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Behind the earring, the famous twirled moustache and those intricately inked biceps, is a very soft-spoken man – Shikhar Dhawan. From a simple cricket-loving youngster going through the grind of domestic cricket to taking the cricketing world by frenzy by scoring the fastest century on Test debut, Dhawan has come a long way. With his batting capabilities rising with every international and IPL outing, Shikhar now looks to brace himself for tougher challenges ahead.
“I am someone who believes in going with the flow,” Dhawan said during the course of an exclusive chat with IPLT20.com where he also spoke about enjoying his new role as captain. In this conversation, the left-handed opening bat talked about living his dream of becoming a captain, his admiration for MS Dhoni and the hunger to perform across all formats. Here are excerpts from his interview:
Did you always dream of being a captain since the time you started playing cricket?
I have been playing a lot of domestic cricket all these years, and to be honest with you, there did come a point when I wanted to captain a side. But that realisation came only after I began to feel that I was doing something fruitful and achieving something while playing the game. Only when I knew I was performing to my potential did I feel the need to captain a team. I have been performing well for the Sunrisers Hyderabad now and I believe that is the reason why I have been handed the responsibility of captaining the side. It has been an enjoyable experience so far leading the Sunrisers, and I would say a little dream has come true.
As a budding cricketer, whose leadership skills have you admired the most?
All captains have their own style, but I love the way MS Dhoni leads a side. I was never someone who would watch the game so closely. It is only now after watching players and being a captain that I have begun to look at other aspects of the game. But having been in the Indian dressing room and having observed Dhoni from close quarters, I have begun to understand certain things while playing. I love his tactics and admire the way he can remain cool even in pressure-cooker situations. That quality, which Dhoni has, is a sign of a strong individual, and that attracts me the most.
From captaining Delhi (in domestic cricket) in the past to captaining the Sunrisers Hyderabad now, what are the things that you have learnt as a leader?
I have learnt to plan my moves in a game while captaining the side. I have learnt to read the situation of the game better and react to it accordingly. Also, while captaining in T20s, I have learnt that you cannot be rigid in your planning and you have to be flexible whenever necessary. T20 is a fast game and you need to know how to make use of your best bowlers when they are most needed. As a captain, I do not interfere in a bowler’s plans and my job is to ensure that my bowlers bowl according to their respective strengths. Also, I am beginning to learn to bluff when it comes to field placements and make the opposition batsmen play according to our plans.
SRH coach Tom Moody sees a lot of potential in you as a captain. How have his inputs helped you with your captaincy?
Tom has helped me a lot and I have learnt a lot from him. Not only him, I have also got a lot of valuable inputs from VVS Laxman and Kris Srikkanth who have taught me the importance of carrying the personality and aura of a captain. They stress on the fact that a captain should have a command over his 11 players on the field. They are the ones who notice these small things from the boundary ropes, which are not clear to me when I am on the field. Captaincy has been a new and exciting endeavour for me and I would want to learn as much as I can and become better.
How much does it help when you share the dressing room with international captains – like Kumar Sangakkara last year and Darren Sammy this year?
When Kumar Sangakkara was the captain of the Sunrisers, I did not pay much heed to certain things regarding captaincy. I was merely present there as a batsman and as a fielder and would go by what my captain used to ask me to do that time. But the case has been different this year, and I have had a lot of interactions with Darren Sammy. He has given a lot of inputs regarding the use of the right bowler at the right time and planning out the overs according to the nature of the game. I have got a lot of clarity with regards to captaincy because of Sammy.
There is a notion that captaincy affects the form of a batsman. Do you think it is true?
I feel cricket is a very mental game. The batsman in me has never got bogged down after being handed the captaincy of the Sunrisers. When I am batting, it is not the captain who is batting, but it is the batsman in me who is facing the ball. Some people say that the pressure of captaincy affects your batting without your knowledge, but I personally have not felt it. Captaincy does not affect my batting negatively.
You have played under two contrasting captains in MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli. Do you think when you are entrusted the responsibility of leading a side you can strike a balance between calmness and aggression – two distinct qualities that these leaders are known for?
Definitely. I guess the good thing about me is that I am quite balanced as a human being. It is one of the qualities that help me during my captaincy. I do get my aggressive side to the fore when it is required, and at the same time, I have the ability to control my aggression.
Sourav Ganguly had once said that captaincy is a crown of thorns and you have to take the honours and at the same time accept the brick bats. Are you mentally prepared for something like that?
