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In an age controlled by professional image consultants, public figures are usually well prepared with appropriate answers for interviewers, even in their sleep. Thus, when we spent a day with Shikhar Dhawan (who made a comeback to international cricket this year with back-to-back ‘man of the series’ trophies), it was initially like any other interaction with a star cricketer. As the day progressed, though, the southpaw became more candid, and by the time we said goodbye, the layers concealing the man inside the celebrity had disappeared.

Jumper and chinos by Tommy Hilfiger/ Shoes by Adidas Originals

THE BRAND – Session 1

It was a warm October morning in Mumbai, blanketed in a cloud of gunpowder fumes, fresh from the Diwali shenanigans of the previous night. I was accompanied by Shikhar Dhawan’s manager en route to the airport to receive the cricketer, as he arrived in the city ahead of the first ODI against the touring New Zealand Black Caps, at the Wankhede Stadium. With the build of an athlete, a firm handshake and everything else screaming ‘Delhi’, he was exactly what I had perceived of him from his on-field persona. Only the famously twirled moustache was absent, which he confessed to having grown bored of. “Diwali was relaxed. Had a nice time with the family,” our conversation began. The car rolled out of the VIP parking lot, and my mention of the word ‘cricket’ somewhat released the foot off the pedal of awkwardness.

The Indian opening batsman was all but written off after being released from the Indian One Day side midway through the England ODI series, earlier this year. A poor run of form had already cost him his place in the Test side. But cut to present day and the swashbuckling Jat is back to doing what he is best at — winning games for the country. “After being dropped, I realised that there are other aspects to my life than cricket. And since I got a lot of free time, I felt the pressure ease away. I enjoyed playing domestic cricket once again. I was enjoying my time with my Delhi boys. I felt more free. Actually, things really turned around for me during the Deodhar Trophy. A selector met me and told me that KL [Rahul] got injured, and unfortunately has to undergo surgery, but you will replace him in the side. And from that moment, I started feeling even more confident. I’d just scored a hundred and then the selector gave me the assurance. And then the IPL went really well. I was among the top five run-getters again. I carried the same form into the ICC Champions Trophy and won the ‘Golden Bat’ award for a second consecutive time. So it’s been a very good year for me. In fact, I made my ODI comeback in the Champions Trophy and also Test cricket, and I was the ‘Man of the Series’ in both my comeback tournaments, which was a big achievement for me, and I’m really thankful to god for it. But then my mother got sick. She had cancer and went through surgery. Everything went well, the cancer was removed, and then my wife [Ayesha] had a big surgery. Luckily, I’m a very strong person and can handle emotions in a calm manner. And, that’s what I did [in that situation]. It’s not that I was in a state of shock or something. I soaked everything in and I knew what I [had] to do — be there with my wife at that particular moment, because I didn’t want my wife to be alone. So that’s when I chose not to play that series and be with her. That’s what was more important to me — be the strength for her.” The 31-year-old looked out of the window to appreciate the rare sight of an empty Western Express Highway, after his monologue.

It’s worth recalling that for a man who, on December 5, turns 32 — considered the fag end of a batsman’s prime — the opener has long been flirting with greatness. As a teenage prodigy, he made his presence known in Delhi’s cricketing circles even before laying claim to the ‘Man of the Series’ trophy in the 2004 Under-19 World Cup by virtue of being the tournament’s highest run-scorer — a record that still stands. That was immediately followed by a hugely successful domestic season, where he finished as Delhi’s best batsman in the Ranji Trophy, scoring back-to-back unbeaten hundreds in his List A debut tournament. That earned the opener a call-up for the India Seniors squad for the Challenger Trophy, the competition in which he famously put on a 246-run first wicket partnership with future Indian skipper MS Dhoni, en route to a 124-ball 126. But while the Jharkhand wicketkeeper-batsman cemented his place in the Indian side within the space of the next 12 months, Dhawan had to wait for his first opportunity with the national team till 2010, and then, for another three years to finally make his Test cricket breakthrough with a record-breaking 174-ball 187 against Australia in Mohali. Critics, despite Shikhar’s towering highs, still cite inconsistent scoring patterns against his case for a place among the elite, and it’s probably something that he has tried to address during his time away from international cricket this year.

