In scoring his maiden Twenty20 international fifty, Shikhar Dhawan has placed one of the final pieces in the jigsaw of India's World T20 team. Do not go by India's score, Ranchi was a tacky surface where the ball did not come on to the bat. Around Dhawan, two other top-order batsmen just about to managed to stay around a run a ball.
Dhawan scored 51 at more than two runs a ball. More than that number, though, and more than the fact that he might put to rest some of the concerns about his T20 batting, it was striking how fluently he played through the leg side, scoring 27 runs in seven shots into that region.
For long, Dhawan has been a batsman bowlers have tried to tuck up because while he is a master through the off side, he tends to get cramped when looking to put balls away off the pads. Recently, though, he has put this into the past tense a bit. One of the more remarkable aspects of India's batsmen over the recent years has been that they have kept evolving, not shying from introducing new shots or making technical changes even during a series. Dhawan, too, has slowly added leg-side play to his game over the last year or so.
It was most striking in Dhawan's hundred in Canberra last month. In his century during the chase, Dhawan scored 55 off 27 shots. These numbers do not include the dot balls, which make them a slightly skewed measure, but the fact is he is playing more shots on the leg side. Two of the more notably fruitful shots have been the slog and the sweep. Today, he played the slog for a six off Thisara Perera, and also swept Sachithra Senanayake for a six pretty early into his spell.
Dhawan is clearly not the classic on-driver, but he has found a way around it. In ODIs since April 2015, Dhawan has been hitting a boundary per 5.71 shots through the leg side, which is better than 6.3 until then. In T20 cricket, that rate has improved from 4.3 to 3.9.
Thisara, who took a hat-trick later in the innings, said the plan was to cramp Dhawan up, but the batsman was equal to it. Not to mention the bowlers did not quite execute the plan well enough. "We tried to cramp him up, but this time he played really well," Thisara said. "But the thing is our bowlers didn't bowl well also."
"Dhawan was playing proper shots, but at the same time whenever he got boundaries, if the ball was not there he was not hitting it" MS Dhoni
MS Dhoni said Dhawan has been in the form that has been putting pressure on the bowlers, which increases the number of the kind of mistakes Thisara mentioned. "He is playing proper shots," Dhoni said. "At the same time he is not trying to over-hit. The good thing with him is he is getting a boundary in the first couple of balls in the over so that he doesn't need to take the risk later. The good thing especially about today's innings is something he has done brilliantly: if there is an opportunity to hit one more boundary he is playing to his strengths.
"At times in the shorter format when you get boundaries you often try to be always in the fifth gear. What is important is to see how many runs are good enough. If you have already got 10 runs in the over, 12 in an over, and if the ball is not there, you don't really need to manufacture a shot. Everybody has shots that are their good shots, that they can always play. He doesn't need to manufacture shots. This is what he did really well.
"He was playing proper shots, but at the same time whenever he got boundaries, if the ball was not there he was not hitting it. But if it was there, even if it was the fifth or the sixth ball of the over, he was playing whichever his strength is. This is very important in the shorter format, and he has been doing it really well. More often than not as an opener you have to take the risk but once it pays off it is important to go back and play your natural game. At the same time if the ball is there, because there is pressure on the bowler to execute their plans."
The six off Thisara is an illustration of Dhoni's assessment. It came off the last ball of the second over, when Dhawan need not really have taken the risk, but he saw the ball on the pads and made the statement. Then, in the fourth over, Dhwwan kept going after Kasun Rajitha because he kept getting the balls that could be hit for boundaries without taking too big a risk.
His task now is to repeat it against better and more experienced attacks who will not be this easy to put under pressure.