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Shikhar Dhawan: 'Being calm and compassionate allows me to lead well'

India's ODI captain for the New Zealand tour talks about his approach to leadership, and his new role in charge of Punjab Kings

In June last year Shikhar Dhawan was appointed India captain for the first time when he led a second-string squad for a white-ball tour of Sri Lanka. This month he took over the Punjab Kings leadership from Mayank Agarwal in the IPL. What type of a leader is Dhawan, and how will he go about trying to take Punjab to the playoffs, a challenge several captains and coaches have failed at since 2014? In a conversation before he left for the New Zealand tour, where he will lead India in three ODIs, Dhawan talked about his strengths as a leader and how he plans to make sure captaincy does not take its toll on his batting.
Some might say facing the new ball is easier than leading Punjab Kings. Was it a straightforward decision to take on the captaincy?
Our last season [2022] did not go as well as we would have liked. I knew there was a possibility [of getting the captaincy]. So I thought I will take the opportunity and bring the best energy to the table and take things forward and make an impact.
Franchises often seem to want instant results when they make leadership changes. You have already experienced that at Sunrisers Hyderabad. How did you weigh the decision this time?
Talking about Punjab Kings, the success the team owners and management have wished for has not come yet. Of course I understand their feelings, and you have to take that in your stride. But communication is the key. When we are building a side, we make sure everyone - players and support staff - is on the same frequency and marching towards the same goal. That's in our hands - to make the preparation and process really strong. Then it is all about time. The reward will come.
In June 2021 you were appointed India's captain for the first time. Does it bring a change of mindset, being appointed captain?
When you become captain, a lot of responsibilities come on you - you have to think of the whole team, how to keep the atmosphere good. I did not need to tweak too much because even as a player, I always mingle with the group easily. That has been my nature and it has benefited me as a captain now.
Also, my calmness, especially on the field, is a big strength as a leader. Being calm and compassionate allows me to lead well. I can then handle things aaram se [with ease] and not panic. Mistakes could happen during a match, but how to absorb that and ensure the boys are kept enthusiastic so they can get us out of pressure situations is what I have learned. I always used to see good potential in me as a leader, and thanks to God, captaincy has now fallen in my bag. I was captain against West Indies and South Africa, and we won such amazing series.
What are the differences between leading India and captaining in the IPL?
I was only captain for half a season for Sunrisers. The difference now is that it's a new beginning. In the Indian team, I have been captain for three to four series, so there is a sort of a brotherhood now. Everyone knows how things go on, what to do, so there is a comfort level. I want to do the same at Punjab Kings, so that we reach that comfort level as soon as we can. It always starts at the top. I already have a good bond with the boys. I am very, very positive that it will be an amazing journey.
You naturally have a lot of fun and draw people to you. As a captain, what would you say are your other strengths?
My presence of mind, my smartness, my decision-making. As you play more, you get confident in the decisions you take. Earlier, there used to be instances where I would give an extra over to a bowler out of regard [for him]. But now, as I have matured, even if someone is feeling bad, I will take a decision that will help the team.
Can you talk about the experience of leading Sunrisers in 2014?
I still feel that you should be given a full season of captaincy. If I had known that I was being given the captaincy for only half the season, I wouldn't have taken it. I was not performing as a batsman, so probably they might have felt I was under pressure. In my mind I felt that it doesn't matter, but I accepted their decision at the time.
Having played for so many years, having reached this level, I have a better understanding of things and now I handle pressure with much more ease, whether as captain or as player. Ab mazaa aa raha hai [Now I am enjoying it more].
"Process" and "mindset" are two words you use often. How important are they for you?
Absolutely. Suppose, I am only focusing on the result, then I am creating an expectation ki yaar mere ko achieve karna hi karna hai [that I have to achieve it no matter what]. But then what happens is that if I am doing well, I will feel really good, but if I am not, there will be a heaviness, that desperation. That will make you feel under pressure and you won't be able to perform at your peak, no matter who the individual is. Whereas, when you are at ease, you are creative, you make the most impact in whatever you are doing. That's the mantra I use. That is the process part.
As for mindset, it is about being positive, because life puts everybody down on their knees. Suddenly you will be confronted with situations you did not imagine. In those situations, champions are those who get up very quickly. Suppose I get out on 0 - I will analyse the situation. Did I get out out of fear? Did I get out due to strategy? Or was it because of bad shot selection? After analysing, I'll know I should not be repeating that mistake, but I won't be sad. I will be doing the affirmation strategy, telling myself that I'm playing much better than my capacity, I am being consistent. When I go with such a mindset, I'm already creating a lot of positivity around me.
Between 2018 and 2020, you had your three best years in the IPL, scoring around 500 runs every season. You also had strike rates of 136, 135 and 144 in those seasons. What helped you flourish during this period?
I knew I had to work on my strike rate. Even last year [2022], my strike rate decreased a little, but I had to play an anchoring role because virtually all our main batsmen at Punjab Kings were aggressive.
Three years ago I understood I had to increase my strike rate. I didn't shy away from taking that risk. I knew that I wanted to go to the 2019 World Cup with a good strike rate. If you see my performances at the time for India, my strike rate was on the higher side.
Also, at [Delhi] Capitals [between 2019 and 2021], I really enjoyed playing with Ricky Ponting [as coach]. He put a lot of confidence in me, he appreciated even innings where I scored 15-20 runs but with a good strike rate. Ponting created a very good environment. That's where I knew that, okay, I have to start taking smart risks. After that my strike rate has been good, as has my consistency.
There is currently a lot of debate in T20 cricket about whether there is a role anymore for an anchor batter. What is your view?
It totally depends on the situation. If the wicket is not easy to bat on, then playing aggressively makes no sense. Also, I don't believe the role should be allotted to one batter because then there is pressure on the guy at the other end. You have to be very flexible. In the situation, you know whether to do it or not. Last season while playing for Punjab, if I had [Liam] Livingstone or Bhanu [Bhanuka Rajapaksa] at the other end, they were batting so fast, I felt it did not make sense for me to match them. At that point it felt like it [Dhawan playing the anchor] was appropriate for the situation. Then there are times when both batters hit from both ends, so neither feels it's dependent solely on one. At the same time you might want to play deeper and make runs, but the strike rate needs to be good in T20.
Mayank Agarwal was replaced as Punjab's captain because his batting had suffered. Before taking on the captaincy he was the team's best batter. In the last two seasons, your strike rate has been in the 120s. You lost the job at Sunrisers because the captaincy affected your batting. Will you be conscious of needing to improve your strike rate?
Jobs come and go, no worries. Humne khaali haath aana hai, khaali haath hi jaana hai. Yeh sab to yahin reh jaana hai [We come into the world empty-handed and leave empty-handed. All this just remains here]. I don't feel any fear about losing the job.
[Just because] I'm the captain, I don't want to put that load on myself, saying "Okay, I have to do it this way or that way." I will just play the game based on our team goals, based on what the team demands, what it needs.
Are you good with data?
Yes, I rely on data quite a bit because I do not watch a lot of live cricket. Like, now I am going to New Zealand, so I'll be watching their bowlers and utilising that data as part of my preparation. As a captain, I will watch the opposition batsmen's technique to understand what shots could come easy to them, after which I can sit down with the bowlers to brainstorm. Preparation is the key for anything.
You come across as an easygoing, people's-person kind of man. Even under pressure, it seems like you like to make people laugh and get the best out of them.
When you play music on a string instrument, if the string is too loose, it won't sound right, or if it's too tight, it will break. So it is a question of creating a balance. [As a captain] creating that balance is very important. You need to understand when to pull the string tight and when to leave it a bit loose. That is an art. It is a matter of timing. At this stage I also understand when to say things to the players and how much to say. If a bowler gets hit, it's important to know when to speak to him. I will not do it when they are hot in the head, but instead approach them later and speak with care. It also depends on the level you are leading at. If it is at the IPL, most players are mature, so you need to consider if you have to pull the string or not. At Ranji, you have to, at times, shown firmness, because a youngster at that level is like a kaccha ghada [an unbaked clay pot], so you have to be firm to mould him. Finding that balance is the key.
What areas do you need to work on to become better at leadership?
Hmm, I haven't thought of that so far (laughs). I have only led India on three or four tours and my stint so far has been pretty good. Wherever I am leading, an emotional bond is very important. When you have that, ladke jaan maarte hain aap ke liye phir [players will give their everything for you]. As a captain, being open, keeping my ego in control, having humility, showing compassion, is the key for me.
What are Punjab Kings' strengths?
I remember even last year people saying Punjab Kings had a very strong and balanced side, at least on paper. This time we will be strong both on paper and on the ground.
Despite changing captains and coaches over the last several years, Punjab have struggled to make the playoffs. In 2019 and 2022 they needed one more win and a better net run rate. In 2018 and 2020 they would have made the knockouts if they had managed to win their final league game. How mindful will you need to be of things like these?
We can learn from our past and improve on our mistakes. Other than that, I won't dwell much on anything else and neither will I want my team to do that. There is no need of dragging back the past baggage.
I will make sure that the support staff and I create an environment where the players are comfortable. I want my boys to be themselves while also understanding their responsibilities. I want us to be relaxed but also focused. We are playing the IPL. We are living our dream. And when you are living your dream, it should be full of happiness and not stress. With love you can conquer anything. The [IPL] trophy is not a challenge too far out of our reach.
And, one more thing: so far, I have played at least one final with each IPL team I've been at [other than Deccan Chargers].
Are you saying you are the lucky charm?
That I am (laughs). I have played finals with Mumbai [Indians], Sunrisers and Delhi. Now I am with Punjab. I definitely hope we play the final and win it. After that, it is malik ki marzi [God's wish].

Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo