The Insider

What's Shikhar Dhawan's problem?

He goes through long barren patches between big scores. Can he change his technique without harming his fast-paced batting?

Aakash Chopra
Aakash Chopra
Dhawan is strong on the off side but suspect when the ball is swinging or seaming  •  Getty Images

Dhawan is strong on the off side but suspect when the ball is swinging or seaming  •  Getty Images

After the first Test in Mohali I asked people on Twitter whether Shikhar Dhawan should be picked for the second Test. The results didn't surprise me. About 70% of the voters wanted him out of the playing XI following his two ducks in the match. Since Dhawan had a middling ODI series leading up to the Tests, I could understand why public sentiment was against him. But it was worth noting that his two successive Test centuries before the Mohali Test had been forgotten easily.
Yes, Dhawan was fortunate to find a place in the XI against Bangladesh in Fatullah, but you can't penalise him for good luck. He scored a quick-fire century there and then made a patient hundred on a slightly tricky surface in Galle, playing with a fractured right hand.
Dhawan's Test average of 42.96 after 17 matches is quite healthy for an opener. In 29 innings he has scored four hundreds and two half-centuries - that's a big score every five innings. His career strike rate of 64 doesn't accurately reflect the way he bats or his ability to control the game.
Without his booming drives, he will be half the player he is. He could try getting closer to the ball with both body and head, but that's likely to affect his stroke-making
Considering all these attributes, Dhawan should and will feature quite prominently in Virat Kohli's Test team. So is the Indian public too harsh on him or is there another side to his story?
Dhawan replaced Virender Sehwag in the Test team against Australia, in Mohali in 2013, and his 187 at quicker than a run a ball made people draw comparisons with the man he replaced.
For a while everyone believed that Dhawan had made the transition to Test cricket seamlessly. Time is of essence in Test cricket and anyone who can bat fast and still score big is valued, for he gives your bowlers crucial time to take 20 wickets. Sehwag did that and influenced more Test match results than any other Indian player of his era, which included Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman.
Dhawan's initial burst ignited similar hopes. But an untimely injury in the debut game forced him to wait for over six months for his next Test. In the interim he kept piling on runs in ODIs. Dhawan's next Test century came seven innings later, in Auckland. He followed it up with 98 in the next Test, in in Wellington.
Finding form is crucial to your existence as a batsman, but holding on to good form is just as critical. While Dhawan's ability to convert fifties into hundreds is enviable, he often goes through long barren patches in between - he managed only one 50-plus score in the following 13 innings and was dropped twice in between. However, we must remember that these were tough overseas assignments. It's never easy to be an opener in such conditions.
Perhaps one of the problems Dhawan is facing is how he gets dismissed. He is the perfect example of how a batsman's strength can also be his weakness.
Unlike a lot of left-handers, Dhawan is stronger on the off side. His strength is his longish front-foot stride and ability to drive through the covers-mid-off region. Since most new-ball bowlers bowl full and in the channel outside off, they end up bowling to his strengths; not even a hit to the head from a bouncer the previous delivery deters him from his front-foot play.
Dhawan isn't weak on the leg side but he prefers to stay inside the line of the ball to free his arms for his off-side play. That becomes a problem if the ball is moving in the air and off the seam. Staying inside the line works on flat pitches and in the limited-overs formats, but it brings about your downfall in testing conditions.
The other notable facet of his off-side play is that he stays upright while hitting the ball, which, combined with his long front-foot stride means his head is rarely on top of his front foot, and so he's relatively far away from the ball when he hits it.
It might have been more manageable if he was a middle-order batsman, but since he's an opener he'll be tested in that corridor very often. In theory it's a lot easier to just leave everything outside off and force bowlers to bowl closer to you, like Alastair Cook does, but for Dhawan that would mean compromising on his strengths. Without his booming drives, he will be half the player he is. He could try getting both body and head closer to the ball, but that's likely to affect his stroke-making.
Also, the ability to score fast is useful on pitches where the match is likely to last five days. India's last four home Test matches (barring the washout in Bangalore) finished inside three days. On such pitches, it's only about scoring and not about the strike rate.
Dhawan's Test average of 42 demands patience from the selectors and the fans, but he will also have to take steps towards addressing his dismissal issues.

Aakash Chopra is the author of three books, the latest of which is The Insider: Decoding the craft of cricket. @cricketaakash