In the days when cricket was played on uncovered pitches England would carry Derek Underwood around like an umbrella in the hope that it rains. For, on rain-affected pitches, left-arm spinner Underwood was unplayable and duly earned the sobriquet “Deadly”.
While Shikhar Dhawan is not in the same league as ‘Deadly’ Underwood in terms of impact on the outcome of matches, it must be admitted that on flat tracks he could be a handful for most bowling sides. Ask the Aussies. They’d vouch for it. On his Test debut on a feather-bed of a pitch in Mohali he took them to the cleaners with the fastest century by a debutant. He made 187 in 174 balls, i.e. he scored at more than run a ball in a Test match!
But at other times on pitches with some juice in it, during the Asia Cup in Bangladesh for instance, Dhawan has been like a fish out of water. The match-winning 60 which earned him the Man of the Match award in the final redeemed him somewhat in that tournament.
Interestingly, that knock was made when the team and he were under pressure. That certainly said something for his ability to deliver when it matters.
Dhawan also made runs in the two warm-up games before the start of the World T20; 73 n.o. Vs South Africa and 21 Vs West Indies.
But what shook the establishment’s faith in the batting line-up was the collective failure against New Zealand in the first Super 10 match in ICC World T20 when India were dismissed for a shocking 79. Dhawan made 1 in that innings and just 6 in the next against Pakistan.
It could be argued that scores of 23 Vs Bangladesh and 13 Vs Australia were not good enough to warrant his place in the playing XI in the semi-finals. But the point that needs to be made is that the opening partnerships of 42 Vs Bangladesh and 23 Vs Australia were the best by the Indian team for a while.
Logically, Dhawan deserved to be retained in the playing XI on the evidence of the flat nature of the Wankhede pitch and his past exploits on such surfaces. The fact that Rohit Sharma and he formed a right hand-left hand combination and thus posed a challenge to the bowlers can also not be understated.
In short Dhawan, like Rohit, Suresh Raina, Virat Kohli, MS Dhoni are impact players who on their day can take the match away from the opposition. Well as Ajinkya Rahane accumulated 40 runs from 35 deliveries on a flat pitch, it cannot be ignored that he simply failed to get going when the ball was new, hard and conducive to strokeplay.
He proved that he can never hurt the opposition bowlers even on pitches suited to power-hitting. He is a grafter, temperamentally and in ability, and hence not a plunderer. This is one reason why he can never really be a replacement for the likes of Rohit or Dhawan in a T20 line-up.
His innings of 40 steadied the boat but it did not hurt the West Indies’ bowlers. Up front, after seeing through the initial threat he should have gone hell for leather. But as the game unfurled it was proved that such aggressive batting was not part of his mental make-up. Perhaps Manish Pandey, who is capable of batting fearlessly, would have been a better bet at the top.
In terms of impact one only needs to look at the brutal assault launched by the West Indies’s Andre Russell (43 n.o. in 20 balls) to realise the sort of handicap Rahane was to the Indian side. Russell slammed four sixes, all gigantic, in the 20 balls he faced and severely demoralised the bowlers.
This sort of damage a Dhawan was capable of on a flat track. It was probably the reason why Dhoni showed a lot of patience with him and played him even on seaming tracks. Yet at the sight of the first flat track in close to 10 matches he sought to axe his flat-wicket batter and replace him with a grafter. Strange.
Conventional wisdom calls for packing the playing XI with impact players in the hope that any one or two would come to the party in each match. India were extremely fortunate that Virat Kohli was in the form of his life and batted like the champion he is. They needed to get other impact players to rally around him to help post impregnable totals when the side batted first or boldly chase down targets while batting second.
Impact players, because they bat fearlessly and aggressively, may not be consistent. Kohli, of course, is the glorious exception. By and large impact players would be focused on strike rates rather than averages. The more confidence the team management places of an impact player the better it is for his and the team's strike-rate.
Dhawan has it in him to be an impact player while Rahane can merely be consistent without ever being an impact batsman. Did the team management miss a trick by pulling the plug too soon on Dhawan? That’s something we’ll never know.