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India vs Sri Lanka: Shikhar Dhawan Ton Poses Problem of Plenty For India

Dileep Premachandran |Cricketnext | Updated: July 26, 2017, 6:20 PM IST
India vs Sri Lanka: Shikhar Dhawan Ton Poses Problem of Plenty For India

Shikhar Dhawan (AP Photo)

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Galle: Shikhar Dhawan is a flamboyant soul – from the dacoit moustache to the tattoos, to the buccaneering strokeplay when on song. He’s not really someone you’d associate with the philosophical. But stereotypes are dangerous things, and my favourite Dhawan memory is of a moment when he offered rare insight into the mind of a troubled performer.

It was in the days leading up to the 2015 World Cup, and the ICC had invited four Indian players for an open media session in Adelaide. Dhawan was one of them. The ‘local lad’ – he is married to a Melbourne-based lady – hadn’t had a great time of it, aggregating just 167 runs across six Test innings, and managing a pitiful 49 in four outings in a triangular series that also featured England.

In the few days before the team reassembled in Adelaide for their World Cup opener against Pakistan, Dhawan had gone home to Melbourne, and spent time with his wife and kids. After a succession of questions on the poor form of individuals, and the team’s mediocre results, he said quietly: Jo ho gaya so ho gaya [What is done is done].”

I thought of those words a few days later, as he got India’s campaign going with a fluent 73 against Pakistan, a knock he followed up with a match-winning 137 against South Africa. Jo ho gaya so ho gaya.

What are we to make of Dhawan the Test cricketer? When the ball doesn’t deviate off the straight, on a placid surface like the one in Galle today, he should be one of the first names on the team sheet. No other Indian opener, with the notable exception of the now-retired Virender Sehwag, could have turned it on like he did in the second session, when he stroked, cut, pulled, nudged, carved and biffed his way to 126 runs off 90 balls before miscuing one off the toe end of the bat to mid-off.

Sri Lanka’s opening-day fate was sealed the moment Asela Gunaratne put down Dhawan when he had just 31, with India on 59 for 1. The fractured thumb all but deprived Sri Lanka of one of their all-round options for this match, and gave Dhawan the confidence that this was to be his day.

By lunch, he had moved on to 64 from 78 balls. Thereafter, he was like the cocky kid at the fun-fair’s coconut shy. He put the ball where he wanted, off pace and spin alike. Rangana Herath, whose 7 for 48 won Sri Lanka the last Galle Test between these sides, was made to look distinctly ordinary, while Lahiru Kumara, Danushka Gunathilaka – the debutant – and Dilruwan Perera all came in for fearful punishment.

Only Denis Compton (173), Wally Hammond (150) and Stan McCabe (127) – three of the batting Gods – have managed more runs than Dhawan did in a lunch-to-tea session. If his dominance hadn’t been so absolute that a hint of looseness and complacency crept in, he could well have been there at stumps, with a triple-hundred to his name.

This was only Dhawan’s second Test since December 2015, with Murali Vijay’s injury and KL Rahul’s fever presenting an opportunity that he didn’t spurn. But with most of India’s Test cricket to be played outside Asia in the next two seasons, Dhawan has to do far more to convince the doubters.

In ten innings across tours of South Africa and England in 2013-14, he aggregated just 198 runs. There was a pattern to the dismissals as well, with bowlers usually taking the ball away from him and the slip cordon and keeper forever interested. But we should also be wary of rushing to conclusions based on such a small sample size.

We can’t get carried away either. As beautifully as he struck the ball today, the opposition was depressingly mediocre. When Sehwag made his dazzling 201 here in 2008, Muttiah Muralitharan and Ajantha Mendis had the ball spinning like a top, flummoxing a famed middle order. There were no such challenges today, save for a spirited and tidy spell from Nuwan Pradeep.

It’s not hard to see why Sri Lanka are struggling. Their go-to bowler turns 40 next March, Angelo Mathews hasn’t averaged 45 in a calendar year since 2014, and there’s a sameness to their pace-bowling resources. The X-factor once provided by the likes of Murali and Lasith Malinga seems a thing of the past.

Not that India will complain. Having lost here in such traumatic circumstances on the last tour, they couldn’t have hoped for a more perfect start to this series. Once Dhawan departed on the stroke of tea, the spotlight finally settled on Cheteshwar Pujara, whose batting was as solid as the ramparts of the Fort which provided the backdrop.

At one point last season, there was much debate about Pujara’s strike-rate in Tests and his suitability for the team’s aggressive blueprint. Those noises were silenced a few months ago, and his 173-ball century today was another reminder of how hard he is to shift once the feet are moving and the tunnel vision is switched on.

But on this one-way traffic day, Dhawan was the indubitable star. A swat-pull off Kumara in the opening session perfectly summed up the day – the bowler steaming in and bouncing it short, only to see the shot behind square neatly bisect the two converging fielders. Dhawan the philosopher had answers to each Sri Lankan question, not that too many were asked.

Jo ho gaya so ho gaya.
First Published: July 26, 2017, 5:50 PM IST
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