Timing is the essence of good batting. There’s nothing sweeter than a well-timed stroke. More often than not an exquisitely-timed stroke would ensure that the ball — spun, swung or seamed — exploded off the face of the bat and be smashed out of sight. Such is the power, glory and impact of timing in the art of batting. It is a moment of beauty and a joy to behold for aficionados of the game.
Then there is Shikhar Dhawan, whose sense of timing is uncanny; particularly in terms of grandeur and occasion.
On Test debut, in Chandigarh four years ago, Dhawan virtually gobsmacked the Aussies with a magnificent 187 off a mere 174 deliveries. The last thing the visiting Australians expected was a debutant belligerently coming at them with all guns blazing. But that’s exactly what Dhawan did on the big stage in an innings studded with 33 boundaries and two sixes.
On Saturday, his century at the Wanderers was no less spectacular. Once again his sense of timing was impeccable. It was his 100th appearance in an ODI and what better way to commemorate it than treat himself and his fans to a memorable century.
Runs flowed off his blade to the extent that he outscored the more illustrious and consistent Virat Kohli. The South Africans probably thought they had him worked out and thus provided minimum width on the off-side. Instead they bowled in line with the left-hander’s body.
Dhawan did try to make room and play his trademark cut shot a few times such was the bowlers’ restrictive line that he rarely connected. They were looking to tuck him up by bowling into his pads and at waist-to-chest height. This strategy might have worked on other days. But not on the day he was celebrating his 100th ODI.
Dhawan didn’t try to hook the ball every time they pitched short. Instead, he'd move into position and gently deflect the ball to the area between square leg and long leg. These lap shots and guided strokes not only kept the scoreboard ticking over at a rapid pace but also ensured that he would not get bogged down.
Dhawan was also strong off his legs and took a toll of the bowlers in the arc between mid-wicket and fine leg. All along he rotated strike with Kohli and this harried the South African bowlers and fielders.
The best part of Dhawan’s knock was the conviction and assurance he brought with him to the batting crease. This was a far cry from the impression he created during his terrible outings in the only Test he played on this tour.
That Test, at Cape Town last month, was a nightmare. Dhawan not only made poor scores and dropped sitters; he looked so unconvincing and ill at ease that the media asked Kohli to explain the rationale of fielding him in the playing XI!
Of course, Kohli went to great lengths to detail the decision to go with the man in form (Dhawan had substantially hammered the Sri Lankan attack in their matches in India and Sri Lanka) and also the strategy to deploy a left-right combination at the top of the innings. He believed that the right-handed Murali Vijay and the left-handed Dhawan would be able to throw bowlers off line.
That the ploy did not work is too well known. It was abandoned for the second Test, though Kohli did promote another left-hander, Parthiv Patel, to open with Vijay in the final Test innings of the tour.
However, by the time the ODIs came, it was as clear as crystal that Dhawan would be one of the vital cogs at the top, especially as Rohit Sharma increasingly looked like a duck out of water.
Dhawan, ill at ease in the Test on South African soil, came into his own as soon as the ODIs got underway. He was in a format that suited his style of play. The opposition could not afford to have too many slips to latch on to outer edges. Additionally Dhawan had the license to flay at deliveries outside off stump. But most importantly the white balls used in ODIs swung lesser than the red balls used in Test cricket, thus making batting against fast bowling an easier task.
An appreciative Dhawan, thus, warmed up to the task with a knock of 35 at Durban. The run out that curtailed his innings irked him especially as he knew he had done the hard work of seeing through the new ball and getting used to the pace of the pitch.
Dhawan, though, was not to be denied his success, as his knocks of 35, 51 not out, 76 and 109 in the four ODIs indicate.
For the statistically inclined, he seemed more productive in his first 100 ODIs than even Kohli (4,309 runs at an average of 46.33, 13 hundreds and 25 fifties to Kohli’s corresponding figures of 4,107, 48.89, 13 and 22). However Kohli came into national scene as a teenager and his first 100 ODIs represented his learning curve while Dhawan, who was already in his mid-20s on debut, had years of first class cricket behind him.
Be that as it may, this tour has made it obvious that if Indian selectors ever adopt a ‘horses for courses’ approach to selection, they’d do well to stick with Dhawan for the shorter format of the game and field him in Tests only when they are played in the sub-continent.
But that’s a matter for another day. For now Dhawan’s continued success in ODIs have given him a fresh lease of life in international cricket.