Thanks to a dominant 188-run opening stand, India are in a solid position in the third and final Test against Sri Lanka in Kandy, and once again the star of the show was Shikhar Dhawan.
The swashbuckling left-hander crunched his second century of the series, and did it in quick time as well taking just 123 balls to score his 119. In partnership with KL Rahul, who scored his seventh consecutive Test fifty, he took the attack to the Sri Lankan bowlers and immediately put them on the back foot.
Dhawan has spent considerable time out of the Test team, slipping down the pecking order of opening batsmen. After promising so much, and being touted as a replacement for Virender Sehwag after his unforgettable maiden Test hundred on debut against Australia at Mohali in 2013, Dhawan has failed to deliver on that potential and found himself behind Rahul, Murali Vijay and even Abhinav Mukund in the selectors thinking.
But timing is everything in cricket, and the moustachioed Delhi batsman is blessed with plenty of it. Thanks to Murali’s failure to recover from the wrist injury which has hampered him since the Border-Gavaskar series, Dhawan found himself in the touring party to travel to Sri Lanka. Then Rahul’s misfortune became Dhawan’s lucky day when the incumbent opener was forced to withdraw from the first Test due to a stomach bug.
So after being the fourth choice opener, Dhawan had been catapulted into opening the batting for his country on the very first morning of the series giving him the opportunity to resurrect his Test career, and he eagerly grabbed the chance with both hands.
Dhawan came into this series on the back of another great Champions Trophy tournament in England, where he scored 338 runs at 67.6 and was the leading run scorer in the tournament. That he has managed to transfer his white ball form into substantial runs and big scores in Test cricket is a testament to his confidence and the freedom he is currently playing with.
However, there is still room for improvement for Dhawan. Despite his 358 runs at the astonishing strike rate of 104.67 so far this series, he still has a tendency to push at deliveries outside off stump with hard hands and minimal footwork — a trait that led to his undoing on tours of England and Australia in 2014 and eventually saw him lose his place in the Test squad.
In the first Test against Sri Lanka, a loose waft early on went unpunished as Asela Gunaratne grassed a relatively straightforward chance in the gully and broke his thumb. Dhawan, as he so often does, capitalised on his lifeline and plundered the Sri Lankan attack on his way to a career high 190. Worryingly for India, he has given similar chances or half-chances in each match but has been fortunate to survive and go on scoring freely throughout the series.
Dhawan’s ability to dominate mediocre bowling, and that’s being generous to Sri Lanka’s performance so far, has never been in doubt but he needs to tighten up his technique against the new ball, and in particular against deliveries pitching back of a good length on a fourth or fifth stump line. While he might survive, and thrive as he has done this series, in familiar Asian conditions this weakness could prove costly outside the sub-continent.
The very same weakness brought about the downfall of another left-handed Indian opening batsmen and Dhawan’s fellow Delhi opener Gautam Gambhir. Like Gambhir, Dhawan runs the risk of having his technique on and around the off-stump exposed when India face tougher challenges in tours to South Africa, England and Australia over the next 18 months.
While playing with an open face and little foot work has brought Dhawan plenty of runs in his recent limited overs success, as it once did for Gambhir, it could prove very problematic for him in Test cricket on pitches that offer bounce and seam movement.
On the flatter and lower surfaces of Asia, and the ones used during one-day cricket, there is little risk in running the ball down to third man. In fact this tactic has been fruitful for both Dhawan and Gambhir, bringing them a mountain of runs. However, in Test cricket the slips are in play for much longer, and outside Asia there is greater assistance for the fast bowlers which makes this shot fraught with risk and danger.
Dhawan’s recent form and the manner in which he has scored his runs provides India’s strong middle order with a wonderful platform and strong foundation on which to build on and grind the opposition’s bowlers into submission, as they have successfully done in Sri Lanka.
His comeback has been full of exhilarating stroke play and typical Dhawan swagger, and his performances will give the selectors a welcome headache when Murali is deemed fit to return but the dashing opener and his team face much sterner tests of their techniques in the near future. That’s when we will see how far his resurrection has come.