Shikhar takes the stage
Before reprising Shikhar Dhawan's 187, let's look at what brought him to Mohali and that perfect day. An innings of incandescence was crafted out of more than Dhawan's wagon-wheely repertoire of strokes that day. It also belonged to his seasons in the shadows and a first-class career of not much distinction.
Everyone inside Indian cricket knew enough about Dhawan. He had been around for so long that he had steadily moved towards becoming a "domestic veteran", that nebulous category somewhere between nobility and furniture. The wild-child moments that had marked his teenage kept cropping up as he grew older. To average in the low-to-mid-40s for most of his first-class career became, in many ways, Dhawan's calling card. It led to a blurring of the progress he had made in his last two seasons.
It was during those two seasons that Dhawan found the discipline and consistency required to remain noticed through domestic cricket: in 18 first-class matches in India before his Test debut, he scored six centuries and five fifties; he averaged 63.90 in 2012-13.
Yet even when he was picked for the Test team, Dhawan's back story was always going to be that of the junior World Cup star left behind by his peers. He was out for a duck on ODI debut in October 2010, and managed only 69 in four ODIs in the West Indies after the 2011 World Cup. The player of the tournament in the Under-19 World Cup in Dhaka 2004 had been overtaken in Tests, ODIs and T20Is by Suresh Raina, Robin Uthappa, Dinesh Karthik and RP Singh, to name a few.
Dhawan came around on the selectoral conveyor belt again, because India needed an emphatic victory over the touring Australians to recover from their home series defeat to England about three months before. Australia trailed 0-2 in a four-Test series going into Mohali. "Selective watering" and spinners' lovelies had worked in Chennai and Hyderabad, but India's openers had scored 11, 16 and 17 in three innings.
Despite the Homeworkgate disarray, and the loss of an entire day's play to rain, Australia had scored 408 in their first innings. Their last three wickets had put up 157, after their lower-middle order caved in the space of five overs. On a grassless Mohali pitch, 400 was not monumental, but it was on the more flattering side of modest.
It was here that Dhawan turned up, as a replacement not merely for another Delhi opener but for the greatest and most influential one the city had produced - Virender Sehwag. Had he taken his time to find his feet in some very distinctively shaped boots, people would have understood. Instead, Mr Moustache, Rat-Tail hairdo and Tattoo Riot made an entrance that would have had Bollywood star children burning with envy.
He stepped out on stage and burnt up the floor.
The plot, though, began with a little twist. India came in to bat just before lunch on the third morning for a single over, and Dhawan, the non-striker, wandered out of his crease and got himself Mankaded when the ball slipped out of Mitchell Starc's hand as he ran in to bowl, and hit the stumps with Dhawan well short of his ground. Australia captain Michael Clarke made a few humorous third-umpire signals, but had the Australians really appealed, there is no knowing how the umpires would have interpreted the Mankading law.
There is no knowing whether the incident and the lunch break that followed focused Dhawan's mind. What is certain, though, is that when he returned, he batted like a left-handed version of undiluted intent. The significance of the occasion was dramatically dwarfed by the fundamental lesson of batsmanship: see the ball, hit the ball. Viru would have approved.
It produced the fastest Test century by a debutant (off 85 balls), and the highest score by an Indian Test debutant (beating GR Viswanath's 137 against Australia in Kanpur, in 1969). Other than a crazy single he took to get from 99 to 100, Dhawan's innings was about ownership and belonging. He owned Mohali, owned the bowling, and hammered home the message that he belonged in an Indian Test XI.
For a player best known for his creamy cover drives and showman's love for stepping out and slicing into lengths, the pace of Dhawan's innings belonged to pure calculus. He attacked, but until he reached his century did so in the old-fashioned way: along the ground, using eyes, hands, feet and timing to drill his way through gaps and to speed past fielders who believed they had the angles covered. It was low-risk execution in high-quality strokeplay, with the percentages on his side.
Australia had good reason to attack, with a total of 400 plus behind them; it was the speed of Dhawan's innings and the velocity of his shot-making that led to their dismantling. In a little over an hour of the second session of play, Dhawan had made 50 off 50 balls, his aggression bursting over Australian purpose like a torrential downpour.
On the front foot, Dhawan was assured, his bat carving up large wodges of a packed off-side field like a giant cake being devoured in public. When it was pitched short by the quick bowlers, either to his hips or his ribs, he was quick to play the pull all through the leg-side arc. He sized up the pace off the wicket and even reeled a few off his front foot. The spinners came on as early as the tenth over and Nathan Lyon, Xavier Doherty and Steve Smith were turned into fossil fuel. He used his feet, opened the face of the bat, paddled, reverse-paddled, cut, drove, inside out, on the up.
Dhawan's second fifty came in 35 balls, and it took him 12 balls to go from 61 to 91. Xavier Doherty, hit for 18 off an over, returning only 20 overs later. The moment of madness came on 99, when Dhawan dive-crashed into his crease to complete a single and was rewarded with five overthrows.
After his century - 84 runs scored in boundaries - he opted for a more adventurous gear, choosing to loft the ball, landing the spinners into the stands, this time well aware of when to set the wild child free. After a little over two hours, his muscle memory had grooved into smooth judgement and movement.
What will always be called Dhawan's Day ended with India at 283 for no loss, scoring at close to five an over. Australia's total of 400 had shrunk in a two-session fireworks display. It was a large-hearted innings at a masterful tempo and it took India to a position from where they could control the remaining two days of the Test and win the series. He would only score two more runs on day four, but the impact of his innings would have a ripple effect.
Dhawan may play many better innings in far tougher situations and against superior opposition, but the 187 will always be his signature innings, the one that switched his calling card for good. It will always remain for Shikhar Dhawan a cricketing twirl of his unmistakeable moustache.