“Of course, I was trying my best — no one can say that I wasn’t — but maybe I was trying too hard. And then I backed off. I said to myself that it’s alright — if India (the opportunity) has to come, it will come to me. I don’t have to go for it. I’ve already achieved [a] lot of things in my career. And it’s a race that will never end. I’m not going [to] make my life a living hell for it. Just because I’m not playing international cricket, it can’t cost me my happiness. I want to be a happy person. It’s my strength; it’s who I am. So whether I play for India or not — of course, everybody wants to play for India — I still want to be happy. That sort of mindset put me back into a good place again. You have to remind yourself of the reason you started playing cricket; it’s because you enjoyed doing it in the first place. And now I’m scoring more consistently.”

The car wafted along the promenade as we travelled south from the Bandra-Worli Sea Link. It would be only two days later that India would be beaten in the opening match of the three-ODI bilateral series against the Kiwis a few kilometers from here, only to bounce back in the way champion teams do, to clinch the series 2-1. Dhawan ended up as India’s fourth most successful batsman, and contributed with a top score of 68 to set up the team’s six-wicket win in Pune. By the time you read this, Team India will be preparing for the third Test of the series against Sri Lanka at the Feroz Shah Kotla Stadium, ahead of the much anticipated tour to South Africa. The last time Dhawan travelled to the Rainbow Nation, it was a forgettable outing, as he could only manage 76 runs in four Test innings, while the ODI series also yielded only 12 runs from his bat. “I’ll start preparing for that now, not just skill-wise but also mentally. And not just South Africa, but also all the series on the way. It’s because if I have to make it to the squad, I’ll have to keep performing consistently till then. I like to go step by step, so I’m preparing for the New Zealand series. I try to see what my strengths [are], where I can improve, because even if it’s one per cent, it makes a huge impact. I work on my overall self — skills, mental strength and fitness.” Just as it looked like the Dilliwallah was beginning to emerge out of the cricketer, we arrived at the shoot location.

The break saw Shikhar greet the crew with extreme politeness, before becoming a little flustered with a faulty power line. He comes across as an especially punctual man; everyone on the set was asked to wrap up the shoot in time for him to reach the nets at Wankhede by 4 pm. Some celebs force you to work according to their likes, and then there are the likes of Dhawan, who encourage you to work towards a common goal. It’s no wonder that his IPL teammates hail his teamwork qualities. Dhawan also demonstrated an unusually cool fashion sense. He slipped seamlessly in and out of the clothes; a mixtape playing Nicolas Jaar and Tom Redwood had him grooving, and more than eased the remainder of the nerves. A click here, a flash there and it was time for lunch (and the next bunch of questions).

Jacket and trousers by Z Zegna

T-shirt, jacket and trousers all by Tommy Hilfiger/ Shoes by DC/
‘BR 123 Commando’ watch with a rubber strap by Bell & Ross

THE CRICKETER – Session 2

“You can either crib about life or be grateful for it.” We picked up from where we left off. Dhawan, who turned out to be quite a foodie, enjoyed the grilled chicken with mushroom sauce from his favourite Lower Parel eatery. He claims to have been to every hole-in-the-wall eatery in the city during his two-season IPL stint with the Mumbai Indians. His body language now spoke of a batsman who’s got his eye in, while words started to flow like the runs from his bat against his favourite opposition, Australia. “I’m grateful. It’s how you want to look at life. There will always be people who are ahead of me in life, but there are always people who are still behind me. And, I’m that person who likes to see both these sides. Also, I can get whatever I want to get. If I think of something, I’ll get it. It’s maybe also because I’m spiritually connected. I’ve learned things from a lot of Sufi music. I’m the sort of person who likes to go beyond the obvious, into the depths of everything that I do. Whatever work I do, I do it in a very detailed manner. Even when it comes to cricket, I don’t like to talk about the superficial stuff; I always go deep [into the matter].”

