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Dhawan, Pant erase worry lines before flight to Australia

In the seven innings across formats in this home series against the West Indies, Shikhar Dhawan’s best effort was a scratchy 43 in Lucknow that had come under the shadow of his opening partner Rohit Sharma’s hundred. More embarrassingly, he’d made a nemesis out of rookie pacer, Oshane Thomas, who castled him on three successive occasions since making his international debut.

After a forgettable tour of England in whites, where he had managed only 162 runs in eight innings, the southpaw already found himself pushed out of the Test series at home. Things weren’t in place for the opener who was undergoing a big-score drought.

For Rishabh Pant too, the series had been odd. Axe fell on him after he failed to convert both his starts in the preceding ODI series as India found themselves under pressure midway in the face of an unexpected fightback from Windies. Consequently, Pant spent the final two games on the bench.

Back into the T20I eleven, after MS Dhoni was ‘rested’, Pant had only managed scores of 1 and 5 respectively before landing in Chennai. If not from the former Indian captain, who the board appear to be phasing out of the T20I format, there was pressure mounting from fellow wicketkeeper-batsman Dinesh Karthik, who in his new avatar as a finisher had stepped up well.

With a tough Australian tour coming up shortly, Dhawan and Pant’s dry patch was starting to stick out like a sore thumb. But on Sunday, both the Delhi batsmen wiped off India’s worry lines with their career-best knocks in a drama-filled climax to West Indies’ tour of India.

At the beginning of their 182-run chase, it was largely Dhawan that helped India gain the maximum out of the new ball and fielding restrictions. He used his feet particularly well against Khary Pierre, who bowled two overs of left-arm spin inside powerplay, and then upped the ante against pacers. Thomas, who’d made Dhawan his bunny, and Carlos Brathwaite were treated the worst – three boundaries each – as the opener raced to 27 off 19.

Windies did briefly halt the flow of runs with a boundary-less over each from Kieron Pollard and Keemo Paul, but once Pant got into his element there was no stopping him. For a while, Pant even made a silent spectator out of Dhawan, as he took on Brathwaite, Pollard and Thomas with his trademark audacity. The reverse sweeps and ramp shots were all on display. Watching his batting partner – and now a teammate from the upcoming season of the IPL – going after the bowling with such brutality, set the senior pro shed inhibitions, if any, of a steep chase, again.

The acceleration for Dhawan came about after a six off a free-hit ball from Thomas. From a 35 off 27 deliveries, he raced to his half-century – first in eight innings – in the matter of just another nine balls. Pant went after Pollard, whose first spell cost just 11 runs in 2 overs, and then raised his maiden fifty in the format with yet another one of his ramp shots that fell just short of Pierre before rolling across the boundary rope.

It did help India that Brathwaite, oddly, did not find merit in brining on both his left-arm spinners once the field was spread for another six overs. The visitors had six overs left in the bank – two from Pierre and all four of Fabian Allen – but instead kept at it with their faster bowlers, much to the India’s delight. Dhawan and Pant both enjoyed the pace on the ball, and carted it all around the park to set-up their match-winning partnership of 130 that came at 10 an over and took the pitch out of equation.

Their dismissals in closing minutes lead to a cliffhanger that could have gone either way, and had the potential to wipe the sheepish smiles off the faces in the Indian camp, if not for a fielding fumble by Allen off the last ball that helped the hosts evade another tie on this assignment.

However, the result would have done little to dent the confidence of the duo who had grown desperate to end their run-drought and find their grove before boarding that flight to Australia. More crucially, to have done that when India found themselves chasing a stiff target on a turning wicket expected to slow down further without either of Kohli or Rohit leading the way in the middle was a massive shot in the arm for not just the underfire pair but also the team’s preparedness for stringent challenges that lay ahead.

Skipper Rohit, too, was pleased with having ticked off another box ahead of the next limited-overs assignment that begins in 10-days’ time in Brisbane. “It was important from the team’s perspective that they get some runs and find form ahead of the important Australian tour.”

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