One of the joys of watching Shikhar Dhawan is knowing that he exists; that he has survived; that he hasn’t faded away. His is a name we have known for a while. Not in the same sense that we know him and his moustache now, but we had all heard of him.
He made his way into our conscious after a stunning 2003-04 Under-19 World Cup in Bangladesh. He was adjudged the player of the tournament -- scoring 505 runs at 84.16 with three centuries. India didn’t win the tournament – but Shikhar had arrived, much like Unmukt Chand in the recent Under-19 World Cup.
By the time he made his Ranji debut in November 2004, great things were expected. But reality was his challenge – at the U-19 level, you basically compete with age. You want to make a mark before you are too old. At the senior level, he had to compete with the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag and Sourav Ganguly. And no matter who you are, that is a daunting prospect – three of the greatest batsmen India has produced stood between you and your goal.
A short while after Dhawan made his Ranji debut, I had the opportunity to interview Rahul Dravid, who was then the vice-captain of the Indian national team. And during that conversation, he spoke about what youngsters need to do to make their way into the Indian team especially when the competition is so tough.
“The most important thing to do is not lose faith. Things can change very quickly and you never know what might happen a year down the line. Whenever the opportunity does come your way you have got to ensure that you are right up there in the queue,” Dravid had said. “You can't lose heart and say, 'Ah, there will never be an opportunity,' and give it up. You have got to make tons of runs in domestic cricket and remind people constantly of your talent.”
“Most importantly, you must play the game because you enjoy playing it and score tons of runs. Getting frustrated is not going to help. You have to be a little patient as well. Lots of these kids are very young and there is no harm in them playing Ranji Trophy, where they can refine and hone their game. Simply because when they do get an opportunity, they actually make a good show of it.”
Dhawan liked the high life and the gym. Many in Delhi cricket said that Dhawan was more interested in building a gym body (whatever that means) rather than one that a cricketer needs.
His first-class average stuttered in the forties -- usually a mark of a good Ranji-level player and not so good international opener. He had all the shots but for his first four Ranji seasons he was just average. The turnaround started in 2008-09, the first time he averaged over 50 (54.70). The following season, he averaged 64.71. In 2011-12, he suffered a bit of a dip – his season average a poor 39.00. But then he recovered in the next two years – averaging 54.30 (2011-12) and 63.75 (2012-13).
Numbers and performances that show he’s stuck around – taken the ride to the kitchen sink and back and hung in there.
When Dhawan finally got a chance at the age of 27 with 81 first-class caps and 5679 runs under his belt already, he had achieved a certain degree of calm in his demeanour.
His innings’ though were anything but calm. A 174-ball 187 helped India win a four-day Test against Australia – it was clean hitting that defied definition. And suddenly everyone wanted to know about Dhawan and his moustache and everything else that went with it.
An injury kept him out of action after that innings and he only made a comeback in the IPL. But when he did become available, his presence in the batting line-up almost immediately gave the Sunrisers Hyderabad a huge boost.
Then again, the warm-up matches for the Champions Trophy seemed to catch him unawares. His technique didn’t seem up to the challenge. But against South Africa, pre-tournament favourites in the eyes of many, he barely put a foot wrong. His 114 put India on the path to victory and then the bowlers finished the job.
Daley Steyn was missing. But the other pacers attacked and Dhawan responded not with blind aggression, but with straight batted shots – all high hands and leading elbow. The commentators couldn’t help wonder how youngsters who are brought up on slow and low pitches in India picked up such good technique.
After the game, Dhawan spoke about stepping out to the fastest of bowlers and said: “It’s my nature. Courage comes normally to me. I am used to it.”
And that is why one of the joys of watching Shikhar Dhawan is knowing that he's still around.