I feel when you make a name for yourself, the adulations and the criticisms come along with it. It is a part and parcel of every sportsman’s life. When you captain the side, you are responsible for the mistakes of the whole team, which is a huge responsibility. I guess it depends on the individual as to how one takes those criticisms and how it matters to you. Criticisms will follow, but it is up to an individual to take them in their stride and look forward from there. I take success and failure in the same manner, and I try to be calm instead of getting into a state of panic. I realise that there will be times when things will not go your way, but I know I have to take things as they come. I am uncovering more facets of the T20 format since I am captaining the side and I only look to improve from here.
We have seen young cricketers flourishing when asked to lead a side. Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli are prime examples of that. Are you among those who thrive when there is more responsibility on your shoulders?
I feel the need to perform for my side even when I am not under pressure. Pressure to perform is part of a cricketer’s life and you are expected to bring your A game each time you turn up on the field. As a player and as a captain, all I look to do is lead by example and help my team win at the end of the day.
Has captaincy improved your batting in any way?
Frankly speaking, I have just gone about batting the way I have been doing so all these years. Whether I am the captain or not, my way of batting does not change. I always think positive and dream big. I am not someone who sets goals or targets. I believe in going with the flow and doing what is best for my country or any side that I am a part of. My priority is to be a successful batsman overseas and in India and do well across all formats of the game. I am prepared to take any challenge that comes my way.
What is Shikhar Dhawan’s brand of captaincy?
Smartness and flexibility to change plans according to the situation would be a style that I would want to employ in my captaincy. I am happy to captain the side and I am always open for discussions with my bowlers and other teammates, because at the end of the day, it is not just one man on the field who is going to win you the game. It is a collective effort that will help the side win games.
Every great invention, every tall monument was born as a dream – a dream that was directed by ambition, driven by passion and nurtured with determination, eventually taking a shape of reality. Similarly, many a seed of dream, willed by sheer belief, single-mindedness and hard work, have blossomed into great sporting careers.
One of the best examples of that in modern cricket is Abraham Benjamin de Villiers, the sports crazy boy who dared and succeeded in converting his day dreams into a beautiful reality of establishing himself as the most complete cricketer of his time.
AB de Villiers relived the fascinating journey of his sporting life in an endearing conversation with IPLT20.com.
Here are excerpts from his interview:
You played a number of sports as a boy. How did cricket win over the others?
I started playing cricket at a very early age, not seriously but for fun and games with my two elder brothers in the backyard. Having older brothers was the best part of growing up for me because they challenged me and pushed me to the limits. They were also always looking after me and showing me the way forward. I played many other sports like rugby, tennis and golf. Cricket was always there but never really in a serious way until I was about 16 or 17, when I joined the colts team in school. I was among the top 20 school cricketers in South Africa, which meant there was a possibility of a future in the sport. I still didn’t think it was a very serious thing, but moving forward, it just got better and better. I made the senior school team, then Under-19 team and got approached by the Nashua Titans coach at that time, David Nosworthy. That’s when I realized that instead of beating around the bush, I might now have to look at cricket as a career path and give it a proper go.
You are an attacking batsman by instinct. Was it hard to find the balance between being destructive and dependable?
Definitely. In the first few years of my international career, it was very difficult. I was 20-years old when I was thrown into the deep in the Proteas side. I wasn’t expecting it at all and I actually had no clue about my game. I had to try hard to find my feet and it was almost unfair. The fact that I was never really dropped from the Test team and sort of survived the first three to five years was a miracle, I think. It took a lot of people, from friends and family to teammates like Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis, Mark Boucher and Shaun Pollock – guys who were always there by my side when I was in bad form. If it wasn’t for these guys, I would’ve been dropped and probably made a comeback at a later stage. I was very blessed to have their stability as it gave me the opportunity to learn about my game faster than other guys my age did. I was very attacking and that’s when I realised that if I continue playing like this, I might entertain a few people here and there but I might not keep my place in the team for a very long time. That’s when I had to adjust. Cricketers and human beings in general will do anything to survive, and that’s what I did. I adapted.
Is cricket a mental game for you? Do you have any pre-game preparations like visualising or meditation or any such mental exercise?
I’ve been playing international cricket for 10 years now and so many things have changed. I should actually become a coach – I hate coaching and I’ll never do it – but I think I have a lot to offer to young players coming out of school. From a very young age, you are brainwashed that you’ve got to work really hard, eat these many balls, do this and that. But I think the mental side is far more important. I realised that only at the age of 26 and I wished I did earlier, that there are so many things that are more important, like being positive and fresh ahead of your game. I played way too many cricket games being mentally tired because of too much practice before the match. You don’t trust your own abilities and so the day before the match you play more and more balls, field, take a number of catches and go crazy. Eventually, when you go into the game, you’re so tired and fatigued, your muscles are sore and when you reach 20-30 runs, you give up because you can’t go on any more. And you think, ‘Oh my God, where did I go wrong there?’
