Gambhir or Dhawan: It's time for Dhoni to make a tough decision

By Chetan Narula from Old Trafford

In the second innings at Southampton, Shikhar Dhawan got a brilliant delivery from Joe Root that turned perfectly away from his off-stump, making the batsman play at it and inducing an edge that was safely pouched at slip. The left-handed opener had made 37 runs, his highest score of the series so far, and he walked back dejected.

Afterwards, referring to the dismissal, Dhawan said, “When you get a good ball, you cannot do much about it.” That does ring out loud enough for most batsmen, but the swashbuckling opener should be worried about the frequency of this truth. There is only a fine line before it becomes an excuse. This is because, before those 37 runs, his first five innings in England have fetched him 12, 29, 7, 31 and 6.

The last time Dhawan topped this 37-run mark was the Wellington Test in New Zealand earlier this year. In the first innings on a green-top pitch, he made 98 runs. Prior to this innings he had stroked 115 runs at Auckland as India unsuccessfully chased 407.

There is a keen similarity in his current run of form. Those two scores came precisely seven innings after he had scored that maiden Test hundred at Mohali against Australia. Following that stormy 187, his next scores were 23 and 33 versus West Indies at home, 13, 15, 29 and 19 versus South Africa on tour, and then a duck in the first innings at Auckland.

Shikhar Dhawan's place in the playing XI is under immense pressure. Reuters

Shikhar Dhawan's place in the playing XI is under immense pressure. Reuters

It has now been seven innings again since he scored a Test fifty. But the conditions this time around are quite different. When the India team to South Africa was selected, there were questions asked about the absence of a third full-time opener. On-tour back then, skipper MS Dhoni had specified that a short tour comprising of just one practice game and two Tests didn’t require additional back-up for the favoured combination of Dhawan and Murali Vijay. The same reasoning held true for New Zealand as well.

Here in England though, Gautam Gambhir is part of the 18-man squad, as that third-opener option. Three days before the fourth Test, when India resumed training after the 266-run loss at Southampton, Gambhir looked extremely busy in the nets. He batted against both pace and spin, and then had a long chat afterwards with coach Duncan Fletcher. A day later, with two to go for the Test, he was back in the nets having another intense session. This is the busiest he has been on tour so far, perhaps a clear indicator that the think-tank was mulling a change.

Meanwhile, Dhawan spent these two days practicing the sweep shot against spin. It was an interesting work-out for him. The sweep-shot comes into play against spinners and in four innings, he hasn’t stayed at the wicket long enough to face them. On two occasions when he has done so, he got out to a full-toss off Moeen Ali in Nottingham and then to that ball from Root.

At this juncture, the choice between Gambhir and Dhawan for the fourth Test is an intriguing decision to make. The series is pegged at 1-1 with two matches to go. Old Trafford will have more juice in it than the Oval and thus, Manchester might be where the series is decided.

On the one hand, like any other captain, Dhoni favours a batsman like Dhawan who could provide impetus to the innings early on when he gets going. The way this Indian team-management thinks, he has only failed in three Tests after all and a lot of Indian batsmen have been afforded longer ropes, Gambhir included. However, other selection decisions might have a big say in Dhawan’s fortunes.

For example, he stands at first slip nowadays, and with Ajinkya Rahane at second and Ravindra Jadeja at third, is considered to be the first-choice slip cordon by Dhoni. Dhawan’s omission means India will be changing their slip fielders for the fifth time in three overseas tours, and seventh time in four Test series going back to West Indies at home. That surely doesn’t make for good reading.

Moreover, Ishant Sharma is ruled out. Pankaj Singh was impressive without taking any wickets and the think-tank will be tempted to look at Varun Aaron who has a little more pace. Bhuvneshwar Kumar bowled gingerly in the nets and his fitness will be assessed prior to the Test. Rohit Sharma is a big question-mark after his worthless shot five minutes before tea-time and then there is always the R Ashwin factor to consider. India are looking at making atleast two to three changes. Would they be willing to make one more or resist that temptation?

On the other hand then, Gambhir hasn’t had too many hits in the middle. In the one proper outing against Leicester he scored 54 runs, wherein he looked scratchy at first but then settled down to find his bearings. The 21* against Derbyshire hardly counts as most other Indian batsmen had already batted or didn’t opt to. Prior to that, Gambhir only has IPL scores to show for.

Again, what makes the decision go in his favour is the option afforded to the team management in such situations. In Africa and New Zealand they didn’t have the third opener. Here they do. Gambhir’s gritty presence at the crease could provide able support to Murali Vijay as well as give a platform to the rest of the batsmen to follow. Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli haven’t made the best of their starts and it helps if they come to bat when the ball is 40-overs old rather than just 15-odd.

In that light, utilizing Gambhir now makes more sense than to wait for the fifth and final Test when India could possibly be fighting to draw the series. That is a position the visitors don’t really want to be in.

It comes down to choice then, and Dhoni has to make that call, and later explain it whether right or wrong. No wonder, it isn’t easy being the captain of the Indian cricket team.

Updated Date: Aug 06, 2014 12:07 PM

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