Shikhar Dhawan © IANS
Shikhar Dhawan is an inspiration for the many domestic cricketers who have toiled in India and dream of making it big © IANS

Shikhar Dhawan, born on December 5, 1985, is India’s fearless opening batsman. While he burst onto the scene as a promising opener at the under-19 level, it took him nine more years to get into the senior side and establish himself. Since announcing himself with that memorable 187 on Test debut, Dhawan has become a vital man in India’s scheme of things. Nishad Pai Vaidya looks back at Dhawan’s career so far.

The shot that changed a life

On a tough wicket at the Roshanahara Club in December 2010, Delhi were set a 135 to win by the Railways. It was a tough wicket, given the fact that the teams had struggled to reach 300 in their first innings. Delhi managed a slender lead, but Railways were bundled out for 166. Delhi’s task should have been challenging, but application would have got them through. The skipper opened the batting and set his eyes in. With the score on 17, his instincts got the better of him and a rash shot resulted in his dismissal. Delhi were bowled out for 115, handing the opposition a 22 run victory! Shikhar Dhawan, the captain, was castigated for that reckless shot!

In many ways, it was the shot that changed Dhawan’s life. From bursting onto the scene in 2004, Dhawan had carved a reputation of being the fearless hitter. However, many considered that instinct too impetuous at times — that innings against Railways being a prime example. Four years down the line, Dhawan is a changed man — opening the batting for India in all formats. While his natural aggression has remained intact, temperance has flowed in, which has allowed him to become prolific and more dependable. Here’s what he has done since then:

–          Smashed 187 on Test debut. He managed to get his century off 85 balls, which is the fastest on debut.

–          Hit two tons during the ICC Champions Trophy 2013 to take India to victory.

–          Is the fastest Indian to 1,000 One-Day International (ODI) runs with Virat Kohli. He is the fastest to 2,000 runs in the format.

–          Smashed 248 in a List A game against South Africa. It was the highest score for an Indian in List A cricket until Rohit Sharma hit 264 in an ODI against Sri Lanka.

Speaking to Mid-DAY, his childhood coach Tarak Sinha said, “He now understands the importance of staying at the wicket. He was very impatient earlier, but has worked on this aspect. The long wait has made him more determined to make every opportunity count.” He is not only a cricketer but a style statement; a man who brings in the macho element with those big biceps with tattoos and of course the twirled mustache.

Early life

Dhawan was born in Delhi on December 5, 1985. When he was 12 years old, he joined Sinha at the famous Sonnet Cricket Club which has produced many India cricketers. Initially, he was a wicketkeeper, but Sinha soon discovered the ability to hit the ball. “Shikhar always had the talent but more than anything had the guts. Not many people know that he was a wicketkeeper when he first came under my guidance. I realized he is special when as a 12 year-old, he scored a hundred in an U-15 school tournament,” Sinha told PTI.

In November 1999, he was into the Delhi under-16 side. It was only in early 2001 that he hit consistency, hitting two tons and a few fifties. That helped him play for India under-17s in the ACC under-17 Asia Cup. The following season, Dhawan made it into the Delhi under-19s and was a consistent performer. In a game against Jammu and Kashmir, he hit 231 to show his appetite for runs. With all the runs behind him, he was picked for the ICC under-19 World Cup 2004 in Bangladesh. Suresh Raina, Robin Uthappa, Rudra Pratap Singh and Ambati Rayudu were a part of that side.

Under-19 success

Though India lost in the semi-final of the under-19 World Cup 2004, it will be remembered as Dhawan’s tournament. The left-hander showed the penchant of scoring those big runs, which he promised in domestic age group cricket. It wasn’t only the runs, but his dominance that made a mark. He was flashy and fearless; the shots through the off-side stood out in particular.

