During the India-England T20I series, as one opening slot juggled between KL Rahul, Ishan Kishan and Virat Kohli, the camera should have panned to Shikhar Dhawan. He would have been sitting somewhere, not with a harrowed brow or even a shrug, but with his signature toothy grin. It wouldn’t have been a nonchalant mood, so to say, rather a knowledgeable fact that come the IPL 2021 season, Dhawan would be among the runs once again.
Five matches in a bilateral series don’t give you enough time if you have been sitting on the sidelines. An IPL season, spanning atleast 14 games, however, gives both ample time and opportunity to strike yourself into form. Add to it, the added motivation to get back your international spot, especially in a World Cup year, and it is no surprise that Dhawan is already atop the run-scoring charts of IPL 2021.
It is going to be a peculiar build-up to that T20 World Cup. The international calendar is already condensed due to the ongoing pandemic, eating up into the Sri Lankan white-ball tour and consuming the Asia Cup. As such, with only a Test tour of England coming up, this IPL 2021 season is practically the last sample solution available to the Indian selectors before they firm up the T20 World Cup squad.
Going into the IPL season then, Dhawan had quite some competition with Kohli, Rahul and Kishan competing for two remaining openers’ slots. The latter doesn’t open for Mumbai Indians, so that is some respite. But the other two are unstoppable – Kohli hasn’t yet got going, while Rahul is scoring albeit slower than he would like. The vitality of this current scenario, therefore, is lost on no one.
To his advantage, Delhi Capitals playing their first leg of games in Mumbai has worked wonders for Dhawan. Among the six venues in IPL 2021, it is arguably the best batting strip on offer. The ball comes on easily, there is an immense dew factor while chasing, and batsmen often make merry at the Wankhede. But for a brief passage, when underlying moisture troubled top-orders this past mid-week, it has otherwise been smooth sailing for batsmen therein.
The season started off well for Dhawan against Chennai Super Kings, stroking his way to 85 off 54 balls in another high chase. In a way, he has benefitted batting with Prithvi Shaw, who carried his domestic white-ball form into the IPL. Given his mercurial nature, Shaw inadvertently goes after the bowling from the go. On the two occasions, he has scored big runs, Dhawan has been the passive partner at the other end, settling in and biding his time.
It was the same case on Sunday night against Punjab Kings too. Shaw took off in a flash and Dhawan played himself in. This ploy works well in franchise cricket because the two openers are different in many aspects, most of all shot-making and execution. Bookended by Shaw and Rishabh Pant at number three, Dhawan has the freedom to launch into the bowling when situation demands, and otherwise revert to low-risk stroke-play. Even so, it is not to say that he hasn’t upped the ante in terms of strike rate.
One of the main reasons Dhawan has enjoyed batting at Wankhede is because he can swivel on the backfoot easily and allow the ball to come at him on pace of the surface alone. Further, it means he is able to manoeuvre the bowling as he deems fit. Consider the Chennai game – he was plucking boundaries past midwicket from outside the off-stump. Against Punjab, he did the same, albeit more in front of midwicket.
The pull-shot has been most productive for Dhawan so far and without surprise. The left-hander is a compulsive puller and it is a go-to release shot against anything back of length on a true surface. Over the years, he has sharpened this scoring sense – often he is seen practicing with tennis balls in practice sessions, pulling and hooking as many as 70-100 throws to get his muscle memory going.
It has allowed him the freedom to score freely without being too adventurous. In these two standout knocks against Chennai and Punjab, Dhawan has hit only four sixes. It is a surprisingly low figure for someone who has scored at strike rates of 187 and 157 in these particular innings. Instead, he has relied on picking the gaps and playing high percentage shots – 23 fours across these two innings.
The question though remains – is this enough to get back into international reckoning? The answer is a dual-edged sword. Firstly, if he does amass 600-plus runs in IPL 2021, Dhawan will be very hard to ignore given the fact that India do not play T20 cricket again until late September. It is the second factor herein which becomes pivotal in the selectors’ and team management’s decision-making.
Strike rate is key when opening the innings in T20s and the Men in Blue have struggled in this aspect over the past two years. Batting for Delhi Capitals is easier because Dhawan has Shaw and Pant to pick up the pace. Meanwhile, batting for India, when batting along with Kohli and Rohit Sharma, there is a similarity to all three batsmen and their career strike-rates, all hovering around the mid-130s in international cricket (an approximation). Simply put, India cannot afford such a slow-moving top-order.
It is why Rahul came into the reckoning with his brilliant hitting in IPL 2019 for erstwhile Kings XI Punjab. Now, he looks a different batsman, more intent on anchoring the innings at the top and giving leeway to Mayank Agarwal and Chris Gayle to attack. He is still scoring ample runs, but at a lower pace than he would like to. Sunday’s knock of 61, consuming 51 deliveries at 119.60, was the slowest in the IPL in terms of strike rate since 2020.
Punjab Kings lost all momentum in the latter third of their innings, mostly down to Rahul’s slow pace. This anchoring plan only works if Agarwal and Gayle go on to score big, or there is a middle-order push from the Punjab Kings. R Ashwin and Avesh Khan thwarted those plans on Sunday, restricting Punjab to a sub-200 score, and Rahul should have done more given the high number of deliveries he faced.
It puts the Punjab captain on the backfoot and unless he recovers his true hard-hitting self, Dhawan can keep smiling and rocking the IPL run-chart for the Delhi Capitals. Soon thereafter, the selectors shall be calling him.
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