India vs Australia: Shikhar, and shifting to overdrive
Shikhar Dhawan made his one-day debut in 2010 but it wasn’t until his blazing century on Test debut against Australia three years later that his international career took wings.
The fastest century by a Test debutant, a spectacular 187 off 174 balls at Mohali - 100 in 85 balls - is rated as one of the finest innings by an Indian batsman in his first Test.
The left-handed batsman quickly translated that success into the one-day arena and has since been part of some fascinating battles with Australia, forming a formidable Indian top-order with Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli. The three have rattled Australian bowlers while the teams have shared the spoils in the last seven years, be it limited-overs or Tests.
Dhawan’s Test career has tapered off but the batsman who turns 35 early next month remains a force in white-ball cricket. In the ODI series starting in Sydney on Friday, there is greater responsibility on the Delhi player. With Rohit absent, India will depend heavily on him for strong starts and to take the pressure off Kohli.
Expectations are higher on Dhawan because he is also in form. His recent record against Australia is stunning and he has warmed up for the tour with a sterling show in the Indian Premier League.
In his last five ODIs against Australia, his sequence is 96, 74, 117, 12 and 143. At the start of the year, he struck 74 and 96, in Mumbai and Rajkot; at the 2019 World Cup, 117 at The Oval; in the preparatory series before the World Cup, there was a 143 at Mohali.
He has travelled to Australia after his best IPL showing, as the second highest run-getter with 618 runs and after becoming the first player to notch two successive hundreds in the tournament.
Seven years on, Dhawan still rates his debut Test hundred as the benchmark in terms of flow, timing and control. In a warning to Australia, after his second hundred in IPL, he said he felt the same flow scoring back-to-back hundreds (101* vs Chennai Super Kings and 106* versus Kings XI Punjab) in the UAE last month. “Same fluency as my Test debut...” he told the official broadcaster after the second hundred in Dubai.
In IPL, he was in the zone - as athletes describe their absolute peak. He is not just playing freely, but in a controlled fashion. He is also planning his innings beautifully.
In Australia, the difficult ball to adjust when India batsmen play shots is the one pitched back of the length. The extra bounce on the wickets means the ball will hit the bat above what is termed the “sweet spot”. If you look to hit from the crease, you will end up taking the ball higher on the bat and won’t be able to time it. With the pressure to play forcing shots in ODIs, the ball ballooning to be caught used to be a common mode of dismissal.
With a strong leg-side game, Rohit Sharma uses the pace to help the rising ball over the in-field, in the arc between midwicket and fine leg. Dhawan counters it by advancing a couple of steps to get on top of the bounce and hits it square of the wicket or over cover. This is how he took on the pace bowlers in the UAE, where the Dubai and Abu Dhabi pitches surprisingly helped the express bowlers.
Kohli also uses the same tactics. It was seen in how the three dazzled Australia in the 2015-16 ODI series. India lost 4-1 but they put on a batting show. Finishing with an aggregate of 287 runs, Dhawan averaged 57.40 at a strike rate of 100.35; Rohit averaged 110.11 (441 runs) and Kohli 76.20 (381).
Dhawan is so crucial to India’s gameplan against Australia as he is the only left-hander in the line-up with Rishabh Pant not there. In Rohit’s absence, the hosts will look to use leg-spinner Adam Zampa to put pressure on Kohli. Among the Australian bowlers, Zampa has had the most success against Kohli in ODIs, dismissing the India No.3 five times. For the left-handed opener, the Aussie is easy meat with the ball spinning into him as he can target his favourite leg-side area.
When the opener bats deep, he can nullify the Zampa factor, like he did in the 2019 World Cup. With Dhawan at the crease, Australia delayed bringing on the leg-spinner, bowling him as fourth change, but the batsman held firm till the 37th over. Zampa’s figures read 6-0-50-0 as India amassed 352. India won by 36 runs with Dhawan named Man-of-the-Match.
In an interview during IPL, Dhawan explained his approach to batting. “I keep my mindset positive, don’t think that the wicket is doing this, or about the conditions.
I have a few tools as in strategies - if it’s a slow wicket what I will do and make the bowler do as well. And I play with courage and not worry about getting out. It’s about having clarity on what we have to achieve in various stages of the game.”
As seen in IPL, he is fitter than ever. For the Melbourne-based Dhawan, the key is to maintain intensity, by making sure he is well rested to turn up fresh for each match. “During lockdown, I worked on my fitness, mentally and physically. I enjoy being ahead in the game. I am moving fast, running quick. In today’s cricket, you need to have that; otherwise you will be left behind. I make sure I bring that to the table and am an asset to the team.”
The Test series is the main event of the southern hemisphere summer, but the importance of the limited-overs series is not lost on the players as it will set the tone for the tour.
And India will look up to their resident Aussie for runs and inspiration.