New Delhi: Local boy Shikhar Dhawan led the charge as Delhi Capitals marched into their maiden playoffs in six years with a 16-run win over Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) on Sunday. Dhawan notched his fourth fifty in six matches — and third on the trot — to continue a stunning turnaround that started on 12 April against Kolkata Knight Riders at the Eden Gardens. Not surprisingly, his rich vein of form has coincided with Delhi Capitals winning four of their last five matches to topple, at least momentarily, Chennai Super Kings from the top spot. Who would have thought?
For far too long, Delhi Daredevils — now Capitals — have been the perennial whipping boys of the IPL. Hard as it may be to imagine, they were a decent side to begin with — they made the playoffs in three of the first five seasons of IPL. Then came 2013, when they finished last on the table. Next year, they ended up with the wooden spoon again, and in 2015, they finished seventh out of eight teams. After languishing in the bottom tier for the next two years, they again hit rock bottom in 2018.
Then began the change. The management changed, the branding changed, the name changed, and miraculously for Delhi fans, the performances changed too. At the center of this transformation has been the bicep-flexing, moustache-twirling spectre of a man who meets success and failure with ready equanimity. When he is out of form, it is hard not to believe that Dhawan is one innings, even one shot, away from hitting top form. When he is in top form, it is hard not to believe that Dhawan is one innings, even one shot, away from losing form. He is that kind of player; never really in, never really out.
This state of permanent intransigence has, over the course of his rather successful international career, engendered hope and hopelessness in equal measure. A string of poor performances would be snapped by a match-defining ton in an ICC event, a scratchy innings would, out of nowhere, lead to a brutal display of power and panache, a catch here, a kabaddi-style celebration there interspersed with that hearty smile and a ubiquitous twirl of moustache, and suddenly Dhawan is 'the one'.
Sunday was one such day. Coming on the back of a brace of match-winning efforts — 56 against Kings XI Punjab (in Delhi) and 54 versus Rajasthan Royals (in Jaipur) — this 37-ball 50 against RCB was a just culmination of the rollercoaster that Dhawan's stints — past and present — have been with Delhi. Lest we forget, he was part of the Delhi teams that made it to two of the three playoffs in first five editions of IPL.
On a day when the Kotla faithful chanted as much for Virat Kohli — another illustrious son of soil but a rival skipper for now — as they did for the local team, Dhawan's early impetus set the tone for Delhi's 40-over domination of RCB. The left-hander made his intentions clear early, when he sliced the second ball he faced for a four. It was a template that he would adhere to for the remainder of the innings — attacking the new bowler early to create pressure and then feed off the opponent's nervousness.
Leg-spinner Yuzvendra Chahal was greeted with a thundering six down the ground first ball. Dhawan, in fact, played all six balls of that Chahal over and collected 14 runs. An over later and after the fall of Prithvi Shaw, when Kohli introduced Navdeep Saini into the attack, Dhawan welcomed him with a flicked six first ball. Again, the pressure was applied early and Saini's opening over went for 11 runs. He hit a four on the second ball of the next over — innings' sixth, bowled by Umesh Yadav — as Capitals ended the Powerplay at 59/1.
Delhi hit at least one boundary in each of the Powerplay overs; a total of 11 boundaries (fours and sixes combined) were hit in the Powerplay, with Dhawan stroking five of them. His 68-run alliance with skipper Shreyas Iyer was the highest of the match, and by the time he departed in the 13th over, he had set a sound base for Capitals to launch an assault.
The 59-ball partnership appears significantly slow when compared to the six-hitting duel that the second contest of the day — KKR versus MI in Kolkata — became, but considering the nature of pitch, it was imperative the team setting the target reads the pitch well and assess the par score early. Having played most of his formative cricket on the stop-start Kotla track, Dhawan knew what needed to be done and went about his task with a delightful mix of calculated aggression and general calm. He used his feet against the spinners, and was not averse to getting in unconventional positions to use the pace of fast bowlers to his advantage.
The result is, he finds himself in the middle of another 400-run IPL season, his fourth on the trot. With 451 runs from 12 innings, Dhawan is currently the third-highest scorer of IPL 2019 — highest among Indians, and the only Delhi Capitals batsman to make it to top ten. His strike rate of 137.08 is a vast improvement from his career T20 strike rate of 124.21. The fact that Dhawan has hit most fours in this IPL than any other batsman (55) further illustrates his ability to score quick, relatively risk-free runs.
Watching his team bear the brunt of his blazing willow on Sunday, RCB skipper Kohli could be excused for silently thanking his stars. With World Cup just a month away, the Indian captain would be happy to see Dhawan get on a roll. Given India's festering incertitude in middle-order, Dhawan, the only left-hander in India's top seven, will carry a mountain of responsibility in the mega event. Trust him to merrily shrug it off and go about his ball-bashing business with typical ease. India would certainly hope so.