Never mind his tattoos, his ear studs or his moustache-twirling celebratory ways, Shikhar Dhawan is a simple man. Ask him about anything under the sun and he will use as few words as possible to describe his thought process. Sample this.
On being questioned about becoming the first Indian batsman to score a century before lunch on the opening day of a Test, he replied, “I only came to know about the feat when I returned to the dressing room. It feels great.”
Sit back and wonder. If scoring a Test century in a session isn’t anything ordinary, scoring one in the very first session on a fresh pitch only increases the awe factor. It wasn’t your regular placid track at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium on Thursday — there was ample grass on it and some cloud cover was about. Hell, there is even a school of thought that India might not have batted first if they were facing a stronger opposition.
Yes, it was only Afghanistan and their two inexperienced pacers were mostly nervous through their opening spells. Add a little cluelessness about how to handle the new SG ball on a pitch like this, whilst bowling to a batsman who was looking to punish anything served up, and you know it wasn’t an easy association for the Test cricket newbies.
It didn’t help that Afghan spinners couldn’t impress in the second hour of play either. Rashid Khan has never played with a SG ball (practicing with one in the build-up to this Test is a different matter) and he sent down a number of full tosses in his opening spell. Was he experiencing difficulty with grip? Was it nerves, for the skill of Afghan spinners was talked up nicely before this match began?
Let it be said here that the lack of penetration among the Afghanistan attack played straight into Dhawan’s hands. Let it also be said that he cannot be blamed for fully utilising this opportunity and smacking his way to a chanceless hundred. It was there for the taking and he grabbed it with both hands. You can only play and beat the opposition in front of you, and little else matters to sportsmen.
“I have full faith in my process (of preparation) and if you look at my earlier Test matches in Sri Lanka, I played with the same positive mindset. I was in good touch during the IPL and wanted to continue with it,” Dhawan said about his latest good patch of form.
He wasn’t the only one thinking about that series. In fact, these were the easiest Test runs he had scored since Galle and Pallekele, where he struck similar swashbuckling hundreds upon replacing the injured Vijay in the Test squad. But there is a pattern starting to emerge here, and it needs to be underlined.
In the last year or so, Dhawan has faced three Test attacks — Sri Lanka, South Africa and Afghanistan. There is a wide chasm in performance depending upon the penetration of those bowling units. On sub-continental pitches, against average-to-poor attacks of Lanka and Afghanistan, Dhawan averages 73 from six Tests with 657 runs, three hundreds and two half-centuries.
Against South Africa, in comparison, he played only the solitary Test on a rapid green top at Cape Town and managed 32 runs in two innings. Extrapolate this little passage of play to his entire Test career and there is a rather worrying picture that emerges.
Since December 2013, playing 11 Tests in South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and England, Dhawan averages a lowly 27.81. He boasts of one hundred and two half-centuries — he scored one half-century against Australia (2014-15) and the rest against New Zealand (2014), his best away series yet with 215 runs in two Tests. Playing away from home against Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and West Indies, Dhawan boasts of 831 runs in eight Tests at average 75.54, inclusive of four hundreds and a fifty.
Playing at home, against all opposition, he averages 44.37 in 11 Tests against all opposition with 710 runs, two hundreds and two half-centuries. Playing at home against better attacks of South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and England, Dhawan averages 39.44 in six Tests (just one hundred, his maiden effort at Mohali in 2013), whilst playing at home against the rest — Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, West Indies — he averages 50.71 in five Tests with one hundred and two half-centuries.
This disparity in performance depending upon both conditions as well as quality of bowling attacks puts his latest effort in a bit of spotlight. As mentioned, earlier, there is a pattern emerging here, where easy runs are picked off the lesser teams to strengthen his spot in the Test side. When the tide turns, especially overseas, Dhawan is found wanting.
That recent South African tour is again an obvious example. Dhawan was in rich form and kept KL Rahul out of the first Test on the same merit. Then, he perished trying to attack the short deliveries of Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn. “If you keep attacking the short stuff at 135 km/h, bowlers will use more of the same at you and sooner or later you will get out,” opined former South African cricketer Lance Klusener.
It raises a question mark on the viability of Dhawan as an overseas opener yet again. The left-hander, irrespective of form, is a compulsive puller and hooker, and especially with all the talk of ‘intent’, he fits well into the Test side that is looking to score runs quickly. In overseas conditions though, more is needed from an opener.
There is a want of buckling down and seeing through the new ball, and not just score runs. There is a need to shield the middle order so they can reap benefits and build a strong total. Is Dhawan really the optimal choice to do that in England? Or, when the team reaches there, will form once again cloud judgment on merit? It is a vexing problem, picking two of three openers, and never helped by sub-continental figures hiding the plain truth.
If the past selections are anything to go by, this one-session-century against Afghanistan should already confirm Dhawan’s spot in the playing eleven for the first Test starting in Birmingham on 1 August. Whether, for right or wrong, only time will tell.