Playing his first first-class match in more than 15 months, Shikhar Dhawan might have been forgiven for feeling he was still in England. On a cold Delhi day, he was asked to bat against the seaming ball in nightmarish conditions for top-order batsmen. Dhawan, coming back from an injury, brought all his experience to rescue Delhi from 4 for 2 with an unbeaten 137 scored at a strike rate of close to 70. The persistence of a Test attack was missing, but the conditions called for Dhawan to respect the challenge.
Hyderabad's three-man pace attack - Mohammed Siraj, left-arm quick Chama Milind and M Ravi Kiran - tested the batsmen through the day, taking six Delhi wickets in 66 overs. The next best score was 29. Given the conditions, given the presence of Ishant Sharma in Delhi's attack, Dhawan felt they already might have enough because at one point even 200 had looked like a fighting score.
For Dhawan, set to be back with the India limited-overs squad, it was a satisfying innings because he could use his experience for his first first-class score of 50 or more in 18 months. "With experience, you get an idea what shots to play on which kind of track," Dhawan said. "I hardly played any drives against the fast bowlers. For long parts I played what we call box cricket: play at balls only close to the body. When I was a 20-year-old boy like the other Delhi youngsters, even I used to play the drive in these conditions."
Dhawan did play an injudicious drive, on 67 off Kiran, but was reprieved by what turned out to be a no-ball. It was critical, though, that he had got himself in when he tried those shots.
The most successful bowler for Hyderabad, though, was left-arm spinner Mehdi Hassan, who managed to extract uneven bounce from the pitch. Dhawan said he was itching to hit him out of the attack, but when he looked at the situation - 47 for 3 and 100 for 4 - he had to restrict himself. He did hit two sixes, though, off the other left-arm spinner, T Thyagarajan. That brought up his century moments before tea, much to the pleasure of the small but loud crowd enjoying Dhawan's batting and some sun amid icy cold winds.
The Feroz Shah Kotla crowd is well known for its quips to players, most of which come from its knowledge of the game and awareness of current affairs. When Dhawan reached his fifty, the chant from the crowd was, "KL Rahul se zyada maar lay." The crowd was asking Dhawan to score more than KL Rahul, well aware that in Dhawan's absence, Rahul has made a strong case for himself as the limited-overs opener.
Dhawan, a good friend of Rahul, with whom he has opened in Tests before, said he wasn't thinking of his India spot. "I had nothing on my mind," Dhawan said. "What has to come to you will come to you. I am a very relaxed person, and I don't burden my mind with extra thoughts. The way you guys think, I don't think like that."
For the Delhi crowd, there is more fun in offer as on days two and three Ishant Sharma will look to seal a first-innings lead for the home team. The presence of the two stalwarts has helped Delhi after a lacklustre start to the season. Dhawan said he has made an effort to sit down with the batsmen and share his experiences with them. And he said Sharma was doing the same with the bowlers.