There was a time when the cream of Indian batting, and indeed the core of the national team, came from Mumbai, so heady was the cocktail of individual ability and collective dominance of that team. The famed Shivaji Park was like a conveyor belt of batting talent, producing one stalwart after another, all of them becoming torch-bearers of the glorious history of batsmanship in this country. From Vijay Merchant and Polly Umrigar to Sunil Gavaskar, Dilip Vengsarkar and Sachin Tendulkar, the honours list couldn’t be brighter.
In the decades leading up to the new millenium, other cities like Bangalore, Chennai and Delhi began to push harder at the gap in the doorway, but it was still not big enough for an entire group to barge in. In the 21st century, where Indian batting has gotten stronger in all formats and conditions, only two of India’s successful batsmen have come from Mumbai, and it’s a telling sign of the rising talent levels across the country, because Mumbai cricket is still in rude health. In Virat Kohli, Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and Shikhar Dhawan, the baton of prime Indian batting currently rests at the Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi.
Delhi is a vast, vibrant, but fast-moving city, its speed of life and traffic can catch you unaware just as you are drinking in the grandeur. Funnily enough, three of the four batsmen we just mentioned bat like that too. Just when you think you have the measure of Sehwag, Kohli or Dhawan, a maverick stroke is likely to be just around the corner.
Dhawan was overdue his international break; he had come through the age-levels, played a lot of First-Class cricket, even impressed in the IPL. It took him one Test inning to make his mark and carve out a name as the future of Indian opening batting. That debut knock of 187 against a declining, but perfectly decent, Australia was a four-hour capsule into everything that defines Dhawan. The strokeplay was brave, bordering on audacious, the clarity of thought and intent was jaw-dropping, and the positivity of his body language could have lit up entire villages.
Just like how Mumbai had produced a Tendulkar right as Gavaskar was fading out, it looked like Delhi had served up the natural successor to Sehwag. In a matter of great poetic symmetry, Dhawan played his debut Test in Mohali as a replacement for Sehwag, and the latter never got another shot for India in the white flannels.
In June that year, India went to England for the Champions Trophy, and Dhawan responded with a series-defining aggregate of 363 runs in five matches, garnished with two centuries against South Africa and West Indies. The Test series in England the following year, like for most other Indian batsmen, didn’t quite pan out to the script for Dhawan, and he could only muster 122 runs in six innings. Within 12 months, the same tracks where he had won India a major ICC trophy, had turned into minefields in his head, and it boldly highlighted his dichotomy as an international batsman.
Shikhar Dhawan in white-ball cricket is incandescent, almost undroppable, regardless of opposition, form or conditions. His brand of batting is a lot like how he keeps his moustache, upright, strong and bold. When on song, Dhawan lives up to his moniker of Gabbar, he doesn’t just bat, he makes a statement. In Tests, he is very much still a seasonal monster. There is no conjecture on his ability or impact, or even the prospect of one good knock taking the match away from the opposition, but that one knock can sometimes need finding.
For perspective, Dhawan is yet to have a streak of more than three consecutive innings where he goes past 30 runs. For a batsman of his class and quality, and given the number of hopefuls waiting in line, who have done everything and more to warrant a break in international cricket, he is admittedly walking on very slippery turf. If KL Rahul has to sit out the Test matches, and with Mayank Aggarwal piling on the runs in domestic and 'A' level cricket, this series could well be to Dhawan what his debut series was to Sehwag.
Given that he’s the only left-handed opener in the squad, chances are that Dhawan will be striding out at the top of the order at Birmingham. Kohli and Ravi Shastri will know that if Dhawan comes good, England will struggle, but if he fails once more, maybe it’s time to pause the adventure and let the lion back into the jungles where he is the alpha.