Every Indian Premier League season has a strict undertone about it. Behind the razzmatazz of cricket-meets-entertainment, beyond the celebrated gathering of Indian and overseas international stars, there is the youthful chutzpah that everyone looks forward to.
Who are the next stars for Indian cricket? Who will make a name for himself and propel into selection discussions, from T20Is to ODIs to Tests? Who are the future stars? As concerns the 2020 IPL season, you have names like Priyam Garg, Yashaswi Jaiswal, Riyan Parag and Devdutt Padikkal doing the rounds.
There is another concurrent discussion too. In a year’s time, India will host the 2021 T20 World Cup. The 2020 and 2021 IPL seasons will be a pre-cursor to the same, and if social media is abuzz with finalizing potential names for that tournament’s 15-man squad, you can be assured the selectors are thinking the same as well. Second keeper-batsman, third-choice opener, middle-order back up, finisher, second all-rounder, extra pacer, spin options – so on and so forth.
This concerns that openers’ discussion. Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul are first choice in the Indian T20I side – there is no debating that. Who is the third option though? Mayank Agarwal, Shubman Gill and Prithvi Shaw are the contenders if you go by that “youngster buzz” any IPL season generates. They are competing with an age-old warhorse though – Shikhar Dhawan.
The left-handed opener will be 35 years old by the time India play their next T20I series (scheduled to be in Australia this coming December). It is not as if he dropped out of the conversation on form – he was part of India’s T20 squad against Sri Lanka at home this January and thereafter had also been named in the T20 squad for the New Zealand tour. He missed out on that tour owing to a shoulder injury sustained against Australia. Bottom-line being, Dhawan was part of India’s T20 plans nine months ago. So, what has changed?
Partly it is down to Rahul’s stupendous form and utility as a keeper-batsman – he has to open for India in white-ball cricket going ahead. Let us not even bother going into the details here. Rohit is immovable too. That automatically relegates Dhawan to number three option, wherein he is competing with a few youngsters. At this juncture, runs, form and fitness come to the discussion table.
Dhawan is a naturally fit athlete and he is a fine fielder too, atleast in the deep. As he grows older, keeping ahead of the fitness curve is going to get tougher. But the calendar ahead isn’t as excruciating as it was earlier. If Dhawan is only competing for one format (or two), it opens up a lot of time for him to work on the physical aspect. That leaves form, and the experienced opener is doing well enough to be part of the conversation.
There is a streak of consistency in Dhawan’s form this 2020 IPL. He has only two single-digit scores – 0 and 5. In between, he has scored 35, 34, 26, 32, 69 not out, 57 and 101 not out, that century coming against Chennai Super Kings on Saturday night. That places him at 359 runs in 9 innings, averaging 52.14, and more importantly, fourth in the highest run-getters’ list. Among Indian batsmen, he is only behind Rahul (448 runs in 8 innings) and Agarwal (382 runs in 8 innings), with Padikkal (296 runs in 9 innings) playing catch-up albeit creditably and Shaw (202 runs in 9 innings) nowhere in sight.
“I have loads of experience behind me, so I was working on my process throughout this tournament. I am also making mistakes, but learning what not to do and what to do, which shots to bring out and play, what strategy to use on different pitches. I want to contribute for the team as much as I can,” Dhawan said after scoring his first IPL century. For the record, Rahul and Agarwal are the only other century scorers in this IPL 2020, so he is keeping pace there as well.
Even without the hundred, Dhawan has shown enough consistency to merit being part of any selection conversations. But this knock has undoubtedly helped elevate his current positioning. There was an element of luck about it, sure. After all, he benefitted from dropped catches and if those chances had been held, Chennai Super Kings might have forced the issue. Alternatively, there is a saying that Dhawan goes on to score big whenever he is given a life in this manner. Well, he was just playing to that script.
More pertinently, it is also the benefit of Dhawan’s experience. He is no longer the all-out attacker he once was. The perception of his attacking batting skills persists, but he will never go all out, unlike say David Warner who hasn’t slowed down at all. In his current avatar, Dhawan likes to take time settling down, get used to the conditions, and then get going.
It has given credence to the strike-rate debate. Dhawan, Rohit and Virat Kohli all bat in a similar mould at the top – getting set before hitting out. India needs an enforcer at the top, which is where Rahul steals the show. Dhawan though has realized this shortcoming and looked to work on it this IPL. In the first half of the tournament, he struck at the usual 130-odd, but now past the mid-point, he is starting to hit out. Against Rajasthan Royals in the previous game, he smacked 57 off 33 at 172.72. On Saturday night, his 101* came off 58 balls at 174.13.
Of course, it can be argued that Delhi Capitals were chasing 9/over from the start. But they also fell behind the curve at 26-2. From there onwards, Dhawan resurrected the innings, drawing on his experience to stabilize things. At the first time-out, he was on 36 off 21 balls, 65 coming off the next 37 balls faced – accelerating from SR 171.42 to 240.74. Chennai did not have a response to his power-hitting, almost as if Dhawan was too familiar with how MS Dhoni and his fellow Indian teammates would approach this innings, and just played them on strings.
Yes, three chances went begging, again. That, however, has been the essence of Dhawan’s career. Chances have come his way, and unlike greasy-palmed Chennai fielders, he has held on to them ever since he was given a second wind in 2013.
Seven years later he is approaching the end of a relatively successful career, but not without one more push for an international bow on the grand T20 World Cup stage. There is fight in the old dog yet.