Can a phone call be a life-changing event? The harbinger of good or bad news? The potential turning point, or even the push you receive to set on the path to realising your destiny? The answer–whether positive or negative–is yes.
On a holiday in Hong Kong before he boarded a flight to Australia to spend some time-off with his family, Shikhar Dhawan received such a call, one that has possibly changed his standing in Indian cricket at present. Murali Vijay was injured and after a good showing in the Champions Trophy, the Delhi left-hander was the obvious choice despite not being picked in the original squad.
“Perhaps it was my destiny to come here and play,” Dhawan said, after smacking 190 in the first Test against Sri Lnaka at Galle. He then scored another fluent hundred before the end of the series, finishing the contest with 358 runs at an average of 89.50. It was a stunning reversal in fortune for someone who nearly stood at the end of road of his Test career.
Sample this. During the 2016-17 season, Dhawan was injured early on and then was relegated to third-choice opener behind Vijay and KL Rahul. Later on, for the Australia series, he was not even in the reckoning as Abhinav Mukund was drafted into the Test squad.
In a way, this past year or so has seen a tremendous spurt in the number of opening options available to the Indian team, across formats. Add Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma, Gautam Gambhir, Parthiv Patel, Cheteshwar Pujara and even Virat Kohli (for T20s only), and the number goes up to 10 opening options across all three formats put together. Now start reeling off the names–which ones do you expect to fall by the wayside?
Gambhir’s comeback was only momentary. Patel is a back-up keeper who opens for the team cause. So does Pujara. Kohli opening in T20s is–at best–an experiment of fantastical proportions. This leaves you with the regular names. Among them, well, Vijay, Rahul and Rohit are set in their ways. Rahane has just about cemented his spot as third-choice ODI opener while Mukund similarly kept his Test career alive with a half-century in Sri Lanka. Even he was chosen ahead of Dhawan for that tour, which underlines that the latter was in a hugely precarious position six months ago.
In this interim, the selectors have had to deal with a plethora of opening options, for Test cricket or for an ICC tournament (read the Champions Trophy). No other spot in the Indian line-up sees such mighty competition and it is a great departure from the time when the selectors were struggling to replace the Gambhir-Virender Sehwag pairing. The selectors had breathed a sigh of relief when they didn’t have to consider injured Rahul for the Champions Trophy in England. The squad selection became a straightforward choice–just look at how they struggled to fit-in Rahul for the bilateral series in Lanka.
As such, one name falling off the radar would have been the easiest solution available to this confounding selection conundrum. Dhawan was the most likely candidate to lose out: check. His form has always been erratic: check. There were other more consistent options available: check. And yet, Dhawan still stands tall, fighting off these possibilities since April. So much so, on current form, it is nearly impossible to leave him out of the playing eleven, in all three formats.
His Test average in Lanka was off the charts–well, in comparison to his career average of 43.38. Before the New Zealand series, in 14 ODIs he had scored 689 runs at average 53. Again, compared to his career average (44.32), this is a remarkable turnaround. Earlier, Dhawan’s big-impact knocks used to come in spurts, mostly when his spot in the playing eleven was under duress. Now, it is almost as if he has been able to channel that mental positioning into a constant state of mind.
What has inspired this change in Dhawan? He had shrugged off any ‘big-match mentality’ suggestions during the Champions Trophy. His demeanour too suggests otherwise, almost as if it all transpires with a simple shrug and smile. That’s the way Dhawan plays his cricket, isn’t it?
Dig deeper though, and you will find that there is some backbone to his newfound form. It emanates from the IPL, and with his association with the likes of David Warner and Tom Moody. Warner is an exceptional student of the game, and his impact on the fortunes of Dhawan–and indeed Bhuvneshwar Kumar–cannot be ignored. Both have risen to greater heights after their exploits with Sunrisers Hyderabad in the past two IPL seasons.
Furthermore, in Warner, Dhawan finds someone who takes the big-hitting pressure off his shoulders. He can play the Rohit role for Sunrisers, biding his time and picking the bad balls to execute his strokes while the Australian goes slam-bang at the other end. It reflects on two counts–Dhawan has made it into the IPL’s top-scorer charts consistently in these past two seasons when earlier his name was missing since 2012.
And second, it allows a peek in the confidence the southpaw is brimming with of late. Perhaps his improved leg-side display is a clear reflection of this. Swivelling on his backfoot and pulling with aplomb, Dhawan has added a new dimension to his attacking stroke-play. All in all, it points to the most confident–and indeed consistent–phase of Dhawan’s international career thus far. Most of all, it keeps adding to the openers’ selection headache, which, ahead of a gruelling overseas schedule in 2018, can only be a good thing.