Ever since he cracked 187 off 174 against Australia on Test debut in March, Shikhar Dhawan has been the hot topic for the year 2013. And he keeps doing stuff that keeps making him a hotter topic. Man of the Series in the Champions Trophy. Another hundred in Zimbabwe. Now, a 248 in a one-dayer in South Africa. How is he doing what he is doing? How is it different from what he was doing all those years in domestic cricket? How is it different from what he did when he first played for India in 2010? Two men who have watched him closely over the years say that mostly, it is all in the head. Call it what you want - frame of mind, confidence, temperament, mental strength, self-belief; Dhawan's positivity, along with improved shot selection, has translated into this extraordinary comeback, feel Vijay Dahiya and Lalchand Rajput.
Dahiya, the former India and Delhi wicketkeeper, knows Dhawan from his days in junior cricket. He has played with him and later coached him. Was Dhawan always special and just ignored or has something critical fallen into place? Dahiya says he has never come across this avatar of Dhawan before.
"I have not seen him batting before the way he is now, even in the nets," Dahiya told ESPNcricinfo. "That kind of batting display is just phenomenal. There is no comparison. Last year, he had a pretty mediocre Ranji season, if you go by the standards he is setting right now. [Dhawan made 461 runs in 11 innings] which I think is alright for an opener in Indian first-class cricket when you end up playing seven-eight games. He had a fantastic Challenger Trophy [a domestic one-day tournament]. But what he is doing right now is something really special."
After a short, unsuccessful stint with the Indian one-day team, Dhawan was out for a couple of years before the sensational Test debut against Australia. Lalchand Rajput, the former India batsman and now India A coach, says that one knock has generated so much confidence, it continues to feed itself and extend Dhawan's streak.
"One good innings against Australia in the Test match ... " Rajput said. "Cricket is a game of confidence. If you are confident, you bat like a dream. Plus, playing the way he did in England in the Champions Trophy ... He has gone from strength to strength and is batting at his peak now."
Dahiya concurs, saying not much has changed in terms of ability. "I think it is more mental," Dahiya said. "I'll say that skill-wise, he was the same. What I see now is that mentally he has become very strong. He is backing himself. He is extremely confident, which plays such an important role in any sport. He is playing all the shots against all bowlers in any conditions. That shows how confident he is.
"Every time you see him batting, it looks like a display of cricket intelligence. A lot of players who make runs sometimes end up playing shots as if they are millionaires and don't care about the value of their wickets. If you look at him, though, he is beautifully stretching his purple patch and making it count.
"Also, I don't think he is carrying any baggage. That is something you can't see from the outside yet - the baggage of expectations. Every time he goes out there, he starts beautifully, understands what is required, and goes on from there. He takes his time to build and then flourishes."
"I think it is more mental. I'll say that skill-wise, he was the same. What I see now is that mentally he has become very strong. He is backing himself. He is extremely confident, which plays such an important role in any sport. He is playing all the shots against all bowlers in any conditions. Shows how confident he is." Vijay Dahiya, the former India wicketkeeper
Rajput had witnessed a very different Dhawan from close quarters just a year ago, when he was coach on the A side's tour of the West Indies, where the opener averaged 7.50 in the unofficial Tests. Rajput believes Dhawan has used the time away from the national side to tighten his game.
"It is not only mental, it is about selecting the right balls [to go after] as well," Rajput said. "He has matured now and is never satisfied. He wants to do well every game. Look at his conversion rate. If he passes 50 or 60, he gets a hundred, in Champions Trophy, in Zimbabwe, now as well, big hundreds.
"In the West Indies [in 2012], he used to play too many shots too early, and as an opener, that is taking too much risk. He always had the shots but not the selection, but now he knows what shot to play and what to not play. He has really developed control over his off-side game."
Dhawan's form has lasted half a year now. How long before international bowlers find a chink somewhere? Dahiya does not think that moment, although inevitable, has arrived yet. "Everyone will always have shortcomings," Dahiya said. "It is for the opposition to figure them out. Right now, he has played against almost all the top sides and it does not look like people have sorted something out. We saw in Zimbabwe in one of the games he got out to a short ball but in the next game he was scoring off them. Again, I will say his frame of mind is brilliant right now."