Dhawan started by smashing 155 not out against Scotland under-19s. He then followed it up with 120 against Bangladesh and 66 against South Africa. His innings of 146 against Sri Lanka under-19s only increased his reputation. Despite India’s defeat in the semi-final, Dhawan walked away as the Man of the Series. After all, he had hit 505 runs. This performances immediately heightened expectations. The southpaw found himself in limelight and the burden of those aspirations were on his young shoulders. Yet to make his domestic debut, Dhawan set out on the long journey to the highest level. Unlike Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif, the stars of the under-19 World Cup 2000, Dhawan’s road to glory was to be a long and arduous one.

Domestic struggle and rise to the top

Breaking into the Delhi side wasn’t going to be an easy task for Dhawan. For starters, they already had three India openers in their squad — Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and Aakash Chopra. The youngster managed to find a spot for himself with Gambhir and Sehwag away for national duty. In fact, Sehwag batted lower down the order whenever he was back. Gambhir, Dhawan and Chopra occupied the top three. Given Dhawan’s prolific run in junior cricket, it was tough to ignore him.

He had a good time in his maiden First-Class season, smashing 461 runs in six matches at an average of 41.90 with one ton and two fifties. In his maiden season, he was picked for the Challenger Trophy. One of the memorable outings was when he and MS Dhoni opened the batting for India Seniors and both hit centuries. Dhawan continued to be a part of the selector’s plans and was a part of the India A sides in 2006. While he was consistent in his first few seasons, averaging around 40, he hit a purple patch around 2008-09, the first season during which he averaged over 50. He also managed to make a mark in the Indian Premier League (IPL), first with the Delhi Daredevils, until he was swapped with Ashish Nehra and sent away to the Mumbai Indians.

Dhawan seemed to have some issues. He had this tendency to poke at deliveries outside the off-stump and there was a huge gap between bat and bat. For him, it was no easy ride as he kept scoring at the domestic level. His teammates such as Raina, Uthappa and RP Singh made it through to the next level, with Dhawan waiting in the India A wings. In fact, Ravindra Jadeja, Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli, Dhawan’s juniors also made it to the Indian team before he did. Sinha said, “When he (Dhawan) came into the Delhi side, it had established players like Sehwag, Gambhir, Aakash Chopra, Mithun Manhas, Rajat Bhatia but he fought and cemented his place. His junior Virat Kohli raced ahead and made a name in international cricket. He didn’t lose hope, carried on his good work.”

So far Shikhar Dhawan has had a good IPL career © IANS
So far Shikhar Dhawan has had a good IPL career © IANS

But, even though the runs came at the domestic level, some felt it was more style that substance. He was flashy with all the flair but lacked the application to sustain. Off the field of play as well, he seemed like a flamboyant person, with short hair and those tattoos. Though those runs kept coming, sometimes it did not look very convincing. Take the IPL 2010 for instance. While he did score a few fifties at the top, opening the innings with Sachin Tendulkar, he had a few rough outings which included a duck in the final.

Nevertheless, with all the seniors resting in the leadup to the 2011 World Cup, Dhawan was called into the side for the ODI series against Australia. With only one encounter possible, he was handed a cap at Visakhapatnam, during which he was bowled without scoring in a tall run-chase. It was only post the World Cup that he was called up again, for the ODIs in the West Indies. In the first game, he managed a fifty but his form tapered off. He was then dropped and left to domestic cricket.

Second coming

Dhawan’s second coming has seen a different cricketer come to the fore. That poor shot against the Railways haunted his mind and he used it to push himself to make a change. In a way, it was an epiphany that helped him realize that he needed to do more to make the cut. Picked for the Irani Trophy in 2011, he tore the Rajasthan bowling to shreds by recording two tons in the game, both at better than a run-a-ball. The following year, he was one of the positives for the Deccan Chargers in a disappointing campaign. At the same time, he managed to hold on to his spot for India A.

There was maturity creeping into his game. Dominating the Challenger Trophy in 2012, he moved into the Ranji season with intent. And on December 18, he was back to the Roshanahara Club, with Delhi chasing 273 for victory. This time, he wasn’t going to let it go away. Bringing in that experience into his game, he led from the front with 116 not out against Maharashtra to help Delhi win the game. The ghosts of 2010 were exorcised with that performance. Vijay Dahiya, the Delhi coach, told PTI after Dhawan’s Test debut in 2013, “It’s an innings where you just sit back and savour his achievements. He has matured a lot in the last two seasons. This year, he anchored a chase against Maharashtra where he played a different kind of innings. He now values his wicket even more.”

Off the field as well, Dhawan had tempered down to put up a calm picture. He had tied the knot with Ayesha Mukherjee, an Australia-based woman, who had two children from a previous marriage. This brought in a lot of maturity in Dhawan and that helped his game tremendously.

In early 2013, the selectors had enough with Gautam Gambhir and called Dhawan into the side for the Australia series. Sehwag did open the batting with Murali Vijay in the first two Tests, after which he was dropped. Dhawan was accorded an opportunity in Mohali. The wait had borne fruit at last. But, he wasn’t going to wait to stamp his authority.

Dhawan was off the blocks quickly. As Vijay held one end, he drove handsomely at the other and pulled anything short. Using his feet to the spinners, he lofted with ease. He sped away to fifty and soon enough, got his ton off 85 balls, the fastest by anyone on debut. With his arms aloft with the helmet and bat in hand, a pose that has become his trademark, Dhawan beamed the moustached smile. On his way back to the dressing room during one of the breaks, he twirled his moustache to make it a popular mannerism. The misery for the Australians did not end there as Dhawan went on to hit 187. The tourists did not know what had hit them. While he did suffer an injury, it remained a memorable initiation in the whites. Sterner tests waited ahead. The Delhi-era of opening batsmen continued from one to another.

In ICC Champions Trophy 2013, Shikhar Dhawan was the leading run scorer © Getty Images
Shikhar Dhawan was the leading run scorer in the ICC Champions Trophy 2013 © Getty Images

The year 2013 was even more memorable for the southpaw. The ICC Champions Trophy 2013 was his stage. He hit tons in the first two games against South Africa and West Indies. The off-side was peppered with boundaries and short deliveries were punished. His form took India to the final of the tournament, which they won by a slender margin. Dhawan’s 363 runs had worked wonders and he won the Man of the Tournament. That form carried through the year. He hit an ODI ton in Zimbabwe, then that famous List A double against South Africa A, followed by some crucial knocks against Australia in the home series later that year. In all, he had scored five ODI centuries and one Test ton in 2013. Those six centuries were a sign of his maturity and the fact that he had arrived at the highest level.

But times were going to change. The pacy wickets in South Africa tested Dhawan as the short ball did him in a few times. In New Zealand, he struggled during the ODI series as well, but his resolve held him in good stead for the Test series. He started off with a duck, but with India chasing 407 in the fourth innings, Dhawan’s 115 gave them a chance as they came within 41 runs of victory. In the next Test, he missed a century by two runs. These were confidence-building performances ahead of the tour to England later that year.

In familiar conditions in Bangladesh, Dhawan returned to form during the Asia Cup 2014, but was benched after three difficult outings in the ICC World T20. Ajinkya Rahane took his spot at the top. In England, Dhawan was tested by the moving ball and was dropped after three Tests. A couple of 30s weren’t enough to help him save his berth. During the ODIs, he was in much better touch and got back amongst the runs there and during the home series’ that followed.

While there is no doubting Dhawan’s ability in one-day cricket, his form has to materialise into bigger performances in the white flannels. What he has shown though, is the intent to battle out the conditions and make it a fighting stay in the middle. When combined with the typical flair, you have a good opening batsman at your disposal. At the age of 27, he was at the make-or-break stage of his career and he managed to turn it around to become a fixture in the Indian side. Not many manage to do that. Irrespective of what Dhawan does in the future, he will remain an inspiration for the many domestic cricketers who have toiled in India and dream of making it big. This left-hander has certainly given them hope.

(Nishad Pai Vaidya is a Correspondent with CricketCountry and anchor for the site’s YouTube Channel. His Twitter handle is @nishad_45)