<
>

Relaxed Shikhar Dhawan slips back into his batting groove

play
Dhawan walks the talk at ICC events (1:28)

He has four hundreds already in England, all of them in a global tournament (1:28)

An hour before the match on Sunday, Shikhar Dhawan was hitting a few throwdowns from close to the stands under the main pavilion. Like moths to a flame, a couple of 100 Indian fans swarmed up near to Dhawan. Just like that, they started to chat to Dhawan. Some asked for selfies, some autographs, some spoke in Punjabi.

When Hardik Pandya also started taking a few throwdowns close by, the fans pleaded Hardik for a selfie. "Hardik bada aadmi hain, bhai" [Hardik is a big man], Dhawan cracked a joke, leaving the fans in splits. This easygoing attitude is something that has made Dhawan one of the most likeable characters in world cricket. The beauty about Dhawan is this sense of joyousness he brings to his game: whether he is good form or not, the resplendent smile, the openness, the grounded self remain his strengths.

Probably that is why on the morning of a World Cup match Dhawan did not mind exchanging pleasantries with the fans when many athletes would have preferred not looking beyond their bubbles.

WATCH on Hotstar (India only) - Shikhar Dhawan's matchwinning hundred

This mental equilibrium has allowed Dhawan to grapple with the ebbs and flows in his form. In fact, Dhawan's recent form has been weak. In the nine innings before his Oval hundred, Dhawan just had one 50-plus score (143 against Australia in Mohali).

In Southampton, Dhawan nicked a delivery that was a familiar Test-match length from Kagiso Rabada. However the conditions against South Africa were more in favour of the seamers. In south London, India elected to bat on a pitch that was slower although a bit hard. To understand this was an easy batting pitch can be gauged from the fact that this was the first time any ground had witnessed the top five of both teams score at least 25 runs in an ODI.

Dhawan and Rohit Sharma were allowed to settle against the short lengths of Australia's fast-bowling attack. In fact in the first Powerplay, which India usually start slowly, 18 out of the 35 deliveries Dhawan faced were short-of-length and short. He managed 27 runs easily.

Still, India's start was once again slow in the first 10 overs. Aaron Finch and David Warner were equally slow off the blocks, but the key difference was India's fast bowlers bowled a tighter line, piling pressure on the Australia openers, which eventually resulted in Finch being run out. Finch underlined the reason Dhawan and Rohit prospered was because they "swallowed their pride" in the first Powerplay. They did not look or act restless.

Unlike Rohit, who now rigidly follows a routine of playing out as many deliveries quietly as possible in the first Powerplay, Dhawan can follow his instincts. And that is something Kohli said can help him string boundaries in a row as he did in Nathan Coulter-Nile's first over.

Australia packed the off side with five fielders manning the inner ring. Yet Dhawan charged Coulter- Nile to punch a straight four making use of the wide space behind mid-off. Two balls later, offered width for the first time, Dhawan lashed a cut that squeezed through the two point fielders. A ball later he deftly chopped a cut to the left of short gully for third four.

ALSO READ: Dhoni sheathes dagger, complies with ICC

The first ball of the next over, from Pat Cummins, Australia's best bowler on the day, Dhawan committed to play on the front quickly, but an 87mph snorter climbed on to him and hit him on the left side of his grille. He appeared to take a blow to his left thumb, as well, but carried on batting despite the pain, which ruled him out of fielding.

The hit automatically forced Dhawan to start playing more on the back foot. Still he was not afraid to confront the short one, as he attempted a pull against a short-pitched delivery from Coulter-Nile, but the ball once again rushed on to him. Dhawan was lucky the ball did not hurt him, instead the top edge flew for a boundary.

As he closed in on his century Cummins banged in a harmless short-pitched delivery wide outside off stump. Dhawan chased it and missed, beaten by the speed. Immediately he imitated a ramp shot, which might have been a better option if the line was slightly closer.

"The success of Rohit and Dhawan has allowed the middle order to play with abandon, as Pandya and Dhoni later showed"

Next over Cummins once again banged in another bouncer. This time the line was closer to Dhawan's eyeline. First he opened the bat face, raised his bat and scooped it for an easy four. It didn't matter the ball actually had nicked off the thick inside edge of his bat. It was that good.

Dhawan has always been vulnerable against high-paced deliveries that rush into him off length, either through playing on or nicking behind. But in this innings, Australia's fast bowlers never consistently attacked him with express pace.

You cannot blame Dhawan taking what he was given. His knock was without hiccups, barring the run that took him to his century, a single, which came in chaotic fashion. Dhawan punched the ball to mid-on and started off. Kohli was already halfway down the pitch, before Dhawan noticed the fielder had the ball in hand. Kohli promptly turned back and dived to safety even as the bails went flying. Marcus Stoinis, the bowler, screeched in delight appealing, but Kohli had quickly picked himself up and ran back the run. It was Kohli who raised the bat punching it to celebrate his long-time friend and team-mate's feat. Dhawan met Kohli mid-pitch and both men hugged.

The Oval had already been up on its feet two balls earlier, anticipating Dhawan's century. The previous ball, too, Dhawan had dug out nicely a yorker-length delivery from Stoinis and fancied a single but Warner had quickly collected the ball denying that opportunity. He did not need to wait for long.

Dhawan now has the most centuries at World Cups in this India squad; in fact, he now is third on the list of Indian centurions at the World Cup. Both the Indian victories have now been set up by the brilliance of their two openers.

The bigger victory for India was the 127-run opening partnership. It was only the third time in World Cup history there has been a century opening stand in 87 matches against Australia. This one will hurt Australia, because they would have counted themselves holding the psychological edge having won the ODI series in India in March despite not having Warner, Steven Smith and Mitchell Starc in the line-up.

The success of Rohit and Dhawan has allowed the middle order to play with abandon, as Hardik Pandya and MS Dhoni later showed. As Kohli said in the media briefing, India can be proud of have an opening pair that has lasted since 2013 and created so many records.

In 2013 Dhawan was the Player of the Tournament in the Champions Trophy played in the UK which India won. In the 2017 edition of that tournament, he was India's highest run-getter as Kohli's team finished the runner-up. Can Dhawan do it again?

What we can be sure of is he will continue to provide joy to the fans regardless of success or failure on the field. He has never been encumbered by those two intangible strings.