Shikhar Dhawan has added a new gear to his T20 batting, as evidenced by his returns in the IPL, particularly since the middle of the 2019 season. In IPL 2020, he was ESPNcricinfo's leader on the Smart Runs chart, pipping league top-scorer KL Rahul.
From the time his turnaround started in the IPL, with an unbeaten 63-ball unbeaten 97 against the Kolkata Knight Riders in the first half of IPL 2019], Dhawan has been a batter transformed. From that game onwards, he leads the IPL runs tally, with 1367 runs in 35 matches, at an average of 45.56 and a strike rate of 141.95. Only AB de Villiers among the top 10 run-getters has a higher strike rate.
And yet, Dhawan would currently not find a spot in India's first-choice T20I XI. The last time he played for India in the format was the first match of a five-game series against England, in March 2021. A poor outing yielded 4 off 12 and Dhawan was benched for the last four T20Is. With Virat Kohli opting to go up the order in the final game and indicating he was likely to continue his pairing with Rohit Sharma at the top, the other openers in the side will feel the squeeze of a space crunch, with at least four claimants for two spots now that Kohli is also eyeing opening.
In that context, India's upcoming T20I series against Sri Lanka is of greater importance to Dhawan than normal. While he has been fantastic in the IPL, in that same time-frame, his showing in T20 internationals has been underwhelming. He has featured in only 15 T20Is in that time, out of the 28 that India have played. Further, his average (25.92) and strike rate (117.47) in that period are decidedly below-par. So for this series, apart from being captain of India, Dhawan will want to lead the way in batting too.
"It is very important. Of course any international match has its own impact, and whenever you perform internationally it makes a huge impact," Dhawan said on Saturday, the eve of the first T20I. "So on a personal note, I'm really looking forward to perform over here and make my place more stronger for World Cup contendership. Then we'll see how it goes in the future."
Dhawan the captain too, has clear-cut goals for the series. India opted to blood new players in the third and final ODI, having won the first two and sealed the series. Dhawan indicated something similar could be on the cards in the T20Is.
"We have to win the series. In the last ODI, there was a good opportunity to give some youngsters a chance and give them a taste of international cricket, because we had already won the series," Dhawan said. "We'll of course go in with our best XI first. We'll try to win the first two matches, and then according to the situation, we can experiment in the last game, if needed.
"If we win two matches, then we have options to play any combination we want to. Otherwise, our main goal is to play the best XI to win the series. That's our first priority. After that, if we can seal it like we did in the ODIs, we can think of experimenting."
Dhawan exuded confidence in his young side, who are much more familiar with high-intensity T20 cricket than one-dayers due to the IPL. He also pointed to Sri Lanka's better showing in the second and third ODIs, and greater familiarity with the Indians on tour as factors that would make the T20Is a good contest.
"Of course they are ready, that's why they are here," Dhawan said. "As you saw, youngsters have performed so well in the ODI series, so they'll be taking that confidence ahead in the T20I series. You will see them perform really well. As a team, we have created an amazing environment over here. Really looking forward to do well as a team. Not just the youngsters, even the senior players are looking forward to it.
"I think the competition will be good. You saw the Sri Lankan team improve a lot in the last two (ODI) matches. They played really well and they are a good team, with a lot of youngsters. We've both already played three matches now, so both teams know each others' strengths and weaknesses. That's a good thing, and it will add to the challenge."