Canberra: As India headed into the must-win third ODI at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, speculation was rife about a few highly imaginative scenarios regarding team selection. Handing out twin-debuts to Gurkeerat Mann and Rishi Dhawan was top of that list. When it so transpired in the pre-match warm-up, it made the fans wonder out loud - what could MS Dhoni be thinking?
One of the outcomes of this scenario included dropping Shikhar Dhawan from the playing eleven, and for good reason. Up until Brisbane, it had been 13 ODIs since his last century. Since then is string of scores was: 4, 30, 45, 30, 53, 75, 23, 23, 13, 7, 60, 9 and 6, resulting in an average of 29.07 with a strike-rate of 79.91. This record is nowhere near good enough for an opener, especially considering that 8 of these innings were played in the sub-continent.
And therein, an interesting trend emerges. Dhawan shows an odd spurt of form at highly irregular intervals. Just chart back India’s overseas travels in the past two seasons. He had a poor run in South Africa (2013) and later in the ODIs in New Zealand (2014), when he was dropped mid-series and then returned with a hundred in the Auckland Test. He was again dropped mid-series during the England Tests (2014), but returned for the ODIs and managed to get a face-saving half-century in Birmingham.
It got him another life for the home season, where he got a hundred and three fifties against the revolting West Indies and under-strength Sri Lanka, thus assuring his spot for the Australian tour and the ODI World Cup. But once Down Under, he was again a shadow of his ‘home’ self, failing to get going in the Tests, subsequently dropped, and then failed in the tri-series as well. Just when questions were asked again, he bounced back in the World Cup with a match-winning century against South Africa, at the MCG no less, and re-affirmed the team management’s ‘belief’ in him.
“Shikhar is someone who loves to play his shots. And if you have someone who plays shots right from the start, there will be periods when he won't score runs. He will play a shot that you can say is a rash shot, it was not needed at that time. But that is the time you are supposed to back your strokeplayers, because those things keep happening in this format,” said skipper Dhoni after the second ODI in Brisbane.
The other way of looking at this is Dhawan’s tendency of using this excuse to play for his spot. It is thus only fair to conclude that his position in the eleven – and in the ODI squad itself – is under a perennial cloud. And yet, he has been persisted with.
There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the resistance to experiment from the Indian team management wherein they continue with the same combination for a long time. And second, the best-eleven scenario, which stems from this unimaginative approach of not giving chances to fresh names. Both reasons are intertwined and this has allowed Dhawan a long enough rope, longer even than what Rohit Sharma was afforded.
The latter’s ODI form is impeccable in this duration of consideration. Since that South Africa tour (2013), he averages 55.83 in 35 matches. You look at Virat Kohli’s figures in the same period (49.37 in 47 matches), and there is a reason why Dhoni deems them the best Indian batsmen in limited-overs at present. It is in Ajinkya Rahane’s statistics however that the point pertaining to Dhawan becomes even more significant.
During this same duration, Rahane averages 36.37 in 49 matches as compared to Dhawan’s 39.40 in 44 matches. But much of this is due to the constant shuffling Rahane has had to face in terms of his batting spot in the ODIs. Cut through these numbers then, and Rahane averages 40.20 in 21-odd matches whilst opening in these last two years.
In 14 of these matches, from the England tour in 2014 right until the tri-series in Australia, he opened the innings on a consistent basis and his average grew a notch to 43.76, inclusive of two hundreds and two other fifties. He matched Dhawan’s antics against the West Indies and the Lankans at home, and improved on it overseas as well.
Rahane also opened the innings in the 2014 World T20 when Dhawan’s form nose-dived in the middle of that tournament. After the twin T20 losses at home to South Africa, he was once again slated to open in the third match at Kolkata, which incidentally got rained off. It is clear that the team management sees him as an alternate option to Dhawan.
The bottom-line is that Rahane has all the makings of a good opening batsman, and his last two half-centuries in this ODI series shows why. The hallmark of these couple knocks has been his tendency to play in the ‘V’, vital for an Indian batsman in overseas conditions, and missing altogether from Dhawan’s arsenal of shots.
So why is he still being persisted with, and what happens to Dhoni’s comments in this light? Was it worth playing Dhawan in Melbourne then, fitting him forcefully in the ‘best-eleven scenario’?
He scored 68 off 91 balls, a strike-rate of only 74.72 against his big-hitting prowess. He was clearly out of touch and played 54 dot-balls. Read the fine print here, because in order to make up for those dots, he tried to accelerate past his half-century in the 23rd over, and lost his wicket costing crucial momentum to the innings. This is when he should have buckled down for a big hundred, because the same middle overs have been India’s problem in this series, the sole reason why they have been 15-20 runs short every time in the three matches so far.
Alternately, dropping him and moving Rahane up, frees up the number four spot as well. Dhoni could settle in easily at four, as he has been eyeing that spot since the World Cup. It allows Manish Pandey to come into the side, or Mann/Rishi, or any combination of two out of three. It gives two solutions to one big batting-order problem.
The question to ask here is this. For no fault of his own, if Pandey could be dropped in Melbourne for the team’s greater good, why doesn’t that same rule apply to a consistently misfiring opener? What is the ultimate cost team India is paying for continuously persisting with Shikhar Dhawan?
Only time will tell. For now, don't rule out Dhawan getting another run in the side based on that half-century in Melbourne.