In the scorching summer of ’96, a 12-year-old boy walked out of his west Delhi house, lugging along a kit bag that probably weighed more than him. He was on his way to the Sonnet Club in north Delhi for a cricket match. The journey, that took him nearly an hour, could only be negotiated by boarding an overcrowded bus, but he somehow managed to squeeze in. As he entered the grounds, his coach, Madan Sharma, told him he wouldn’t be playing as he was late. Suddenly, Sharma noticed a big cut on the boy’s right thigh that was bleeding. But the 12-year-old, undeterred by the cut or his coach’s “punishment”, insisted that he would play. He went on to help the club win the game.
It is perhaps this grit and determination that have served Shikhar Dhawan well for he had to wait nine long years before he could wear the white flannels for India.
THE LONG, HARD GRIND
While he was playing the waiting game, Dhawan amassed runs in first-class cricket—5,679 from 81 appearances.
Anyone who saw him during his teenage years knew the left-hander had what it takes to play at the highest level. His progress till 2004 followed the predictions made about him by cricket pundits. He scored 505 runs at the Under-19 World Cup in Dhaka, a record that’s yet to be broken for most runs in a single edition. Declared Player of the Tournament, with three centuries to his name, Dhawan, it was believed, would soon move up the ranks. Some even predicted that he would break into the national squad in a year or two. This, after all, had been the trend for the past few years: Harbhajan Singh, Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh, Mohammad Kaif had all moved into the senior side within months of their U-19 successes.
However, Dhawan’s career graph, that had started like a 100-metre dash, soon turned into a steeplechase. Alongside the left-hander there were other talented youngsters vying for a spot in the national side. The race began and things seemed to fall apart for Dhawan.
The need for a wicketkeeper-batsman in the national side gave Dhawan’s teammate, Dinesh Karthik, a chance to play his first Test in 2004. Later that year, Dhawan made his first-class debut in a star-studded Delhi lineup that included Aakash Chopra, Gautam Gambhir, Ajay Jadeja, Vijay Dahiya, and Ashish Nehra. He top-scored with 461 runs, but U-19 teammate Suresh Raina made his ODI debut as there was a slot for a middle-order batsman. Also, it is believed, because the then India coach, Greg Chappell, preferred Raina.
In 2006, Dhawan top-scored in the EurAsia Series, a six-nation tournament in Abu Dhabi, with 288 runs, and helped India A to the final but again he was left out of the senior side. This time, his U-19 fellow opener in the tournament, Robin Uthappa, got the selectors’ nod and played his first ODI. Again, the following year, Dhawan made 570 runs, including two centuries and as many fifties, in Delhi’s championship season in the Ranji Trophy but Rohit Sharma, from the 2006 U-19 batch, got his T20 and ODI caps for India.
In 2008, the IPL began, and Dhawan, playing for Delhi Daredevils, scored 340 runs, second only to Gambhir’s 534. But again he was left out as Virat Kohli—riding high on the U-19 World Cup victory as India’s captain—pipped him to the ODI side. In the 2008–09 season, Dhawan hit 415 runs for Delhi while Tamil Nadu opener Murali Vijay scored 386 runs. But when Gambhir missed the Brabourne Test against Sri Lanka, Vijay was flown in as the replacement.
Again, in 2010, Dhawan was overlooked when a second-string side, led by Raina, was sent to Zimbabwe. Seven players—including R. Ashwin, Pragyan Ojha and Umesh Yadav—made their ODI debut on that tour. Later that year, his luck appeared to change but only for a minute—literally. Dhawan finally made his ODI debut against Australia in Visakhapatnam, but was bowled for a duck by Clint McKay after facing just two deliveries.
ATTITUDE UNDER SCANNER
The struggle continued and by now people had started questioning his temperament. In a Ranji match in 2010 against Railways, Dhawan was standing in for Delhi’s regular skipper, Mithun Manhas. The team needed only 136 to enter the knockout stage, but he played a rash shot to get out and the rest of the batsmen followed him back to the pavilion. His approach came in for severe criticism from then Delhi coach Manoj Prabhakar.
In the next season, playing against Gujarat in a game at Valsad, Dhawan threw away his wicket after a swashbuckling half-century. Delhi lost the game and were later knocked out. In the same season, on the eve of a game against Baroda, Dhawan came to practice on his Hayabusa motorbike at Delhi’s Feroz Shah Kotla stadium. As his teammates crowded around, Surinder Khanna, a member of the then Cricket Improvement Committee of the Delhi and District Cricket Association and former India player, asked him the power of the engine. Dhawan replied, “800cc.” The next thing Khanna told him was, “Score eight hundreds this season and then ride this bike. We have to answer when you don’t perform.”
This incident hurt Dhawan but he didn’t say anything. “He never expresses what he is feeling,” says his childhood coach, Sharma.
Later that season, he scored a century in each innings of the Irani Cup—117 and 155—for Rest of India as they beat Ranji champions Rajasthan. This performance landed him his T20 cap for India vs. the West Indies, but he failed to capitalise on the opportunity and was kept out of the other games. In the Test series against the same team, Abhinav Mukund and Vijay opened for India.
DONNING THE WHITES
It was finally in April 2012 that Dhawan changed his luck with the willow. And silenced the many critics who had pointed to his lack of consistency. In IPL V, he was the third-highest scorer with 569 runs, behind Chris Gayle (733) and Gautam Gambhir (590); later in the year, he had his biggest first-class season, scoring 833 runs, including four tons. This was followed by a century and 50 in the Duleep Trophy for North Zone, a match-winning unbeaten 110 against Alastair Cook’s England in a List A ODI at the Kotla and a 50 against Ranji champions Mumbai in the Irani Cup.
The national side, meanwhile, was going through upheavals. Gambhir had been dropped from the entire Australia series and Sehwag, after poor outings in the first two Tests, was dropped for the final two. Dhawan—who, besides his questionable temperament, was also waiting on the sidelines while India’s most prolific Test opening partnership combination piled on the runs—finally got a call-up. At Mohali, the 27-year-old who had been warming the benches during the first two matches became the 277th Test player to represent India.
At the press conference on the eve of his debut, Dhawan appeared fidgety—pinching his rat-tail tuft, twirling his moustache or running his hand over his crew-cut-topped scalp—but sounded composed. “The coach and the captain told me about my debut last evening. I was very happy to hear the news. I just want to grab this opportunity,” he said.
He played the next question, “Are you feeling the pressure?”, like one of his crackling cover drives. “Not really,” he said, “because I have performed well in domestic cricket. Of course I was waiting for this day but I don’t have any pressure right now. I am happy that whatever I dreamt of achieving, I have done that.” So what helped him make a comeback when many thought he had missed the bus? “Whenever I have experienced failure in my career, those experiences have made me more mature as a player. With time you do get mature,” he said. To a question on filling the shoes of Sehwag and Gambhir, Dhawan calmly replied he knew that people would immediately draw comparisons, but “Gautambhai and Virenderbhai have played for so many years and have done well for India. They have achieved whatever they have over a period of time. It doesn’t happen overnight.”
With the first day lost to rain, and Australia scoring 408 in their first innings, the result expected was a draw. But Dhawan changed all that. By the time Day Three was up, India had raced to 283/0 on the back of the debutant’s blistering 185.
The dream could, however, have just as easily turned into a nightmare.
The Indian openers had only one over to face before lunch on the third day. As Mitchell Starc ran in to bowl, the ball slipped out of his hand and dislodged the bails at the non-striker’s end where Dhawan was standing—outside the crease. This prompted Aussie skipper Michael Clarke to appeal, albeit jokingly. Dhawan too joked about it later. “I was laughing in the dressing room that when the ball hit the wicket, history could have been created…without facing a ball I would have been out,” he said.
During the lunch break, Sachin Tendulkar, who had given him his Test cap, told him something. “Sachinpaaji said, We all have known you as a gutsy player and you’ve been performing well in the domestic circuit, we’d like to see your gutsy nature and shots over here,” disclosed the debutant.
And gutsy it was. What the world saw after that break was something special. Something many had not seen till then. Something Dhawan had only dreamt of as he unleashed his range of strokes. Before the Aussie journalists in the press box could learn how to pronounce his name, the left-hander had completed his maiden half-century, in which 48 runs had been scored through boundaries. Twitter was abuzz with jokes on how he was giving Micky Arthur’s lads enough material to prepare another presentation for their homework.
His stunning playmaking had authority and class written all over it. The couple of pull shots, the attractive strokes through the covers and the occasional dab inside the 30-yard circle made many wonder where he had been till now. At 94, he charged down the track to Peter Siddle and edged one down to the fence. Later, he admitted his heart was in his mouth as he saw the ball fall between third slip and gully. “I was nervous, but you [journalists] didn’t realise it,” he said.
