Shikhar Dhawan's knock underlines his value in India's ODI side
On a sluggish wicket, he scored 79 off 84 to keep India on track in the chase and showed he can still thrive under pressure
"Champions thrive under pressure." That was Shikhar Dhawan's message to India's Under-19 cricketers ahead of their World Cup campaign in the West Indies. Having struck three centuries in the 2004 edition of the tournament, Dhawan knows what it takes to perform there. But he could have used the same words to motivate himself too.
At 36, Dhawan is in the twilight of his career. Last July, he led a second-string Indian side to Sri Lanka and hoped to utilise the tour to make his place "stronger" for the 2021 T20 World Cup. Dhawan has stepped up his T20 game in the last couple of years, but the selectors preferred Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul and Ishan Kishan as their openers for the global tournament.
One justification behind Dhawan's exclusion could have been that a top three of Rohit, Dhawan and Virat Kohli makes the T20I side too anchor heavy. When Chetan Sharma, the chairman of selectors, was asked about it, he said, "He is a very important player for us... The need of the hour was that we wanted to look at other players while we give rest to Dhawan."
Make of it what you will but the bottom line is ODIs is now the only format Dhawan finds a place in. But in stand-in captain Rahul's words, Dhawan was "in a great space" coming into the South Africa series.
"He's a senior player, he understands exactly what is expected of him," Rahul said on the eve of the first ODI. "He has come out here and is really having fun, really enjoying his cricket. For me as a captain, it will just be about trying to keep him in that space, and give him that confidence and freedom to go out there and do what he has been doing for so many years."
On Wednesday, Dhawan did exactly that. Chasing 297 on a sluggish wicket, he scored 79 off 84 to keep India on track. South Africa eventually won by a comfortable margin but Dhawan's knock once again underlined his value in the ODI side and showed he can still thrive under pressure.
With the pitch helping spinners and the ball not coming on to the bat, South Africa opened the bowling with part-time offspinner Aiden Markram. While Rahul played Markram cautiously, Dhawan skipped down the track and lofted him over mid-on.
From the other end, he hit Marco Jansen to the square boundary on either side of the wicket. That meant despite Rahul scoring 12 off 17 balls, India's scoring rate hovered around five.
Keshav Maharaj was introduced in the tenth over but started with a wayward delivery down the leg side and Dhawan enchased that too for four.
Luck was on his side as well. In the second over of the innings, he got inside edge off Jansen but the ball missed the stumps and went for four. Later, when he was on 43, he played back to a fuller delivery from Maharaj and got an outside edge but with no slip in place, it fetched him another boundary.
That meant Dhawan reached his fifty off just 51 balls without taking much risk. Along with Kohli, he added 92 off 102 balls for the second wicket to put India in a commanding position.
But with the target still 159 runs away, Maharaj got one to turn sharply from outside off. Dhawan was shaping for a cut and was bowled. Kohli fell soon after, which allowed South Africa to wrest back control.
Before the series, there were talks about Dhawan's place in the side. One reason for that could be India haven't played a lot of ODIs of late, which makes it easier to forget his contribution. Since 2020, Dhawan has scored 666 runs at an average of 60.54 with a strike rate of 91.98. Nobody from India has more runs in that period.
Another reason could be Dhawan is coming off a poor Vijay Hazare Trophy (India's domestic one-day tournament), where he managed only 56 runs in five innings. In the same number of innings, Ruturaj Gaikwad, the standby opener for the series, scored 603, including four centuries.
But Dhawan said it was his self-belief and clarity about his game that helped him do well in the first ODI. "Talk [about form] will always be there," he said after the match. "I am used to it and I know how to give my best. I always make sure my preparation is good. I know that with my experience and my self-confidence, I will do good, and I am happy that I did well today.
"I know what my calibre is and what type of game I have. I have great clarity about that. And I stay calm. Ups and downs are always there, it's not happening for the first time or the last time in my career or my life. This only makes me stronger."
Hemant Brar is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo