Shikhar Dhawan is struggling. It is obvious. MS Dhoni has been dropping hints that a break might do him good, but Rohit Sharma's injury - and just seven batsmen in a squad of 17 - meant Dhawan got another chance in Sydney. We didn't get enough play to constitute a match, which meant India stayed alive in the tournament, but it was time enough for Dhawan to play a poor stroke and get out for his fourth straight single-figure score on the tour. In nine international innings on this tour he has scored only one half-century, and that, it can be argued, came in the second innings in Brisbane when all had been lost.
The joke doing the rounds is, India should just fake a Dhawan injury and sneak a replacement in. That thankfully, to Dhoni's mind, is just a joke. Melbourne was Dhawan's first failure in this triangular. This is what Dhoni had to say when asked if Dhawan's form was bothering him: "If after each match, we keep changing people's career and slots, after each match we will have to make a lot of changes in the team. We will have to be patient. I am not sure about the statistics but I have felt that the openers have been doing a good job. They did well in the Champions Trophy. There will be the odd series here and there where, when you are playing the best bowlers in the world in helpful conditions, we will lose the odd wicket. But overall I am quite happy with their performance."
The statistics to support Dhoni's point might have been Dhawan's last few scores in ODIs. Starting with the New Zealand tour last year, Melbourne was only Dhawan's third single-figure ODI score. Only Hashim Amla and Tillakaratne Dilshan scored more runs than Dhawan as an opener in 2014. Dilshan took seven innings more. Amla, in the same number of innings as Dhawan, scored 892 at a strike rate of 80.57 to Dhawan's 815 at 86.51. Four of Dhawan's 18 innings came in New Zealand, another four in England.
India seem to have recognised Dhawan as someone whom they need to give time off now and then to rediscover his touch. Under Dhoni they have become a side that batsmen find it more difficult to get into than get out of. Yet Dhawan has been dropped three times in about one year. That was nothing compared to the rope Gautam Gambhir, Virender Sehwag, Suresh Raina and Rohit got. In New Zealand Dhawan was left out for the fifth ODI, after which Dhawan came back with a century and a 90 in the Tests. In England they left him out for the last two Tests for Gambhir who was in worse form, and he returned with scores of 11, 16, 97 not out and 31 in the ODIs. Here they left him out of the Sydney Test, but the tide hasn't turned.
The ball is bouncing here. Australia have bowled well to him. James Anderson bowled an absolute peach to him in Brisbane, which would have got quite a few good left-hand batsmen out. On other occasions Dhawan hasn't helped himself. His habit of staying leg side of the ball was going to land him in trouble some day. His strength was going to become his weakness some day. That day has arrived. Against a bowler of Ryan Harris' craft and perseverance he was a sitting duck. Both his inside and outside edges were under fire. Now is the time Dhawan has to show he can work on his game and face this challenge at a crucial time for his career and his team.
Dhawan has earned the rope. He was the Man of the Tournament in Champions Trophy. He averages 43 in ODI cricket at a strike rate of 90. It is just that the timing of this slump is inconvenient for India. And that tough questions are being asked of his style of play. At a time when two balls are being used in an ODI innings, which calls for more solid techniques at the start of the innings. It has been a long tour for India, their squad selection has left little room for playing around with batting combinations, and at times like these failure begins begetting failure.
This can also be a time when that little luck needed deserts you. When Dhawan came back previously, he benefitted from a few dropped catches. Here in Australia he has been given out once when he wasn't, he has injured himself minutes before going out to resume the innings he looked at his best in, his attempts to flash at the ball have brought about edges not thick enough to avoid slips, and he has got a few lovely deliveries to boot.
Rohit was having a knock at the SCG this afternoon. If he regains his fitness by January 30, India might just give Dhawan a break to sort his game out a little before the World Cup. They could go the route of backing him in the triangular too, and give him the freedom to hit out - like Adam Gilchrist used to when not in form, Dhoni remarked after the Brisbane game against England. There is anyway going to be a break between the triangular and the World Cup.
Whatever they do India haven't left themselves many options. They are carrying one specialist opener in their squad, and he is out of form. There is only one reserve batsman in the squad, who is not looking at home at No. 3. He is batting at No. 3 because the opener out of form is getting out early, and the team has decided to not send out their best batsman at 3 should a wicket fall early. If not in Perth, India will need Dhawan to open the innings later in their World Cup defence.
Now it's up to Dhawan to find answers. He has Duncan Fletcher - acknowledged as the world's best when working at batting techniques - and Ravi Shastri to work with. The challenge is simple: find a way to become more solid outside off without losing the attacking flair that the team thrives on. No pressure, Shikhar.