He led me into the Indian dressing room. “The mood inside the team is really healthy, really happy. We all laugh a lot; we all cheer each other up. And, of course, it’s a competitive world. There are so many quality batsmen [vying for the top order slot in limited overs cricket] — KL Rahul, Ajinkya [Rahane], Rohit [Sharma], and even myself. So the pressure is there, but it also brings the best out of me. When you’re uncomfortable, you learn more. I’m aware if I don’t perform well for two to three matches, there’s always another player to take my place in the team. That keeps me on my toes, which is a very good thing. At the same time, my acceptance power is strong. So if say, Rahul or Ajinkya is playing instead of me — of course, it will hurt a bit — I’ll analyse where I need to improve.” As a lifelong Indian cricket fan, I couldn’t help but silently enjoy listening to how Indian cricket has an embarrassment of riches at the moment. The fact that five world-class batsman are vying for the two opening slots across formats is testimony to India’s number one status in two out of the three formats, under Virat Kohli’s leadership.

“Dhoni bhai was a very experienced leader when I arrived in the team. He knew everything; he was a seasoned campaigner. But Virat is doing a great job as well. He has channelised his aggression into his captaincy. Virat is also really fit, so he has set the standard really high for us. One more thing about Virat and his aggression – he’s always aggressive with the opposition, but with us, he’s relaxed. That gives more security in the heads of the players. Also, he backs the players. He knows that, ‘Hey, this guy is a match-winner and deserves a fair chance.’ He stands up for his players. I really appreciate and admire that about him.”

These two Delhi lads are also great buddies. “Poori bakchodi hoti hai dressing room mein (grins). Bakchodon mein sabse bademai ho gaya, Virat ho gaya (It’s a dressing room full of pranksters; Virat and me being the biggest ones). Our wavelengths match the best. Hardik Pandya is the new ‘swag’ boy now, with his flamboyance. KL Rahul is the one with the most class and elegance.” He lent a sense of normalcy to Indian cricketers, who (as long as they’re performing well) are revered as demigods in the country. Outside the game (and of course the endorsements), they’re also regular people with regular lives.

In the very next moment, I was reminded of what sets these gentlemen apart from the ordinary. An image from the 2015 India v Sri Lanka Test match in Galle would definitely make its way to the photo wall in Dhawan’s drawing room. He’s seen joking about a swollen arm with Kohli in the middle. “It is very memorable. I scored a hundred through a fracture in my right hand. In fact, I got injured right while fielding in the first session of the game. It took a lot of balls to get to that hundred and I cherish it a lot. Not that it has happened for the first time. I’ve played through fractures for my team on three to four occasions. I enjoy the challenge.”

Inchiostro-multicolour polo with patch and knit details by Gucci

THE MAN – Session 3

As planned, the shoot wrapped up just in time for Dhawan to catch up with the team bus at the stadium. My interview with him had, by now, evolved into a bar conversation between two men, which didn’t require the presence of a questionnaire. It drifted onto more important topics, like the dependence on technology and the impact of social media, as he vigorously thumbed his phone screen. “It’s a new addiction in this day and age. It’s very unhealthy. It is important for young people to balance it out. What’s happening these days is that people’s happiness is dependent on the number of likes they get on Facebook. Look at me, I’m also addicted to my phone. Luckily I’m an athlete, so I stay away from my phone for the five to six hours that I spend with my sport. Phone bhi ek beemaari hai (it’s a disease).” A radio station played a recent Bollywood song. Dhawan had earlier confessed to being an admirer of Sufi music, but he doesn’t dislike new-age Hindi film music tunes, much like everything else. “I also like reading. I enjoy horse riding as well; I’d like to get better at it, though. I love adventure sports. I’ve done bungee jumping, paragliding, scuba diving and snorkelling.” What about films? “I enjoy watching Punjabi movies a lot. There’s Diljit [Dosanjh], there’s Binnu Dhillon and, of course, comedians like Guggi paaji. I love the Punjabi sense of humour. I loved Baahubali 2 as well. I watched Baywatch recently and also enjoy superhero movies. Actually, most of them I watch while on flights.”

