For a brief period in the match against Australia, Shikhar Dhawan let the pain show. The first ball of the ninth over of the innings, bowled by Pat Cummins, had reared awkwardly from a length and hit the India opener on the thumb as he looked to fend at it.
The physio was out immediately and the left-hander looked anything but comfortable in the middle. Courage comes naturally to Shikhar Dhawan. Put him in a difficult spot and he will fight his way out of it with a smile on his face.
But over the next couple of overs, he was hurting. He was holding the bat gingerly and each time he played a shot, his hand was coming off. He, somehow, needed to ignore the pain but a throbbing thumb is not ignored easily. At this point, Australia made a tactical error of sorts.
Instead of continuing with Cummins, they went to the spinners. There was one more over of pace from Coulter-Nile before Aaron Finch pressed Glenn Maxwell and Adam Zampa into the attack. It gave Dhawan some breathing room and that was all he needed.
His innings against Australia, in India’s first real Test of the 2019 World Cup, was a product of smart thinking. He wasn’t just trying to smash the ball and give India a quick start as he usually does.
Rather, as he later explained, the plan was to get through Australia’s new-ball bowlers.
“Mindset was positive but there was something in the wicket early on, so it was necessary to give respect to the bowlers. We knew that they were the two main bowlers, so we knew that even if we play them on merit and don’t take too much risk, we will still be able to attack the other bowlers and that is exactly what happened,” Dhawan told BCCI.tv.
Dhawan added: “We were scoring easily against the spinners and didn’t need to take any big risks either. Rohit and I communicated well and showed good presence of mind.”
After 10 overs, India had 41/0 on board. Some might have reckoned that it was a touch too slow but the class of the openers is such that once they do settle in, they are hard to dislodge. So Australia would definitely have been more worried at this point.
By the time, the 15th over came along, India’s run-rate had climbed to 5.00. After the fall of Rohit Sharma wicket [57 off 70], Dhawan and Kohli continued to score at an even pace.
Dhawan and Rohit’s stand of 127 runs was India’s first century stand for the first wicket against Australia at the World Cup. It surpassed a 76-run stand by the same pair at the Sydney Cricket Ground in 2015.
The approach was once again a recognition of how the ODI game has changed thanks to Twenty20 cricket. If the batting side has wickets in hand going into the last 15 overs, no total is beyond reach. It gives the remaining batsmen a free license to swing and that is never easy on the bowling side.
Dhawan mixed caution with aggression in a magnificent display of ODI batting. The subtle manner in which he shuffles around the crease means that the bowlers need to be very aware of what he is doing at any given time and the movement allows him to find strange angles in the field too.
His knock finally came to an end on 117. It had taken 109 deliveries — not express pace in this T20 era — but just right for the team. Some of his shots — especially one full-blooded straight drive off a 149 km/h delivery off Mitchell Starc just before he was dismissed — will stay alive in our memory for a long time.
Hardik Pandya was sent up the order by India to take advantage of the platform that Sharma, Dhawan and Kohli had given the side and he delivered. His 48 off 27 balls gave the Indian innings a match-winning impetus.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni followed it up with a 14-ball 27 and KL Rahul with a 3-ball 11. Between them, the trio scored 86 off 44 ball as India scored 120 runs in their last 10 overs.
And that final blast might have given India that extra cushion against a team like Australia but it wouldn’t have been possible without the base that was built by the top three.
In many ways, this was the perfect batting innings by India. Everybody doing the job assigned to them and Dhawan leading the way with a carefree smile as always. If India’s top three can continue to do this through the World Cup, it will indeed be very hard to stop the Men in Blue.