Shikhar Dhawan will return to competitive cricket on Wednesday after recovering from a knee injury sustained during the Syed Mushtaq Trophy. Courtesy: Express photo by Vishal Menon

The last time Shikhar Dhawan was at the Feroz Shah Kotla, he scored a labourious 42-ball 41 in India’s loss to Bangladesh in a T20I fixture. Back then, few would have expected to see him back at this venue less than two months later for a Ranji Trophy encounter. The Kotla is where Dhawan has played all his cricket, transforming into India’s premier opener across formats. As a junior cricketer, he would change buses and jostle for space in cramped auto-rickshaws to travel from his home in West Delhi to play here.

These days, whenever Delhi plays at home, he prefers to drive to the venue in his swanky Mercedes Benz. For Dhawan and his Delhi team-mates, the match against Hyderabad isn’t just another Ranji Trophy tie. As the captain, his return would give direction to the rudderless team, who have lost their previous encounter against Andhra last week. He returns to competitive cricket after recovering from a knee injury sustained during the Syed Mushtaq Trophy.

In many ways, 2019 has been a strange start-stop year for the 34-year-old. This is a year when he would spend considerable time on the sidelines with an injury, rather than on the field — from enduring a fractured finger, swollen neck, stiff back to a bruised knee that required him administering 27 injection shots. The India opener, though, takes it all in his stride and asserts that he is ready to make a fresh start. “This is a fresh start for me. I have just recovered from a knee injury, and the good news is that New Year is around the corner. Injuries are part of parcel in a cricketer’s career, and you’ve just got to accept that. It’s fine and I don’t create a big fuss about it. The start-stop thing doesn’t affect me as I haven’t forgotten how to bat. My class is permanent and I will score runs,” he told reporters after the practice session.

Not long ago, Dhawan was India’s go-to opener across formats. This is not the case anymore. The India-England Test match at the Oval in September 2018 was the last time he featured in whites. The emergence of Mayank Agarwal and in recent times, the return of Rohit Sharma, shoved him to the fringes. Despite the lull in the traditional format, Dhawan has always been a regular in white-ball cricket, especially in big-ticket ICC tournaments, where he has habitually given India rollicking starts. From the 2013 Champions Trophy triumph to the 2015 World Cup and the two matches in the showpiece event in England earlier this year, Dhawan has always been a safe bet.

Equations, though, have changed with KL Rahul’s splendid return and with the dashing Prithvi Shaw breathing down his neck. In T20Is, his sedate starts have often caused stress during chases as well as in pursuit of actively setting up match-winning targets. On Monday, the selectors decided to hand him a lifeline by including him for the 3-match T20Is against Sri Lanka and the ODI series against Australia, scheduled in January. Dhawan will know that he was selected for Sri Lanka series because Rohit has opted for a break. Going forward, he realises that the road ahead in international cricket is strewn with challenges. “I am happy that KL (Rahul) has done well. He has grabbed the opportunity. So I am going to go and express myself,” he opined.

The inbetweener

It’s an interesting predicament that Dhawan finds himself in. If a clutch of supremely talented youngsters have stolen a march over him in recent times and edged him out of the national team, it was the experienced duo of Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, who had virtually shut him out in the previous decade. “It was really difficult for him to stake his claim in the national team as the selectors could barely look beyond Sehwag and Gambhir. It was only towards the fag end of their respective careers that Dhawan finally got a chance to make his Test debut,” former Delhi team-mate Mithun Manhas quipped.

At the Under-19 World Cup in 2004, Dhawan ransacked 505 runs to finish as the tournament’s top scorer. He was the Player of the Series, but the selectors saw more potential in his batchmates — Suresh Raina, Robin Uthappa, Dinesh Karthik and RP Singh. The following year, he broke into Delhi’s Ranji squad, registering 461 runs and scoring his maiden first-class century (130) against Karnataka. In the interim, his U-19 World Cup batchmate Suresh Raina would make his ODI debut. A couple of tepid seasons followed and for some reason, he just couldn’t step it up at the international level. Despite the period of stagnation, Dhawan did not harbour any resentment. He was the cheerful, happy-go-lucky guy without a care in the world. “Despite several setbacks, he always remained cheerful. Even if he would get out for a low score, he would keep the mood in the dressing-room upbeat through his jokes and banter,” former Delhi all-rounder Rajat Bhatia concurred.

Dhawan would make his international debut in 2013 at the age of 27, nine years after his heady days at the U-19 World Cup in Dhaka. And seven years after his international debut, his career is now at the crossroads. If he could edge out superstars like Sehwag and Gambhir, there’s no compelling reason why he cannot do the same against these youngsters. Whatever the set of circumstances, one thing is for sure — he is not someone who will back away from a challenge.