The evening sun shone on the Haji Ali shrine , as we turned our heads to trace the sound of a rocketing Ducati. It reminded him of his lost muse, a Suzuki Hayabusa, which had to be unfortunately euthanised after his friend crashed it. Dhawan now drives a Mercedes-Benz GL-Class, but still likes to talk about bikes. “Have you checked out the Triumph Rocket?” the fanboy inside him repeats excitedly.

Ask him if his three-year old son Zoravar is beginning to show interest in any of his father’s passions, and a completely different person emerges in response. Someone like a ghost, whose existence you won’t believe till you see it for real. “My son turns four soon, and I’ve hardly spent eight to nine months of my life with him. My elder daughter is 17, the younger one 12 (both from his wife’s previous marriage), and they’re growing so fast and will soon have their own adult lives. My kids don’t have a father coming back home every night. Even my wife has to sacrifice a lot. They crave for a normal life, too, but they don’t get it. As cricketers, we are focussed on the game most of the time and don’t get to think about other things. It’s the families who are making the real sacrifices,” lamented Dhawan, who shuttles between Melbourne (where his wife and kids live) and Delhi (his parental residence). He lightens the mood by expressing his desire to enjoy life after hanging up his boots, “I can be a motivational speaker, a Hindi commentator — my English is not that great. I’m going to make a lot of money. I can sit on the TV as an expert. My family has a business background, so maybe I can choose that path as well.”

Entering the iconic Wankhede stadium, I ask him my final question — who is Shikhar Dhawan? “I’m a very relaxed person. As cricketers, we hardly get days off, so whenever I do, I want to relax. I like to take my life slowly. I don’t want to go out and do stuff because I’m doing so much already. If it’s a short break, I’m fine in Delhi — staying with my mother, visiting my nani, lazing around or getting a nice massage sometimes. My best friends from childhood also come around, and all we do is bakchodi. But if I get more time, then I go to Australia, live there.” The car stops, he gathers his belongings and for me, in a way, completes the journey from Shikhar Dhawan the brand to Shikhar Dhawan the man. But for him, the day has just begun. It’s time to go back to where he belongs for now.

Shirt by Paul Smith/ Jacket by Burberry/ Trousers by Corneliani/ Shoes by DC

CRICKET BANTER

Who do you think are the best bowlers in the world right now?

Mitchell Starc, R Ashwin — he’s an intelligent bowler, and Trent Boult.

Who’s your favourite opposition?

I enjoy playing against Australia. It’s aggressive and I like the challenge, even South Africa and New Zealand. They all have different characters you know. The Kiwis go hard at the game but they’re not talkers, more gentlemanly instead. I like playing against teams that pose a challenge.

Have you had any idols?

I didn’t have any one idol while growing up. I never used to watch cricket much. I played more and watched only highlights. Abhi bhi TV zyada nahi dekhta. But while growing up, I used to like watching Andy Flower, Matthew Hayden, [Brian] Lara. Jin se kuch seekhne ko mil jaaye, wo dekhta tha.

Do you have a favourite opening partner?

I enjoy batting with everyone. Each one of them is a different character. With Vijay, I know that he doesn’t like his non-striker to be moving here and there. He’s very particular about it, ‘oh don’t move this way,’ ‘oh don’t move that way.’ Rahul and Rohit are completely different, they’re funny guys. Ajinkya is also funny but in a serious way. But they’re all very good players and we all share a very good relationship.

How has MS Dhoni changed after stepping down from captaincy?

He’s a chilled out person and has remained the same even after stepping down from captaincy. He doesn’t make you feel like how big a star he is. Unko waqt ke saath dhalna aata hai. Not everyone has that quality.

 

Featured image credits: Knit jumper by Brooks Brothers/ Blazer by Paul Smith/ Trousers by Armani Collezioni/ Shoes by Gucci

 

PHOTOGRAPHER: ROHAN SHRESTHA

ART DIRECTOR: AMIT NAIK

FASHION DIRECTOR: KUSHAL PARMANAND

JUNIOR STYLIST: NEELANGANA VASUDEVA

HAIR & MAKE UP: AMELIA, TFM

LOCATION COURTESY: THE WORLD TOWERS BY LODHA GROUP

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