It's impossible not to like Shikhar Dhawan. The little choti at the back of his head, the twirled moustache, an endearing, disarming smile which reaches his eyes, a relaxed attitude, good manners. Oh, and the batting. The magical, almost subliminal batting, a sight for sore eyes, a feast for the aficionado and the layman alike, a thing of beauty and a joy forever.
Dhawan is no prodigy who has burst out of nowhere. He isn't 18 or even 20, sent down to the earth only to wow audiences with his incandescent strokeplay and his iridescent presence. He is no Tendulkar, blessed by the cricketing Gods who have always accepted him as one of their own. Where Tendulkar evokes awe and respect - as he has for more than half his life now - Dhawan attracts admiration for the manner in which he has turned things around and transformed himself from a journeyman cricketer to a young man with the cricketing world at his feet.
One of the drawbacks of being a genius such as Tendulkar is that the focus is on the finished product and the numbers rather than the effort gone into harnessing a skill-set bestowed only upon the fortunate few. The little man bristles whenever anyone so much as suggests that things have come easy to him; batting does come easy to the maestro, but that's as much to do with immense natural ability as the hours and hours of practice in relative anonymity - if that's possible in his case - away from public glare.
Dhawan's case is different. That he had the talent was never in question. He rose through the ranks, playing age group cricket first for his state, then the country, and had been earmarked reasonably early in his cricketing life as one for the future. But there was the streak of a rebel in him. Perhaps buoyed by the intrepidness that will remain the domain of the very young, Dhawan allowed his focus to waver.
His first coming in international cricket was very little to write home about, and it appeared as if the attractive left-hand bat would remain a footnote in Indian cricket history like many before him. He had got his chances in the Caribbean in 2011 largely because the established stars were rested in the immediacy of the World Cup triumph, but he hadn't quite seized his opportunity. And then the big boys returned to send him back into relative obscurity.
Some 20 months later, Dhawan returned to the international scene as much because he had made a truckload of domestic runs, but also because Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, his Delhi mates, had been knocked off the pedestal. The big, attractive runs from their blades had dried up. It was time to move on, and the selectors went back to Dhawan, who had spent time on the sidelines working on his craft instead of moping and convincing himself that the whole world was against him.
One of the more tempting options in life is to embrace the 'I-have-been-hard-done-by' line of thought. The unwillingness to accept that you might have gone wrong somewhere is a natural human reaction to any misfortune. This period of self-pity has to perforce then be replaced by clinical analysis. Not everyone has the equanimity to think things through clearly; even those that do, find it difficult to take the next step, which is to work towards bouncing back with greater drive, desire and determination.
The Dhawan who made his Test debut at the PCA Stadium in Mohali this March was unrecognisable from Mark I. There was confidence that didn't even so much as border on the cocky; there was a swagger that was far removed from arrogance. And, there was a rich array of strokes, a wide repertoire unleashed with such authority and grace that you really wondered where this man had been kept hidden when all along, he had been working with Madan Sharma, more his guru than his coach.
Dhawan, 27, made the fastest Test hundred by a debutant, 187 of the very best that knocked the stuffing out of the Australians. The first day had been washed out, and Australia had posted upwards of 400 batting first. A draw was the odds-on favourite until Dhawan deigned otherwise. In a series full of attractive strokeplay, this one innings stood out for brilliance, audacity and timing, in every sense of the word. And perhaps just to reiterate that this was no fairytale, Dhawan broke his finger while fielding in the same Test, missing the following game and being ruled out of cricket for nearly six weeks.
When he returned, for Sunrisers Hyderabad in IPL VI, the magic remained undiminished. It was almost as if he had never been away. The runs came in torrents - in the IPL, in the Champions Trophy in England, in the tri-series in the West Indies, in the five-match One-Day International series in Zimbabwe and now, in the Champions League.
These have been wonderfully entertaining runs, made with deference and respect but also with a carefree attitude reflective of his state of mind. But he hasn't taken anything for granted; his work ethics are impeccable, his focus unwavering. It's almost as if he either doesn't recognise or acknowledge that he is on to a special thing. The humility is as attractive as it is spontaneous and even though he is now the Sunrisers captain, he is, and will continue to remain, one of the boys.
Dhawan puts his success down to increased maturity and the stability that marrying the one you are in love with provides. It's a straightforward point of view, stunning in its simplicity. Clearly, Dhawan is enjoying life, and therefore his cricket; he doesn't quite enjoy talking about himself as much as he does caressing the cricket ball to different parts of the ground almost apologetically.
Tom Moody has watched some of cricket's all-time great batsmen from close quarters, and knows a thing or two about batting himself. "I hadn't seen a lot of Shikhar early on, I saw him in the early stages of the IPL when he was with Mumbai. But I think his maturity and work ethic have sort of come in line," Moody, the Sunrisers coach, said reflectively of his ward's purple patch. "He is very clear on what he wants to achieve, he is an extremely hard worker. He is very thorough in his preparation. When you have someone who has those professional standards, along with a lot of natural ability, they are destined to perform consistently at the high level. And it's opportunity as well. There's a lot of good players out there that do the right things and work hard but don't get the opportunity. Shikhar, there was a little opening where he got his opportunity here in Mohali, and he took it both with hands and stamped his authority on the international stage. He hasn't looked back since."
He hasn't, yes. But he hasn't stopped looking forward. One particular exchange with Kepler Wessels comes to mind, for no particular reason. Dale Steyn was getting the ball to go a mile, and Wessels was in conversation with a miked-up Dhawan during the IPL. "He might be your team mate now, but when you go to South Africa later this year, things will be so different," Wessels warned. To which Dhawan replied, "Yes, I will have to watch out for the swing early on." Wessels countered, menacingly, "I think you will have to be more wary of the short stuff." Dhawan, composed, unruffled, came back with, "I play the short ball well, so no worries on that count." Point made, case rested. No worries, indeed.