If only I knew that earlier in my career. I probably work a lot less now but more cleverly. I practice for shorter periods of time but it is more intense. If you’re struggling in a particular area, have 20 minutes of intense training on that specific area and then move on, instead of wasting your time for three-four hours. I would like to give that back someday to someone who is just coming out of school, thinking that it’s all go, go, go. I’d just like to slow him down and say, ‘Listen, the most important thing is to know your own game, find out what your weaknesses are, eat less balls and think more about the game; think of how you are going to be an improved player in the next few years.' That speeds up the process of developing as a cricketer. It is important to go into every game and every innings with the same emotions and the same kind of mindset irrespective of how your last outing was. You just try to understand why you did badly, or well for that matter, in the last match and take that knowledge into the next innings with a fresh and clear mind.
How do you define your zone? Is it a phase you work your way in or does it just come?
You get into it. I have begun to do it more often as I’ve grown older but I still don’t know fully how to get there. For me it’s about being patient and waiting for it rather than forcing myself into it, which I did earlier in my career. Later, I realised that you’ve got to wait for it. Sometimes, it takes 10 balls, sometimes, five overs. I think the most important thing about being in the zone is to recognise your flow for the day. It’s always there, but sometimes, it takes you time to get into it.
How often do you feel like you are in such a space?
The game of cricket will never allow you to always be in the zone – it’s impossible; it’s too tough a game. There are variables that will not allow you to have a 100 percent success rate. I hate statistics but I’ll still try to put a number to it. For the best batsman that has ever lived, the success rate would be about 40 percent. I think once you’ve made peace with the fact that you’ll perform well only four or five out of 10 times – it will actually be less than that for most of us – you’ll be alright.
A few years ago, you said the bigger the pressure, the more relaxed you are. Please elaborate.
I think it was more the case of me playing mind games with myself. The pressure is always there and it is important to challenge yourself that way by saying that you enjoy it. I think it is something no one can prepare you for. I started to experience it very early, at age seven or eight, and learned how to deal with it. When you climb higher levels, it just gets worse and bigger. All of a sudden, I am playing for the Proteas, then suddenly I have this big IPL contract where the pressures are of a different kind; there are these huge crowds cheering for you and expecting you to do well every time. I enjoy those moments because I visualised myself in these situations from a very young age. I used to hit a lot of tennis balls against the wall, just playing by myself and imagined I was playing a Wimbledon game. I could feel the crowd cheering for me, could hear the noise and I created that pressure inside my head. I talked to myself while hitting the balls, almost giving running commentary. It was more like day-dreaming than serious visualisation. But I think doing those sorts of things and expecting pressure at a very young age meant that I was prepared when I was actually faced with these moments.
You have amazing hand-eye coordination. Is it the result of playing sports like rugby, tennis and golf at a very early age?
To a good extent, it is a natural talent; I was definitely gifted with the talent for balls and it was developed at a very young age because of the exposure that was given to me in all kinds of sports from my family. There was always some kind of sport going on every single day of my life – whether it was at school or home, it was just never ending and crazy. Tennis played a big part; I played it every single day growing up. My mum was a tennis coach and she pushed me quite hard at it. Tennis is really good for your hand-eye coordination and I think a lot of shots I play come from tennis as well.
Justin Langer told me that a batsman’s routine is his bible. Does it stand true for you?
I think each one is different there. That’s Justin Langer and it’s his character. I, on the other hand, like to keep things fresh. I do follow a certain kind of routine, I’m not a 100 percent sure. I just go with whatever I am comfortable with on that day. I definitely don’t have a routine that’s my bible because I don’t like to stick to things like that. But I do believe that I play in a certain way and I don’t go too far away from that. At the same time, there’s always room for creativity and improvement. So, I don’t really like to close myself too much. I’d rather keep the doors open, explore new things and find new avenues.
You’ve batted at various positions in all formats. Has that helped you become the versatile batsman you are today?
There’s good and bad in that. I think I learned a lot through that, but from age 20 to 25, being pushed around the batting order cost my stats a lot. I was always jumping around, not knowing where to go, not knowing my own game – I’m batting at 7, then 3 and then I’m opening the batting and one day I am keeping wicket! So, it was difficult to maintain a good profile and my average was going down. I am not blaming anyone or anything but I’m just saying that it was very, very tough. That was the down-side of it. The good side was that I was learning how to adapt and was challenging myself in different situations all the time. Now, I think I am reaping the rewards, especially in the T20 format, of playing in different situations and batting at different positions. Now I realise it wasn’t such a bad thing after all, to jump around a bit initially.
