After his poor run of scores in Australia - in the Tests as well as the ODI tri-series -- not many people expected Shikhar Dhawan to succeed in the World Cup. I must confess to being among the skeptics, for this had come in the wake of a disappointing tour of England too.
There was a sameness about Dhawan's dismissals - fending at short-pitched deliveries or chasing those outside the off-stump - that was becoming irksome for experts and fans alike. Cricket at the highest level can be cruel. Bowlers and opposing captains are quick to study and aim at batsmen's flaws and it appeared he had been sorted out.
After a blazing Test century on debut against Australia about two years back, Dhawan's form seemed to have waned dramatically. His first innings in international cricket had been extraordinary, full of panache and breathtaking strokes.
His 187 runs had come at a run-a-ball; and this was five-day cricket, not the slam bang stuff. I remember speaking to him after that knock at Mohali and Dhawan, with rare candour, had said that it was not easy to replace the likes of Viru Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir so he had to do something to make people and selectors forget them!
Back then, he looked like a man on a mission, and when he got more successes - notably in the Champions Trophy in England in 2013 - Dhawan's position in the team was solidified. In fact he had become first choice opener.
Since then, however, things started going awry. Run-making, which seemed like the easiest thing for him to do, became more and more difficult, till they almost dried up.
As the failures multiplied, the strong body language defined by endearing rusticity (remember him twirling his moustache like a rustic, daredevil hero in a Punjabi potboiler) gave way to drooped shoulders and a forehead creased with worry.
A grave fall-out of this was that he soon lost his place in the Test side. When a major player suffers a reversal like that, it makes him a marked man. There is excessive scrutiny, even minor flaws get highlighted, patience starts to run thin.
However experienced in the vicissitudes of cricket and well-meaning the selectors, somewhere this begins to prey on their minds too. Meagre runs in ODIs meant that Dhawan was on the brink of losing his place in limited overs cricket too.
"There was one person I know from personal interaction who had intrinsic faith in the Delhi opener's abilities and was still willing to give him a long rope"
There were calls for replacing him at the top of the order with Ajinkya Rahane, who has opened in the past, while the more stringent critics thought he should be packed off home on some pretext, and some other player sent in his place for the World Cup.
However, there was one person I know from personal interaction who had intrinsic faith in the Delhi opener's abilities and was still willing to give him a long rope: former India captain and currently Team Director, Ravi Shastri.
When Shastri was back in Mumbai for a break between the Test series and the World Cup, I had a chance to discuss the team's prospects in the biggest tournament in the sport. He was not only confident that the team would do well, but also that Dhawan would be a key factor.
Having known Shastri for almost three decades, I respect his technical and tactical acumen as well as ability to motivate players. After the dismal Test series against England last summer, he was vehement in his support for Virat Kohli.
"I see burning ambition in his eyes," Shastri said. "He hates to fail and he will prove a lot of people wrong." As it happened, Kohli made 698 runs in the Test series, But did Dhawan have similar ability? Or fire in the belly?
Shastri's assessment of the opener when I met him in early January was positive, but in a simplistic sort of way. "There's a minor technical glitch, which is to do with his footwork. This resulting in him playing away from his body on or around the off-stump, or playing the horizontal strokes too early because he is not back and across adequately. The larger issue, however, is self-belief. Once he sorts that out, he will be a big threat to any bowling attack."
Shastri believed that Dhawan has the game to excel in Australian conditions. "He is strong on the cut, pull and hook strokes," he said. "You can survive by not playing these shots, but that's self-defeating in ODIs. I want him to play his natural game. Once he has a couple of decent scores under his belt, he will be a batsman to be feared."
"After Sunday's blockbuster 137 against South Africa (preceded by a half century against Pakistan, it must be remembered), Dhawan is not just a hero rediscovered, but a batsman to be feared by all opponents."
I would venture that Shastri was not the only one to have faith in Dhawan's prowess. Even Dhoni has been loath to keep him out of the side. "In the team combo and tactics, he is of importance," Shastri had said, which I presume couldn't have precluded the opinion of the captain, coach Duncan Fletcher and other members of the think tank.
In any case, whatever the faith of the support staff and even the captain, unless the player himself is desirous of proving critics wrong and actualizing his potential, success will be elusive. More than any other, Dhwawan deserves credit for this transformation.
After Sunday's blockbuster 137 against South Africa (preceded by a half century against Pakistan, it must be remembered), Dhawan is not just a hero rediscovered, but a batsman to be feared by all opponents. Not unnaturally, the drooping shoulders have squared up again, there is a spring in his step and that toothy smile is back.
But just maybe he needs to keep that famous twirl of the moustache at bay for a while till he gets to open in Tests again. His comeback will be complete in every sense then. Till then, of course, there is the world to conquer in this tournament.Suggest a correction