Fearless Dhawan embraces his challenge
Twice during his innings Shikhar Dhawan escaped to the dressing room to relieve himself. Earlier, even before Morne Morkel had bowled the first ball of Champions Trophy, Dhawan had signalled the 12th man to fetch his elbow guard, which he had forgotten before walking in.
Those were the only times Dhawan looked unsettled on an otherwise glorious day where he played the situation better than any other batsman. Just like he had done in Mohali during his debut Test match, Dhawan opened his arms to embrace Cardiff and proudly celebrate his maiden ODI century.
In February, Dhawan sent a shudder through the world of cricket with the fastest century on Test debut, easily on the shortlist for the innings of the 21st century. It was an innings played with ferocious intensity where Dhawan never took his foot off the accelerator. Today was completely different.
Dhawan had scores of 1 and 17 in the two warm-up matches. This was the first time he was opening with Rohit Sharma, who himself had failed to get past single-digit scores in those two games in the past week. So both men had to fight their individual nerves even before they could face the short deliveries sent down by Morkel and Ryan McLaren.
Both men were hit, but both did not relent. The key was to leave the ball before they could start dictating their terms. In the first 10 overs India scored 53 for no loss. Although not sedate, it was a watchful beginning.
The challenge was to build on the start and both men helped the other by showing the keenness to rotate the strike. On the back of that good understanding, the pair managed to get past the 100-run mark, a feat not achieved since the Hamilton ODI in 2009 when Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag were involved in a 153-run opening stand. But when they finally seemed to have hit a confident stride, Rohit departed with a stroke that was an error in judgement.
But Dhawan hung in there and took advantage of the bad balls while imposing himself on unthreatening bowlers. Twice in Robin Peterson's second over he charged the left-arm spinner for confident fours. But the bowler he really felt comfortable against was Rory Kleinveldt. Numerous times Dhawan just walked out to swat, pull, hook, cut and loft Kleinveldt smartly, converting the bowler's aggression to his advantage.
One line of thought being suggested as to why Dhawan managed to prosper was the exaggerated use of the short-pitch ball by the South African bowlers and the other was the absence of Dale Steyn. While there is a merit in those points it is equally important to recognize Dhawan's talent and the supreme confidence he has at the moment.
Dhawan was forced to miss the final Test of the Australia series and the first half of the IPL, where he plays for Sunrisers Hyderabad, due to a finger injury sustained during the Mohali Test. But he made an instant impact on his comeback, ending up as the best batsman for Sunrisers, and in the top 20 for IPL, in his 10 matches. His success played an important role in Sunrisers entering the play-offs as the fourth team.
It is his bravado that makes Dhawan stand out. Being fearless was the basis of Sehwag's greatness and Dhawan plays the same brand of cricket. He does not have the gifted hand-eye coordination of Sehwag, but Dhawan has the courage. The courage to constantly walk out of his crease, to tease the bowler and tempt him to either attack him or force a change of line. And he has the flair. On 94, when Kleinveldt pitched on a good length and moved away from off stump, Dhawan went on the back foot to place a delicate cut between gully and deep point for a classy four.
AB de Villiers, who was Dhawan's team-mate at Delhi Daredevils in the IPL, said that he was not surprised at Dhawan's development. "He has got the whole package and I am sure he'll get better as his career goes along. He is a good player."
Yet Dhawan will agree that he is very new and soon teams will work him out. He is riding the wave of success at the moment and is on a high. Also this pitch was, barring the bounce it possessed, completely in favour of the batsmen. If they resisted anything silly they could convert the starts into big scores like Dhawan managed. But Dhawan also knows his back-foot play still is not convincing. His default trigger movement is to go forward and play the ball on the rise. And he is not afraid. But a good bowler can take advantage and in moving conditions that kind of technique could be fatal.
For now Dhawan is basking in his, and India's, success. He has the time to erase the grey areas one by one. And he is not worried for now. Asked to explain his cheerful personality on the pitch, Dhawan simply said: "Enjoy watching my partner's batting. Enjoy running between the wickets. Enjoy taking the pressure."
His team-mates, too, cannot thank him enough. As soon as Morkel, the final South African wicket, was bowled, Suresh Raina ran from long-on to long-off and hugged Dhawan. Virat Kohli, a good friend of Dhawan, plucked a stump and handed it to him.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo