Shikhar Dhawan was in the middle of his finest knock since July last year. He had carried with him his entire repertoire at the Brabourne Stadium on Tuesday. His emotions were all he had left behind.
Dhawan drove David Willey through the covers. He stepped out of the crease and drove Willey over cover. He pulled Chris Woakes for a six and Jake Ball for a four. He cut and swept the spinners too. Yet, there was no smile, no laugh with his partner, let alone the trademark moustache twirl. He was stonewalled.
The fifty was raised – his first in any format since the gritty 84 in North Sound against the West Indies about six months ago. Yet, there was hardly a fist pumped or bat raised in celebration. A while later, he had to return to the archaic pavilion of the Cricket Club of India after he had nicked it to the wicketkeeper. Yet, there was no shake of the head nor was the bat hammered into the ground in frustration.
Dhawan did not feel any emotions. Or, even if he did, he kept them under lock and key.
A problem of plenty, but no settled combination
The 31-year-old southpaw was aware that his cover-drives were not enough. He knew that the attack he had unleashed on the spinners was not enough. He was sure that at the end of the day, his 63 were not enough. It would not promise him the opener’s spot. It would hardly be the balm to calm the nerves of the Indian camp that grapples with uncertainty at the top.
As India head into the Champions Trophy in the middle of this year, they have a host of openers to choose from. Yet, they do not have a settled pair to bank upon. They are happy with the choice but cannot celebrate because no matter what ensues in the One-Day Internationals against England, the Indian team will head to the Champions Trophy with ambiguity about who will open for them.
Injuries have spoilt the broth the Indians would have wanted prepared for the global event in England. A blow to the thumb in the second Test against New Zealand ruled Dhawan out for most of the international summer at home. He turned out for Delhi in three of the Ranji games, only to fail in all of them. The warm-up tie between India A and England, in fact, was his return to national colours after a while.
Sixty-eight, 126 and 78 were Dhawan’s scores in his last three ODI innings. But they came a year ago when India toured Australia. Injury forced him to miss the ODI series against New Zealand later in the year and form and the lack of tall scores meant there are questions over his place in the Test side.
Injury concerns overshadow Rohit’s form
For more than three years, Rohit Sharma has walked out with Dhawan to open for India – unless injuries to either dictated otherwise. It is an injured thigh, on which he has had surgery upon that has kept Rohit Sharma out of the Indian team since the Kiwis left the country.
The flamboyant 29-year-old may have thanked MS Dhoni on Wednesday for turning his career on its head by asking him to open. Ever since he turned opener for the Indian ODI team back in 2012, he may even have reiterated that he remains India’s premier opener. But the fact of the matter is that as of now he is injured. He is ruled out of the series against England. And, he will go into the Champions Trophy without much cricket with the national team under his belt.
And the last time he played in the India blues, his form did not leave the world awestruck either – he scored one fifty in five innings against New Zealand.
Yet, the two-time ODI double centurion has been India’s best bet at the top for a few years. But to play Sharma, who will come in without ODI-match practice, in the Champions Trophy could be a risky bait.
To shuttle Rohit in to kickstart India’s innings in English conditions that propel movement is a problem. To break an opening partnership that could have succeeded in the England ODIs will be another problem.
One of those who could take Sharma’s spot up front against the English is Ajinkya Rahane. His has been a case of a lost identity in the team.
The curious case of Ajinkya Rahane
While Rahane has been special in Tests recently, he has been shuffled all over the line-up in the limited-overs’ team. All the up and down in the batting order seems to have left him confused about the role he must play, which was evident when he opened against the Kiwis in the ODIs. But open he can. And, he reminded the Indian think-tank of it once again on Thursday, when his 91 helped India A chase down England’s 282 at the Brabourne Stadium in the second warm-up tie.
But the race to open for the country has KL Rahul in contention as well. He has a century and fifty each in three ODIs. While all those games were away to a weak Zimbabwe outfit, his Test returns are hard to ignore – he is fresh from a 199 against England in the final Test against Chennai last month.
So, if any two between Dhawan, Rahane and Rahul have an unforgettable series against the visitors Sunday onwards, will India still disturb the combination that has tasted success in their most recent series?
Over the years, India can claim to have had the crème de la crème of openers in the ODIs – Sourav Ganguly, Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag in any combination would give opposition bowlers sleepless nights. Later, even Gautam Gambhir came by and had his share of success.
For a country of such a rich tradition of openers, heading into the Champions Trophy without the assurance of who will face the first over for them is unfortunate.
It was the 2013 Champions Trophy in England where Dhawan and Rohit took centre stage as India’s openers. They even flourished and led India to the title.Come June, will the same duo be back being a thorn for the opponents or will Virat Kohli’s India have their own heroes at the top?
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