Repaying faith of the selectors and justifying his inclusion in the Indian team has been Shikhar Dhawan’s career norm. Although it is something he’s been doing rather unknowingly, some would say coincidentally. On Day One of the first Test between India and Sri Lanka at Galle, when India won a crucial toss, Virat Kohli said, “KL Rahul is down with flu, so Dhawan steps in place”. Sounded strange. Had Rahul been fit, Abhinav Mukund would have opened with him? What followed was bludgeoning of a listless, on-their-knees Sri Lankan bowling attack that was spearheaded by their legendary spinner Rangana Herath.
The word you would associate with Dhawan’s innings early on would be ‘rhythm’. Continuing to prosper from his limited-overs form — his last 10 ODI innings read – 68, 125, 78, 46, 21, 87, 63, 2, 5, 4 (comprise the Champions Trophy where he ended up being the highest-run getter, as well as India’s tour of West Indies). Dhawan carried the same confidence into the first Test. On Wednesday, he began with playing the ball on merit, played the drive whenever pitched up while making most of any bad delivery against the seamers. He looked sound with his technique and settled in smoothly at the crease.
Abhinav Mukund departed for 12 (26), but Dhawan was not to be stopped, he carried along with Pujara. On 31 (36), Dhawan gave Sri Lanka what would be the only chance to get him out. Off Lahiru Kumara’s bowling, Dhawan got an outside-edge that was dropped by Asela Gunaratne at second slip. To add insult to injury, Gunaratne fractured his left thumb and has been ruled out of the first Test. And if that wasn’t bad enough, Dhawan made it even worse for the hosts. He was not to be stopped.
Well then, what was the highlight about Dhawan’s innings? Simple. Using his feet against the spinners.
Dhawan reverted to a tactic that India had made most of after losing the Galle Test in 2015, when Herath took 7 for 115 – All 7 wickets in the fourth innings. India had then realised that they had been playing Herath from inside the crease and to win the series, they needed to counter Herath and to do that, they decided to step down the wicket more often. Not just that, rotating strike and basically scoring off him would get him unsettled, they thought. And that is what happened. Herath ended with 8 for 350 for the rest of the series, and India won 2-1.
So, unsettle Herath and that’s how you make the most of your time at the crease. Dhawan did that to perfection against him and Dilruwan Perera on Day One. He came forward to drive and to defend if need be. Also, since there was no turn for the spinners, there loomed no threat for Dhawan. And he batted, on and on and on. The runs leaked from everywhere. The ease with which he played his shots, and the serene presence with which he stood out there, was a pleasure to watch, but not if you are a Sri Lankan fan.
Eventually, his fifth Test hundred came off just 110 balls, batting at almost run-a-ball, the innings had indeed been breezy. Then the trademark Shikhar Dhawan celebration – arms wide open, bat in one hand, helmet in the other, smile like Joker from Batman, acknowledging the dressing room.
Meanwhile, at the other end, the immovable rock that Cheteshwar Pujara is, was minding his own business. He had the best seat in the house. Dhawan was climbing, Pujara was crawling; both moving forward though.
After Dhawan’s hundred, misery piled on for Herath and Sri Lanka. Shikhar Dhawan was piercing gaps with a bisector now. Boundaries came when he wanted them to come. It was then when he was in total control. The sweep gave way to the paddle sweep for once, the ball was being hit more ferociously; he became fearless and started cashing-in on the idea of making it a big one. All the shots from his arsenal started popping out. But what was notable was that he never went aerial, there was always a constant effort to keep the ball down, throughout. There were 31 fours, and mind you, no sixes. Everything was just fine, until of course, when he gave it away.
Just when you could have started thinking about him breaking Virender Sehwag’s record of scoring 228 in a day’s play, Dhawan, with 10 minutes to Tea, came down the wicket to Nuwan Pradeep, got the toe-end of his bat and was caught at mid-off. The commentator said, he would be saying to himself, “Did I need to do that?”. A double-hundred was inevitable. And I thought to myself, “No, Shikhar would never be saying that to himself.”
— BCCI (@BCCI) July 26, 2017
He walked off with a 190 (168) to his name, the crowd and his team-mates standing up to applaud him. He left his team in a position to dominate and build on. He had made his point, again unknowingly, but some would say coincidentally. When he got out, he was out playing in the same fashion he had been playing throughout his innings. And so, knowing Dhawan, there would have been no regrets, just lessons learned.