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Analysis

Does Shikhar Dhawan need to free himself of the shackles of batting long?

While his slow start didn't hurt Punjab Kings on the night, it could go very wrong at other times - as his predecessors at the franchise would attest to

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
06-Apr-2023
Wins matter. And when a side, especially one as inconsistent as Punjab Kings have been in the IPL, wins two in a row to begin a new season, it's likely there will be cause for celebration, as there should be.
But it's also likely that at some stage there could be quiet introspection about whether Kings were below-par. And if Shikhar Dhawan's 86 off 56, which looks heaps better than the run-a-ball 30 that he was on after 11 overs, could've become a talking point.
Did Kings under-achieve by getting 197 on a surface where 220 seemed about par, considering there was "considerable dew" right from the start, as per Sanju Samson the Rajasthan Royals captain?
There was skid off the pitch that took the spinners out of the equation because it was increasingly difficult to grip the ball, and the straight and square boundaries on one side were less than 60 metres.
It can look like finger-pointing, but Dhawan's knock had its gears and phases. Sure, the argument is when one batter is swinging for the hills and connecting with everything, as Prabhsimran Singh did in racing to his maiden IPL half-century off just 28 balls, it was a prudent call to knuckle down and play second fiddle.
But the question remains: could Dhawan have shown a little more urgency early on?
"I think when Prabhsimran was going so well, he knew he could take his time and play second fiddle," batting coach Wasim Jaffer said. "That's where experience counts. When Prabhsimran got out, he took charge and batted through the innings.
"We wanted one of the top three to bat through the 20 overs, and he did exactly that. He picked up his strike rate a lot better in the second half. Somebody as experienced as him knows to pace his innings and he did exactly that."
Dhawan began to take on the attack in the 12th over; the first sign of real aggression was when he stepped out to hit Yuzvendra Chahal down the ground for six. Heaves to the short leg-side boundary off Chahal would also bring him back-to-back boundaries off Chahal's next over, the 14th. It also brought Dhawan his 50th half-century in the IPL, which puts him third behind David Warner and Virat Kohli.
Between 2018 and 2020, when Dhawan had his best years, scoring nearly 500 runs every season in the tournament, there was a tempo to his batting in the powerplay that was unmissable. But since 2021, his scoring rate in the first six, especially, has been on the decline.
In 2021, he went at 119.48 after facing 231 deliveries. Last year, it was 116.90 across 207 deliveries. This year, he's made 29 off 25 balls in this phase. And because he's started cautiously, Dhawan has felt the need to innovate in the latter half. Like play scoops and switch-hits to fast bowlers, like he repeatedly attempted on Wednesday night with varying degrees of success.
"If Royals had got there, you're looking at those five overs he faced for a run-a-ball," Tom Moody told ESPNcricinfo's T20 Time:Out. "In those conditions, you can excuse a run-a-ball if there's swing or if the wicket is a bit slow. Then it's fine. Because you're building a base. But clearly it was a perfect surface to just stand and deliver, and to be brave and play those big shots.
"Which we saw with Prabhsimran, who flat-batted Trent Boult twice and went over mid-off. When you're chasing, and there's dew, it's a small ground and a belter, you need 220. I think it was more a case of he was feeding strike to the batter that was going, but conditions commanded that it was a case of 'we need to go' and just not 'you need to go'. That was the difference."
Watching him bat, you couldn't help but wonder if he's putting himself under the same pressure his predecessors at the franchise did. KL Rahul cited a weak middle order as one of the reasons for his conservatism, something former head coach Anil Kumble has pointed to several times since. Mayank Agarwal too seemingly felt burdened by captaincy and was saved the embarrassment of being left out only because he was the designated captain.
Kings have now put their trust in Dhawan to lead a resurrection of the team's fortunes. They don't have gun batter Jonny Bairstow for the season. And it's not clear how long Liam Livingstone, who's still making his way back to full fitness, will be unavailable for.
When they find themselves challenged a lot more, Dhawan will be in the spotlight. If he can free himself of the shackles and play without worrying about batting long, it could help Kings put themselves in a position where they can aspire to finally break their playoffs drought.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo