Shikhar Dhawan causes a stir well before he picks up his bat. The 'tache, tattoo, earring and rat-tail hairdo mark him out as someone teetering between character and cliche. To an English audience seeing him for the first time in 2013, he might have looked like a stereotype on legs: the 21st-century IPL cricketer, flush with affluence, attitude and a short attention span.
Yet at the crease Dhawan transcends caricature and, with nuanced but bold strokes, creates a memorable portrait of his batsmanship, as he did for a few weeks in the English summer. India's tour of England in 2011 had been miserable. In four Tests, the treats offered by their greatest generation of batsmen ran out quickly. And in the one-day series, their status as World Cup winners was diluted by weather and perverse twists of fortune.
Two years later, under the slate-grey sky of what Cardiff calls summer, Dhawan and Rohit Sharma arrived to open the Champions Trophy, with Dhawan sparkling in a century partnership against South Africa. It was the first time in two years that any opening pair had raised a hundred against their one-day attack. They were without Dale Steyn, but Morne Morkel, Lonwabo Tsotsobe, Rory Kleinveldt and Ryan McLaren bowled under the new rules, with a new ball at each end. They chose to pelt down the short stuff and, after biding his time, Dhawan - a cutlass-wielding, left-handed pirate - broke free, finishing with 114 from 94 balls.
The measured assault became his signature approach throughout the tournament, in which he followed that hundred against South Africa with another against West Indies, then gave India the starts they needed in the semi-final against Sri Lanka and the final against England. The pitches turned out to be drier than the Indians had expected, and Dhawan cashed in.
He shook off a blow on the helmet from McLaren, charged out to the quick bowlers to disturb their length and composure, and sliced and diced portions of the ground by piercing gaps and slapping the ball over deep fielders' heads and flailing arms. It wasn't some reckless hit-and-run: he had prepared well. "Before coming to England, I practised leaving the ball a lot," he says. "I knew that the new rules would make opening in ODIs more of a challenge." They did, but two new balls also helped provide bounce and pace for his favourite cuts and pulls.
Tall, lean, and with an upright, still stance, Dhawan is always looking to create scoring opportunities, either via the conventional route - with creamy cover-drives and a tight follow-through - or through the improvisational approach, stepping out to loft between extra cover and long-off, and leaning back to slash over the slips. In the Champions Trophy, Dhawan's eye-catching 363 runs at 90, with a strike-rate of 101, made him top-scorer and Man of the Tournament. It was the second time he had been named player of an international series, after an Under-19 World Cup. But that was in 2003-04. The promise would not come to fruition for almost a decade.
Born on December 5, 1985, in Delhi, the new millennium's crucible of Indian batting, Shikhar Dhawan scored a century on his club debut at the age of 13 for Sonnet CC. Junior success, however, was followed by a long, bumpy grind in the relative anonymity of first-class cricket. Much of it had to do with his own inconsistency: he would throw his wicket away after good starts, and always verged on indiscretion. Others from that junior World Cup class, such as Suresh Raina, Robin Uthappa, Dinesh Karthik and R. P. Singh, leapt ahead, and it seemed Dhawan had slipped from the selectors' attention. He was given a single one-day international during the run-up to the 2011 World Cup, and four more in the West Indies after it, but could total just 69 in those five.
Yet it was, he says, time spent on the domestic circuit, and a patchy run in 2011-12 following his indifferent showing for India, that gave him the resources and strength to return with his most prolific first-class performance a season later. "This is a race which never ends," Dhawan says. ''We never know whose day it is going to be today, whose day it is going to be tomorrow. I always had the belief that I can come back with one good season."
In 2012-13, his ninth season in the first-class game, Dhawan scored 833 domestic runs at 55, with four hundreds. The weight of those runs had him picked for the Third Test against Australia, replacing - of all people - Virender Sehwag, the original 21st-century Delhi swashbuckler. In Mohali, with India 2-0 up, Dhawan scored a startling century off 85 deliveries, the fastest recorded by any debutant. In his sprint to the hundred, he didn't hit a ball in the air. But his race was far from over.
The difference between two seasons, those around him say, is a growing awareness of his game, and maturity after marriage. Dhawan agrees: "I felt bad that my results in 2011-12 had been due to mistakes rather than anything else. God has gifted me talent, and still I had such an average season. So I practised hard and worked on the mental side of my game." It meant keeping notes on every innings, and working through shot selection options with video footage.
Dhawan has remained grateful for the grind that preceded his rather dramatic 2013. "Domestic cricket is very challenging," he says. "We play on every kind of pitch - green seamers, turners, and we'll get maybe two good batting tracks. In seven Ranji games per year, that's a very good mix." It is why, he argues, Delhi has produced all-wicket batsmen over the last decade.
Just before the start of the 2012-13 season, Dhawan took what was considered a radical step in conservative India. He married Aesha Mukherjee, an amateur boxer brought up in Australia, and a mother of two from a previous marriage. He says his wife "has turned my life around. I think she loves cricket more than me, and just wants me to be my best."
Shikhar Dhawan, a quietly spoken 28-year-old, has lived and played his way past the tattoos, the hairdo and the moustache he twirls with pride. In an unpredictable future, the same things could work for him both at the crease and away from it: natural balance and a steady head.