You know Shikhar Dhawan is close to his best when he’s stepping out of the crease and driving the ball through cover. It’s a shot that has served him well throughout his career, helped him stamp his authority as a free-flowing opener.

And in the first One-Day International against South Africa on Wednesday, on a sluggish pitch, Dhawan once again reminded us of his shot-making ability.

India went on to lose by 31 runs, although the margin of defeat didn’t reflect how one-sided the match was for a considerable portion.

KL Rahul and Co had South Africa in trouble at 68/3 before Temba Bavuma and Rassie van der Dussen slammed centuries and guided their team to an imposing total. The visitors once again seemed to have the upper hand at 138/1 in the chase, but a familiar batting collapse followed and the contest was done. If it wasn’t for a half-century by Shardul Thakur at the end, the hosts could have bagged a much bigger victory.

There was a lot to ponder over for India after the match. Like their inability to create enough pressure during Bavuma and van der Dussen’s 204-run partnership, the middle order losing five wickets for just 50 runs, and the team combination heading into the remaining must-win games. That is, of course, if this series holds any significance and it’s not just about building towards the 2023 World Cup.

But amidst all the gloom, perhaps the biggest positive for India in the match was the way Dhawan batted. The player, who probably had reasons to be the rustiest, ended up being one of the bright spots.

Dhawan was in the form of his life during the first half of IPL 2021 back in April-May 2021. He was the league’s highest run-scorer during that phase and was hitting shots to all corners of the ground at will.

He then led a second-string Indian team for three ODIs and as many T20 Internationals in Sri Lanka in July, but didn’t get to wear India colours for the rest of the year. During that period, he struggled to find his best in the second half of IPL 2021 and scored just 56 runs in five games for Delhi in the Vijay Hazare Trophy.

However, against South Africa on Wednesday, Dhawan batted as if he had never been away from the big stage. He drove the ball confidently, hit hard square of the wicket, and showed once again why he’s one of the best when it comes to taking calculated risks.

Till Dhawan was at the crease, it seemed India were well on course for a win. The pitch was challenging as the ball was gripping and coming on slowly, but the left-hander never seemed troubled during his 84-ball 79.

In the post-match press conference, Dhawan shared his views on the game and what went wrong for India. But what stood out was his assessment of his own game and how he deals with being in-and-out of India’s white-ball set-up.

“I just know how to give my best,” said Dhawan. “I always try to make sure my processes and preparations are good. With the experience and self confidence I have, I know I’ll do well.”

He added: “I don’t listen to the media, read newspapers, or watch the news. I have complete faith in myself. I know what my level is as a player, have great clarity about my game, and I stay quite calm. This is part of life, everyone goes through ups and downs. It’s nothing new, it’s not like it’s happening for the first time or the last. So it’s all right, it only makes me stronger.

“My goal is to stay fit and healthy. If I can do that, with the experience I have, I’ll keep scoring lots of runs.”

India played just six ODIs last year, with the focus being on Tests and the T20 World Cup, and Dhawan featured in each one of them and also amassed the most runs. This year, however, there are a number of 50-over games lined up and one can expect to see a lot more of the left-hander.

Senior Indian players have repeatedly said in recent times that the team will aim for stability as it heads towards the ODI World Cup next year. And with the middle order still relatively inexperienced, an in-form Dhawan at the top of the order will undoubtedly be a great asset.