Dhawan finally curbs aggressive instinct

Shikhar Dhawan goes on the attack Associated Press

On the final afternoon of the first Test at Eden Park, a vocal group of Indian fans started shouting, imploring Shikhar Dhawan to twirl his moustache.

Dhawan had come up to the players' lounge after falling for 115 to a brute from Neil Wagner. Although he had become only the fourth Indian opener to have made a hundred in the fourth innings of a Test, his team eventually slipped from a strong position to lose the contest. Many players would just have brooded over the dismissal and would not have heeded to the fans. But Dhawan instantly obliged the fans with what they wanted.

We have come to expect that ready, carefree style from Dhawan. That is the way he carries himself, that is the way he bats. He has developed too much self-belief to let reputations or situations bother him too much.

You need to have self-belief to survive so long in first-class cricket when others don't have enough faith in you to provide you the international call-up. When it finally comes, after more than eight years of domestic grind, your self-belief has to border on the ridiculous for you to crack 187 off 174 on your Test debut.

But just self-belief won't do in international cricket. The world saw the talent Dhawan had, and that he had the confidence to back it. But did he have the other abilities that is critical to build on a heady debut? Did he have the willingness to abandon his aggression when the situation demanded patience? Could he pay some respect to bowlers when needed? Could he tighten up his game to play long innings as a Test opener?

A highest of 29 in two Tests in South Africa on his first away tour did not suggest that. A third-ball duck in the first innings in Auckland only added to the doubts. He was too eager to pull, pushed with hard hands, was neither forward nor back and couldn't adjust his approach. He had only one gear, and the questions were understandably piling up.

Dhawan went a long way in answering them with a fourth-innings century. Yes, the Eden Park pitch hadn't deteriorated much, and he was dropped fifth ball. But that should not take away anything from the significance of his feat. That only three other Indian openers before him have achieved this landmark before him goes to show the enormity of his effort.

India know now that Dhawan can alter his game for long periods at the highest level. That is a very satisfying thing to find out about your Test opener. At Eden Park, Dhawan did all that does not come naturally to him. He resisted the temptation to pull, choosing to duck instead. He resisted the temptation to cut with since catchers were posted behind point, choosing to leave the deliveries alone instead. And he did this for more than five hours.

He showed he was skilled enough to still score at a decent rate. He rode the bounce and guided and nudged behind point rather than slashing wildly. He played the drive and the clip when he had the length and the reach. And when he fell, it was to a special delivery rather than an injudicious shot.

It is a tricky balance to achieve for aggressive players such as Dhawan. You don't want to be too reckless, but you don't want to let go of too many scoring opportunities as well. You can feel there is no point standing out there for 100 deliveries and falling for 35 when you know you can go after the bowling and score more in much lesser time. But fail that, and you also know the questions will pile up further.

MS Dhoni felt Dhawan had attained that balance without over-analysing and getting too hard on himself after being left out for the fourth ODI. "What was important was his approach," Dhoni said. "Because at times, you start thinking too much. That was the reason we gave him rest in that particular ODI. We wanted him to have a clear mind. Before that game, he got 35-40 odd runs [28] and it is always better if you have scored runs and then you give the individual a bit of a rest to think. If you have not scored, then you tend to be in a negative frame of mind. Maybe that rest helped him to some extent.

"In the second innings he was very calm and composed, batted the way it was needed, scored patiently. That was the reason he got a big hundred, and hopefully, it will really boost up his confidence and help him keep going and not let him think in the negative direction."

The doubts from outside have receded, at least for the time being. Much tougher tours, starting with the one in England, lie in wait. But Auckland has suggested Dhawan can cut it at Test level.