The success of Sunrisers Hyderabad over the last two seasons (2016 and 2017) is accredited to the contributions of its formidable bowling unit and David Warner's inspirational leadership and batting exploits.
In the eleventh edition of the Indian Premier League, with Warner not leading the Sunrisers anymore, Kane Williamson has taken up the mantle and has ensured the Australian's absence isn't felt. The bowling unit also lived up to its reputation in this season as they became the first team to qualify for the playoffs on the back of some splendid performances.
However, amongst all this, there is one man whose role in making this team such a formidable side has gone unnoticed or has rather got eclipsed all these years — Indian southpaw Shikhar Dhawan.
Dhawan, who used to open with Warner, acted as the glue to Hyderabad's batting unit. While the former Australian vice-captain would always be the aggressor, Dhawan would keep playing at just a shade over run-a-ball at the other end. He would hold one end up as Warner continued the carnage at the other.
The average and thin middle order of Sunrisers was the reason behind this strategy adopted by the duo and team management. Dhawan would only start exploding once Warner departed and on most occasions, the Indian opener batted through the innings during the successful years (2016 and 2017) of Sunrisers.
While Dhawan amassed 501 and 479 runs in 2016 and 2017 at overall averages of 38.53 and 36.84 respectively, his strike rate during those years was only 116.78 and 127.39. While these strike rates might seem on the lower side, it is imperative to realise that Dhawan’s role with the bat was more important than that of Warner or anyone else in the side. Without Dhawan playing such a role at the top, it wouldn’t have been possible for Warner to do what he did best.
However, things have changed this year with the swashbuckling Australian batsman not turning up for the franchise this time due to the ball-tampering scandal.
Though Williamson, as a leader, turned out to be the perfect replacement for Warner, filling the shoes of the former Sunrisers captain as a batsman was not easy. The aggressive batting that Warner was known for is something that Williamson does not specialize in.
Since Williamson could bind and hold the innings together, it was upto Dhawan to take on the mantle of being the aggressor. In the Sunrisers' last two outings in IPL 11, against Delhi Daredevils and Chennai Super Kings, Dhawan showed that he is a versatile player capable of playing both the aggressor and the anchor’s role.
During the middle phase of this year's tournament, Sunrisers had been plagued by a string of poor batting performances. Dhawan, who started off on a bright note with scores of 78* and 45 in the first two games this year, managed just 7 runs in the third game against Kolkata Knight Riders.
An injury to his left elbow in the next match against the Kings XI Punjab forced him to walk off the field and sit out the following match against CSK as well. Williamson was the lone man fighting with the bat in those two matches as his knocks of 54 and 84 wasn't enough to see his team over the line. That summed up how Dhawan’s form with the bat was important for the team's victory.
Once Dhawan returned from injury for the clash against Mumbai Indians, it was expected that he'd fire with the bat and take the load off Williamson. However, Dhawan had a dismal run in the next five matches (5, 11, 6, 33 and 13) and the team failed to put up a big score on the board every time. It was only Williamson’s exploits with the bat that led them to defendable totals in those matches and if it was not for the splendid bowling performances, Sunrisers wouldn't have been in the playoffs now.
However, the 32-year old’s return to form in the last two games has given some relief to the franchise. Dhawan has notched up scores of 92* and 79 in the last two matches and both of his knocks have been instrumental in leading Sunrisers to big totals each time. His innings of 92* off just 50 deliveries against Delhi helped his team overhaul a target of 188 runs with ease. He smashed everything in his arc in that innings as Kane Williamson held one end up for the major part of it.
On Sunday, Dhawan's innings of 79 off just 49 deliveries against Chennai helped them to post 179 runs on the board. With Williamson taking his time to settle down at the crease, going at a lot less than a run-a-ball at one stage, Dhawan ensured the runs kept coming at the other end. This helped ease the pressure off Williamson in tough batting conditions. Although Chennai chased down that total as a result of an odd day for the Sunrisers’ bowling unit, Dhawan’s exploits ensured that the bowlers had enough runs to defend.
Despite the loss against Chennai, Dhawan’s return to form is a good news for Hyderabad. It strengthens their batting line-up and will give the bowlers more freedom to express themselves.
Dhawan has been in fluent touch with the bat in his previous two outings. Perhaps, he has left the haunting of his elbow injury behind.
Despite failures in six innings, the southpaw has amassed 369 runs in 10 matches at a massive average of 46.12 and his strike rate of 142.47 this season is the highest in his IPL career. His previous best strike rate of 129.61 was in 2012. This sums up how Dhawan has taken over a completely different role and transformed himself as a player in recent times.
With only two games left in the league stages and a playoff berth already confirmed for the Sunrisers, Dhawan will look to play more freely and Hyderabad will want his form with the bat to continue as this bodes well for their chances in the playoffs.