Returning to the Indian Premier League after six long years on the virtue of his all-round exploits in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, Rishi Dhawan would have liked to ease himself into the pressure-cooker environs of the world's biggest T20 league. However, here he was bowling the final over, asked to defend 27 runs with the unflappable MS Dhoni on strike. And guess what, the first ball goes for a six!
Thrown into the deep end, comeback man Rishi still had enough runs to play with. Punjab Kings eked out an 11-run win but could've easily ended up on the wrong side of the result if not for the buffer of two dozen extra runs that Shikhar Dhawan gathered adroitly on a used Wankhede pitch. His razor-sharp game awareness more than made up for the limited six-hitting ability, especially down the ground, as choreographed shots neutralized Chennai Super Kings' ploy to bowl in accordance with the skewed boundary dimensions.
For a batting unit boasting of a scoring rate of 9.52 in the initial six overs, PBKS had managed only 37 for the loss of one wicket – their least productive PowerPlay of IPL 2022. Mahesh Theekshana had drawn first blood, with the scoreboard pressure getting the better of Mayank Agarwal as he cut aerially to point to end a burdensome stay during which he found more fielders than gaps.
PBKS have lost 29 wickets in the overs 7-15 this season and the alarming trend would have continued had Bhanuka Rajapaksa not been reprieved twice off Ravindra Jadeja, who was operating against two left-handers with the fielding restrictions lifted and the longer boundary on the leg-side. The unequal square boundaries were at play again as Dwayne Pretorious stuck to a wide line, but Dhawan by now was cognizant of the tactic being implemented and reached out to unleash the cross-batted drive to beat sweeper cover.
There had been no movement on offer for Mukesh Choudhary with the new ball and bowling to the plan was of paramount importance when the rookie returned for the 12th over of the innings. Third man, fine leg and mid-off were up in the circle while a deep backward point and deep extra-cover manned the fence. It was all too predictable for Dhawan as he threw the kitchen sink at Mukesh's half-volley to bisect the boundary riders and then hung back waiting for the correction in length that allowed him to steer the freebie to the right of deep point. A step ahead of the perplexed youngster, Dhawan then walked across his crease to whip a full ball zoning in at the stumps. 16 runs off the over gave PBKS the much-needed thrust after an underwhelming PowerPlay.
CSK were trying their level best to use the ground proportions to their advantage but the manoeuvring maestro that was Dhawan was always ahead of the curve. By shuffling across in no small measure, he was upsetting the bowler's rhythm and opening up scoring avenues that CSK were looking to lock up. Mukesh, in particular, was completely thrown off his line and length as Dhawan put his dancing shoes on, getting underneath a low full toss to scoop it dexterously over fine leg.
Rajapaksa built on his good fortune and weaved a 110-run partnership with Dhawan – the best stand against CSK this year, surpassing 99 between KL Rahul and Quinton de Kock. The alliance had been a productive one, but it begs the question of whether PBKS could have exploited the conditions better by slotting in a right-hander to break the monotony. Promoting Jonny Bairstow, Jitesh Sharma or Liam Livingstone at one drop would have afforded CSK less of a chance to revolve their strategies around the measurements of the park.
PBKS had to go about their business at a recalibrated tempo on Tuesday night, perhaps they were forced to because of the nature of the track, but it can serve them well moving forward in the competition. Pitches will turn slower as the league progresses and it wouldn't be a bad idea for PBKS to reconsider their all-in approach. Having played the anchor role to perfection, Dhawan spoke about his thought process in the presentation ceremony of his 200th IPL match which saw him register 1000 runs against Chennai Super Kings, 6000 IPL runs and 9000 T20 runs.
"I always talk about the process. I'm a very process-oriented person and I focus on that a lot, on my fitness, my approach toward the game, on my skills. So I keep focus on those things and I know the result will take care of itself. I felt the wicket was stopping a bit so I gave myself a bit of time before going for big shots. I kept my calm knowing I could score big runs later on as well. Once I get set, I get lots of boundaries as well. I know my strength, so that's what I banked on and it worked my way,'' Dhawan reflected.
''Batting first, of course it's about putting pressure on bowlers and hitting boundaries but at the same time keeping wickets in hand. We don't want to lose too many wickets in a bunch, that was a conscious effort, but at the same time not going in a shell and being aggressive. We keep that nice balance, play with presence of mind and smartness, not just play with power-hitting but playing with the fields as well.''
Dhawan is not your quintessential T20 biffer but his skill and smarts form a potent combination. He knows his strengths and weaknesses and takes both into account while pacing his knocks. Through innovation and enterprise he's ushering his batting in the shortest format to the next level, and while Punjab Kings are the immediate beneficiary India can also in a World Cup year profit from his rejuvenated avatar.