Nicknamed “Jatt” by his Delhi teammates because he is a Punjabi and also for taking hasty decisions, Dhawan nearly lived up to his reputation again on the fourth delivery of the same over. He dashed for an almost suicidal single, dived into the non-striker’s crease as the ball went for four overthrows. But now no one cared where the ball was. Dhawan had smashed a century—the fastest on debut, racing to 103 off 85 balls. He raised his arms, acknowledged the crowd and his teammates who were on their feet, cheering, and twirled his moustache, grinning broadly.
He broke a few records that day, one among them was of former India batsman Gundappa Vishwanath, who till now had the highest score by an Indian on debut with 137. On being asked later if he knew that he now holds this record, he smiled and nodded.
When the day ended he was batting on 185 along with Vijay, his more sedate partner, who had completed his half-century and ensured that India were 283 for no loss. They had also nearly ensured that the series was sealed though two more days of cricket were still left.
The Aussies were frustrated and their journalists wanted to know if he could in any way play for Australia. “Is it true you have an Australian wife?” asked one. “Yes, she’s half-Bengali, half-British. She lives in Melbourne. And I’ve got two daughters,” replied Dhawan.
Dhawan married Aesha Mukherjee late last year after the two struck up a friendship through a social networking site. After going back to the dressing room it was Aesha and his daughters (from Aesha’s first marriage) whom Dhawan first called. “They’ve been praying a lot for me back home. It’s a great moment for me and my family. I thank my wife and my kids,” he added.
So how did he feel about the transformation from a boy who threw away his chances to a man who grabbed them? “It was a very satisfying feeling. I still remember when I debuted for India in one-dayers and got out on zero against Australia. At that time, Dhonibhai and Raina told me that the players who have got out on zero for India on debut went on to play really well. This time I was nervous that it was again Australia on my Test debut, because I’d scored zero then. But everything went well and I was really happy that I grabbed this opportunity,” said a relieved Dhawan.
There is a saying in cricket that batsmen mature by the age of 27, which holds true in his case. “I was confident and ready for it. Had I got this chance some years back maybe I wouldn’t have succeeded as I was a little immature,” added the opener, who will be sitting out the fourth Test after injuring his left hand.
Former India wicketkeeper Dahiya, who, played for the state when Dhawan made his first-class debut and is the coach of the side now, explained one of the reasons for the left-hander’s success. “He maintains a diary of each innings he plays, notes down the bad shots he played, tries to work on those in the nets. This exercise was very painful initially but it has helped him improve a lot.”
Asked if captaining Delhi this season had helped Dhawan’s batting, Dahiya said, “I don’t know, but I feel players like him should just bat and not think about anything else. With captaincy some get tied down and he needs to express himself through his batting.”
MAN OF THE MOMENT
Meanwhile, all those who had seen him struggle basked in the glory of his achievement. His father, M.P. Dhawan, who runs a plastic jug manufacturing business, danced with his friends that night and was constantly on the phone, replying to the congratulatory messages pouring in. His proud mother, Sunaina, whom SI India spoke to over the phone, recalled how as a kid Dhawan loved flying kites. She said he would play almost every sport in his school, St. Mark’s in Paschim Vihar, but his love for cricket overshadowed all.
One of his coaches, Tarak Sinha, praised his discipline. “I knew that if he became a little disciplined, after getting set he could succeed at the international level,” he said.
Sinha explained that Dhawan’s bigger test would be in South Africa later this year. “If he can do well there, because he has done well in Australia in the emerging players tournament two years ago, then he will play at the top for a long time.”
Dahiya, however, feels it is too early to talk about the South Africa tour. “India is a very unforgiving nation. First, we compare a youngster to a successful player whom he is replacing, then we question his ability, then, if he does well, we immediately make comparisons and then doubt if he is going to succeed again. Sports is played in the present, so for now he should just be left alone and, hopefully, he will continue his good form in South Africa too.”
On the fourth morning of the Mohali Test, when Dhawan came out to bat, many hoped and some expected that he would become the first Indian opener to score a double century on debut. However, he could add only two to his overnight total of 185. Though he looked disappointed during the trudge back to the pavilion, Dhawan should be thrilled with
his achievement. After all, he has survived the long, hard road to glory. Shikhar Dhawan, in his own words, now has “new dreams for the future”.