Has keeping wicket helped you gain a fresh perspective of your own batting and the game overall?
I think it definitely played a role without me knowing. You get a good view from behind the stumps of how the bowlers plan and how they think. It was also nice to be catching balls continuously as that again helped in the hand-eye coordination. I think 'keeping has been one of the best aspects of my cricket and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
Jonty Rhodes once told me he is so against you keeping wicket because he felt the team lost out on it’s best fielder. Agree?
I love fielding! Yes, I am always involved in the game from behind the stumps and can also influence the game in a bigger way, but I really enjoy fielding. I can see where Jonty is coming from because I idolised him growing up and I loved the way he fielded. I would never be as good as him – he was at a totally different level. But I’d like to follow in his footsteps as closely as I can and I will do that until the day I finish playing cricket.
You were thrust into the role of a senior player in the Proteas side at the age of 24. Did that mean you had to mature before your age as a cricketer?
I started to play early and was accepted by the senior players of the team as one of the guys who likes to think about the game and not just play and move on. I had the respect of the senior players from very early in my career and that motivated me to get involved. I never saw myself as a senior player at the age of 24-25, but that’s when Graeme started pulling me in saying, ‘You need to take more responsibility in certain areas. You’re no more a 20-year-old, even though you play like one and act like one at times. You’ve been playing for four-five years now and it’s time you took part in certain things that happen in the team dynamics that will push you and help you grow.' That’s how things panned out and I was among the big boys at 25-26. And it has been a huge honour.
Let’s talk about some of the outrageous shots you play. The scoop over fine-leg to a fast bowler: dangerous shot to play not only in terms of getting out but it also poses physical danger. How often do you practise that shot in the nets?
I don’t pratise it at all; I have never practised that shot in my entire life! It has only come out in the games. But again, to come back to your earlier question about Justin Langer, that’s exactly the reason why I don’t have strict routines. I, sometimes, just have to allow myself to play to the situation. In one game a few years ago, I felt the need of scoring a boundary right away and I wasn’t hitting the ball well on that day. The best option for me then was to try and use the bowler’s pace and hit it where he wouldn’t expect me to. It came off. I’ve gotten out playing that shot, but I never lost faith in the fact that I can play it. It’s really served me well over the last few IPLs. The fine-leg fielder stands up in the ring most of the times and it’s an easy boundary option. As far as the physical dangers go, you can get hit off any ball, playing any other shot when facing the fast bowlers. If you keep your eye on the ball, more often than not you will not get hurt.
Do you see yourself as a finisher or would you fancy batting in the top order, even in the T20 format?
I’d love to play all kinds of roles, no matter the format. If the captain asks me to play a particular role, it just gives me confidence to know that he has chosen me because he thinks I am the best man for it. There’s a reason why he wants me to open the batting or finish the game, so I’ll go and show him that he’s right. Like I said, I don’t like to limit myself and I love to keep the options open. Obviously, I’d love to score hundreds but it’s just not possible when you’re batting at 5 or 6 in T20 cricket. The Orange Cap goes out of the window because you don’t bat enough. But those are the kind of sacrifices you make for the team and it also gives you the opportunity to be there to hit the winning runs, like Dhoni does. There’s nothing more rewarding than being there in the end, holding a bat in your hand, knowing that you’ve finished the game for your team. That’s probably the most difficult job in cricket. A lot of people say it’s opening the batting, which is also true, but I think finishing a game of cricket comes with a lot of pressure. It’s an honour to be able to perform that role, and hopefully, I’ll have many more.
What does it feel like to be almost perfect?
I’m certainly not an over-confident guy. I know that like all humans, I’ve got my weaknesses and insecurities. There are areas where I’m not as good as some of the other players are. You just try to hide and minimise those weaknesses and maximise and display your strengths. I am always very critical of my performances even though I don’t show it and people won’t know it. When I don’t finish games, I’m quite hard on myself and I don’t enjoy it when it happens that way. That’s probably part of the reason why I do succeed sometimes. When you’re disappointed, it makes that will to succeed so much bigger and you’re so much hungrier to do well. I still feel there’s a lot more room for improvement and there are still areas I can finish games better and win not only matches but tournaments. I will continue to dream. That’s what we humans are like.