Shikhar Dhawan: Cometh the hour, cometh the man

Win toss, bat first – on an Oval pitch, that had already been used for New Zealand versus Bangladesh game, it was a no brainer decision. There aren’t many ways to put an Australian team under pressure in a World Cup. Putting runs is perhaps the best of them, and so, it came down to India making its strength count.

Whenever batting first, the onus lies on India’s top-order to make it count. Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli have accounted for nearly 55 per cent of India’s ODI runs scored in the last two years. It had to be the three of them doing most damage to the Australian bowling attack, and yet, doubts lingered.

Ever since this World Cup trip began, Kohli has been batting on a different plane; his cameos in the two warm-ups proved as much. Rohit started slow, perhaps on account of change in conditions, but then caught up at Southampton when it mattered most. Dhawan, meanwhile, is that unpredictable link in this top-order trio. You simply don’t know what to expect.

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There is a mercurial streak about Dhawan. On most days, there will be a quick cameo, a mad-dash and then a poor stroke to end it short. It is often assumed that a dropped catch allows him to play a longer innings, almost a talisman. And then, ever so often, he will start converting those starts, get to the half-century and convert. It helps if the ball isn’t darting around like it did in Southampton.

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Faced with a flatter track against Australia, Dhawan was watchful at the start, yes. English conditions, 10.30am starts and new balls from both ends in the hands of Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins, warrant that sort of respect. But unlike Rohit, or even Kohli, Dhawan doesn’t need to go through the gears. He can swiftly shift from first to fourth, if he ever bats that slowly that is.

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Smacking 14 off Nathan Coulter-Nile’s first over set the tone for the remainder of India’s innings – it was imperative for them to target beyond Australia’s primary pace duo. Thanks to Dhawan putting Coulter-Nile and Adam Zampa out of the attack early, pressure shifted on Australia to stitch together their fifth bowler’s quota of overs. Meanwhile, Dhawan was well on his way to another ICC-event hundred.

And he is a rhythm batsman. This isn’t a phrase attached with batsmen a lot; it is more for fast bowlers. Whenever he hits a good patch of form, Dhawan keeps it going. This is where the true batsman in him comes to the fore. Of course, this is all outside the purview of ICC events.

As soon as he reaches a World Cup, or a Champions Trophy, or a World T20, events at the global stage, there is a switch that flicks in his head. Suddenly, he is a batsman transformed. If there is anything more predictable than Pakistan being an unpredictable team, it is the simple fact that Dhawan will score a lot of runs at any ICC world-tournament.

Sample this. From 2013 to 2019, Dhawan has been part of four ICC ODI events – two Champions Trophy and two ODI World Cups thus far. In 20 matches therein, he has 1238 runs at average 65.15, including six hundreds and four half-centuries. It is whopping higher than his career ODI average of 44.91. In comparison, Rohit averages 58.23 in 20 innings across these same ICC events, while Kohli – who also featured in the 2011 World Cup – averages 55.27 in 31 innings.

There is no doubt that Kohli and Rohit are better all-round batsmen than Dhawan. Yet, when the stakes are higher, he comes out to be more consistent than the other two. It is a staggering statement, and the shock value herein emanates from the truth itself. Perhaps it is the best reference for a case study in psychology in cricket, if there is ever going to be one.

How else would you describe this transformation in Dhawan?

It is almost as if he flicks a switch in his head. ICC event? Shredding the image of a doubt-ridden, conscious opener, poking at deliveries angling in or away, Dhawan comes out as a confident, free-stroking batsman who simply cannot be contained, let alone stopped.

And perhaps, there is another factor – a sea of blue ever-present at such World events. A player as mercurial, and as free-spirited, as Dhawan, who enjoys his cricket with a beaming smile at all times, is bound to feed off thousands of fans donning blue and chanting for their team. That energy is enough to transform the simplest of sportsmen.

It is what separates the ordinary from world-beaters, the likes of which rise to the occasion when it is most needed. Dhawan, for all his faults at different times, is that batsman for team India.