World Cup: Shikhar Dhawan, living life in the fast lane

The cricket culture that Shikhar Dhawan learnt at the Sonnet Club in Delhi made him a strong player.

Shikhar Dhawan’s aggressive century on Test debut against Australia in Mohali in 2013 earned rave reviews.   -  S. Subramanium

In searing heat, on way to the venue for a crucial match, Shikhar Dhawan came down with a flat tyre. It was a Bajaj Sunny and he had no option but to walk the rest of the way. So, he walked and ran, pushing the light vehicle along, and managed to reach the ground in time to make it to the playing XI. The distance covered was more than 5km and reflected his passion for cricket. “Nothing was going to stop me,” Dhawan remembers his formative years in local cricket.

He is a part of the west Delhi cricket factory. “It is a cricket factory. So many have played for India, and so many for Delhi,” is how veteran coach Sharvan Kumar refers to players from this part of the national capital. The list is quite impressive — Raman Lamba, K. P. Bhaskar, Atul Wassan, Amit Mishra, Ashish Nehra, Virender Sehwag, Virat Kohli, Ishant Sharma, Gautam Gambhir, Aakash Chopra are all from west Delhi or areas close to it.

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Mad about cricket

Dhawan, residing in Vikaspuri, had little option but to go to the Sonnet Club which held its nets at the nearby Rajdhani College. Former umpire Ram Babu Gupta was among the early promoters of this skinny lad, who wanted to do nothing but play cricket. “Honestly, I don't know what I would have done if not for cricket. My day would begin with plans to play as much as possible, as many (tennis ball) matches as possible,” recalls Dhawan. He hated if it rained because it would ruin his training schedule at St. Mark’s School in Meera Bagh, Paschim Vihar.

St. Mark’s is not really known for cricket. But the school has a wonderful cricket facility hiding behind its facade. Madan Sharma, the coach at St. Mark’s, was initially engaged at the Sonnet Club, which had shifted to Venkateshwara College from Rajdhani College. Tarak Sinha was the head coach at Sonnet when Dhawan came with a request to be enrolled.

“I remember he appeared to be an average lad. He was 12 years old, I think. But once he got into the nets, I saw he was hitting the ball well, timing and connecting it hard. I tested him by throwing him into the seniors’ nets and he was at ease. His footwork looked so compact and he played some rousing strokes. I knew I had found a gem. I told his father the boy would have to be a regular and I won’t compromise on discipline. I never really had to worry on these two aspects,” says Sinha, who has had a huge influence on Dhawan.

“I was fortunate to get some really good coaches when I was trying to make a mark. They shaped my game and also taught me lessons in life. Club cricket helped me grow immensely and the Delhi dressing room was a great launching pad for my career. It was cricket rich and I had to earn a slot through hard work,” Dhawan stresses.

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A touching moment: Dhawan with his mother.   -  Pic courtesy: Shikhar Dhawan

 

Always positive

The cricket culture he learnt at Sonnet made him a strong player. Mayank Tehlan, his teammate and roommate for more than a decade, recalls, “even at the young age (of under-14), he would not get perturbed by failures. He would tell me to remain positive. Once we both got out twice within a day and I was obviously down and out in the room. Not this man. He celebrated the evening by saying it was some sort of a record. Room-mates getting out twice in a day. I forgot my disappointment and in the next match we both got runs.”

Dhawan was a different batsman when he played for Delhi as compared to his approach in local cricket. “He had his priorities right. He was sure of his game and knew that he could not afford failures in any BCCI-organised match. He was very good at countering failures. He would not brood. He was realistic in assessing his cricket and very grounded when success came to him at the international level. Even today he remembers the ground staff at the Kotla by name and always helps them,” says Tehlan.

“What’s most important is that Shikhar is a genuine human being and that talks a lot about how he is as a friend! He is your best critic  and ruthlessly honest because there are no filters attached when he is giving his opinion. But Shikhar also has this amazing quality of looking at the brighter side always and he lifts your spirits in every way,” says Sagar Gaind, a close friend of Dhawan from his school days.

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Shikhar Dhawan with his friend Sagar Gaind.   -  Special arrangement

 

The two have gone through childhood, adulthood and the confused transition in between the two, says Gaind, who watches Dhawan’s games on the Hotstar app nearly every time his friend plays.

Sinha was the one to push this boy in Delhi cricket. It took Dhawan time to make a mark because the Delhi team was packed with solid batsmen. Sehwag, Chopra, Mithun Manhas, Rajat Bhatia, Gambhir were all doing well and there was no place for Dhawan until his success at the under-19 World Cup (in 2004). “Once he got into the Delhi team the same year I stopped worrying for Shikhar,” says Sinha. Yet, it took him nine more years to make it to the Test squad.

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Gabbar of cricket

Dhawan with his wife and children.   -  Pic courtesy: Shikhar Dhawan

 

Fondly called Gabbar, after the character from Sholay, he hardly fits the image of the dacoit played so menacingly by Amjad Khan. During a Ranji match, the fielders around the batsmen looked aimless. “We were in fact sleepy because there was hardly any activity. The batsmen were just blocking the ball and it had become very boring in the middle. The stillness was broken by Shikhar, who shouted, ‘Suuar ke bachchon (sons of swine),’ which was a catchy dialogue from Sholay. Everyone, including the batsmen, couldn’t control laughing and Shikhar acquired the nickname Gabbar that day,” Tehlan recollects.

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Dhawan’s rise was scripted by Sinha. “He did not need to be prompted for he knew his task well. The season's goals were set and I saw a very determined Shikhar when he fought his way into the Indian team after being dropped without proper chances. His potential was never in doubt but he was the kind of a player who required the captain’s faith. He was an attacking batsman and that is what Indian cricket wanted when he made his Test debut,” he says.

Coming in for praise

Dhawan with coach Madan Sharma. Madan was a strict disciplinarian.   -  Special Arrangement

 

His Test debut was sensational as he played some fascinating strokes against the Australians in Mohali in 2013. Silken drives flowed from his bat and it was a century that came in for praise from the likes of Sunil Gavaskar and Gundappa Viswanath. On the evening of the Test century, Viswanath, in all humility, sought Dhawan’s number to congratulate the batsman personally. When this writer informed him of Viswanath’s wish, Dhawan requested him not to share his number with Viswanath. “You please give me his number. Once I have spoken to him I shall alert you and then you may send him my number,” said Dhawan. He kept his word but Viswanath saw through the game when I texted him Dhawan’s number. The humble Viswanath was appropriately accorded the respect he deserved by the young Dhawan.

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Dhawan is indebted to Sinha and Madan Sharma, who gave personal attention for years, organising his match and practice schedules. Madan was strict too, having learnt the trait from Sinha, who monitored the progress of the left-hander. There were a few occasions when Dhawan received a resounding slap or two from Sharma, who was not willing to pardon dismissals to irresponsible shots.

There were two innings which proved defining for Dhawan. In a Ranji Trophy match against Railways at the Roshanara Club ground in 2010, with a victory target of 136, Dhawan, leading the team, set a poor example when he threw his wicket when opening the innings. “I got carried away. Will not repeat this,” he promised as Delhi suffered a humiliating 22-run defeat. Two years later, against Maharashtra, he strode to the middle, played some rousing shots, and finished the game in glory, his unbeaten 116 setting up a three-wicket win for Delhi.

Tarak Sinha was Dhawan’s first coach.   -  Special Arrangement

 

“I learnt a lot from those two innings,” he says. “I learnt not to take things for granted and not to disrespect the opponents. As a captain I had a task to perform.” He did on the second occasion with a match-winning knock.

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Dhawan comes off as a calm and composed man who knows how to stay grounded. “I do a lot of meditation and mind training. I am also learning to play the flute. Music can be a great soothing influence and I have come to realise that there is life outside cricket,” Dhawan spelt out his philosophy.

Many years after he had pushed his Bajaj Sunny to a local cricket match, Dhawan rode to the Ferozeshah Kotla on a Hayabusa. Hard work had put him on the fast lane of international cricket and he is now a key member of India’s campaign to regain the World Cup in England. Dhawan’s success would be critical to the team’s mission.