Had I been responsible for selecting India’s World Cup squad Murali Vijay would have been included. Not only was he solid in the Australia series that preceded the tournament, he was confident, fluent, and seemed well adjusted to Australian conditions. For me, he was a certainty for the World Cup, much more so than a few who were chosen ahead of him. I won’t list those all those names here, but one player I thought fortunate to secure a place ahead of Vijay was Shikhar Dhawan.
Like everyone else, I was stunned by Dhawan’s first appearance in tests. His debut innings against Australia in March 2013 was an uninhibited, joyous expression of batting that was almost absurd coming from a man donning his country’s uniform for the first time. He was expected to be more watchful, more restrained; instead, he went on a rollicking, eye-catching adventure that had everyone totally stunned and everyone totally entertained.
Dhawan so overwhelmed the Australians that one marveled at why he was only then being seen in tests. It seemed India must have been holding him back for some grand occasion, as a General would withhold a secret weapon before unleashing it on an unsuspecting enemy.
The left-hander dominated the Champions Trophy in England that followed and was largely very productive in ODIs in the subcontinent. Against top-flight opposition in foreign conditions, however, his form was not as compelling in both tests and ODIs. And, importantly, leading up to the World Cup, he was some way below his best playing in the environment that cricket’s most prestigious event would be partly contested – Australia.
At the top of his form, Dhawan is one of the most formidable 50-over cricketers in the game, but his ordinary performances away from home and in Australia in particular jeopardized his chances of making a World Cup appearance. There still was a fair probability he would secure a place in the squad, but his indifferent form meant that selection was not guaranteed. For me, Dhawan’s failure to master Australian conditions as the tournament drew close was enough reason for his exclusion. I would therefore not have chosen him.
It would have been a mistake. A mistake only in retrospect, mind you, but it would have been a mistake all the same. Many of his fans would have complained loudly had he been left out. They would probably have called the selectors names while spelling out the batsman’s past triumphs. But many of them, perhaps the more conscientious ones, would have held their tongue, knowing that their man could have been more convincing. It would have hurt; still, they would’ve understood.
It is undeniable that a credible case for Dhawan’s exclusion could have been advanced. But it is also undeniable that he has been a success. The selectors decided to keep faith in him, and he has, so far at least, repaid that faith. This has been the 29-year-old’s World Cup scores to date: 73 against Pakistan, 137 vs South Africa; he then had consecutive low scores against The United Arab Emirates and The West Indies, 14 and 9 respectively, bounced back with a level 100 against Ireland, followed by a disappointing innings of four against Zimbabwe. It is noteworthy that he was player of the match on two occasions.
What is also noteworthy is that the opener has generally done very well whenever India coasted to easy victories – against Pakistan, South Africa, Ireland – and not so well whenever India has run into some trouble, such as the matches against West Indies and Zimbabwe.
Chasing a paltry 182 against the West Indies, India were 78/4 and then 107/5 before Dhoni steadied the ship with 45*. Against Zimbabwe the target was 287. A perusal of the scorecard would suggest that India had a fairly easy time of it, winning by six wickets. But they had fallen to 92/4 before Dhoni and Suresh Raina guided them home. Raina ended with 110, yet when he was 47 and India 157/4 he was dropped by Hamilton Masakadza, an easy chance off a top-edged sweep. Had the fielder accepted the catch things could have been tricky.
This emphasizes how critical it is that the top order sets a solid platform. The peace of mind it gives the dressing room and fans is substantial. Dhoni is as good a batsman as there is in the game when it comes to clawing back the initiative but he won’t want to have to do it too often. Additionally, escape routes carelessly left open by mediocre teams will frequently be blocked by good teams; if you find yourself in trouble early against the top sides there may be no route back.
With the tournament now moving to its winner-take-all stage it is essential that lapses be kept to a minimum. Collapses and recoveries may make for captivating viewing, but I’m sure the participants prefer their innings to proceed smoothly.
With opening partner Rohit Sharma not as convincing as he’d want to be, Dhawan remaining in good touch would be very helpful to his side’s chances of regaining their hold on the World Cup title. If that happens then India’s fans would’ve been overjoyed and India’s selectors would’ve been justified.