for the visitors.
But once play got underway they were swiftly reassured by the sublime batting of Dhawan. During the course of his stellar knock, he became only the third batsman, after Don Bradman and Virender Sehwag to twice score a century in a session. Dhawan made a pulverising 126 runs between lunch and tea before being dismissed for a whopping 190 off just 168 deliveries, 31 of which he smacked to the boundary.
In his book Guts and Glory, cricket consultant Makarand Waingankar quotes a young Dhawan’s philosophy to batting thus: “I like to dominate. But as an opener I have to ensure that I play out the new ball.”
How well he lived up to that philosophy at Galle on Wednesday. He saw off the new ball which Nuwan Pradeep and the inexperienced Lahiru Kumara sprayed around like a bunch of excited novice spray painters.
Abhinav Mukund, also a left-hander, flashed and hung his bat out to dry on occasions before falling thus in the eighth over with the score on 27. But Dhawan, an edge to wide slip notwithstanding, was far more circumspect.
He ducked under bouncers and let go of deliveries angled across his body. But anything on his legs he flicked with power and precision. Once he saw off the new ball he flowered in splendid fashion. The faster bowlers were cut and flicked often while the spinners bore the brunt of his dazzling strokeplay.
Dhawan used his feet splendidly and attacked them at will. These were not brutally hammered shots but flowing drives and well-timed pushes that saw the ball racing through the gap between fielders.
Dhawan was in his elements. Off spinner Dilruwan Perera and the old wily fox, left-arm spinner Rangana Herath were not allowed to settle into their groove. Dhawan ensured that they were plundered for plenty of runs by stepping out with a fair amount of courage and conviction.
Indeed it was the sort of innings that resembled the stunning debut he made against Australia when he clobbered a sensational 187 off a mere 174 deliveries.
The Aussies did not know what hit them on that distant day in 2013 at Mohali. Dhawan’s flicks, drives and cuts made batting look so ridiculously easy as he blasted his way to India’s highest individual score by a debutant.
Dhawan came through BCCI’s age group tournaments with flying colours. As such he was always on the radar of selectors. One crucial aspect of his elevation to first-class status was that Delhi already had two international class opening batsmen who did the state and nation proud with their exploits.
Sehwag was a hard-hitting, explosive opener whom rival bowlers feared while Gautam Gambhir, a left-hander in Dhawan’s mould, was a combative cricketer who thrived in a crisis.
Yet, Dhawan’s talent, guts and the sheer volume of runs ensured that he was not ignored. He was drafted to play with these giants in the Delhi team and he soon matched them in strokeplay and runs.
Dhawan’s continued good form in domestic cricket and India under-19 and India A tours were impressive enough for the national selection committee headed by Sandeep Patil and consisting of Roger Binny, Rajendra Singh Hans, Saba Karim and Vikram Rathour, to prefer him to Sehwag or Gambhir. The rest is history.
Dhawan, from his junior cricket playing days has sought to dominate bowling attacks. On the days his overt aggression comes off, like it did at Galle, the 31-year-old left-hander looks spectacularly good. Importantly, his rapid pace of scoring puts the pressure right back on the opposition.
A score of 399 for three at the end of the opening day of a Test series is proof of that. More of the same please!