'People can abuse me for a lifetime, but they can't stop me from playing'
After every wisecrack that Shikhar Dhawan makes - and there are a few - he pauses for a fraction of a second to amplify its effect before following up with a bellowing laugh. It doesn't matter that it's a conversation on the phone - you can practically picture him giving his moustache a twirl, while excitedly slapping his thigh. Dhawan, 31, has had few such raucous moments over the last year or so, during which period he found himself out of the Indian side in every format. After a middling run in the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 tournament and the Vijay Hazare 50-overs domestic competition, where he made five successive scores of under 30, Dhawan finally found form to smash 128, 50 and 45 for India B in the Deodhar Trophy. Here he opens up on his comeback aspirations ahead of the Champions Trophy, playing with a more relaxed mindset, and using criticism as motivation.
How important are these knocks - a century and a fifty in the Deodhar Trophy - in the context of your comeback plans?
These knocks were very important because I haven't been making a lot of runs for quite some time, but my process has always been the same. I was working hard and never let my work ethic go down. This tournament is one of the more important ones ahead of the Champions Trophy. I knew that I had to do well to find a place in the Indian team once again. Luckily the right things happened at the right time, so I am very thankful to God that things have fallen in place.
You must have felt something was going wrong when you had a string of low scores in Tests and ODIs, which eventually led to your omission from both sides?
Look, there are always a few innings over which these things happen. When I was playing the ODI series against England, I knew that it was an important series. In the first game, I got out cutting one uppishly to third man, and in the second, I got an inside edge onto the stumps after attempting a drive. I feel I was doing the right things but it's just that they weren't going my way.
Of course, when you are not performing, you think a lot, because you want to do well. You know how important a place in the side is. What should I do and what should I avoid doing?
I made 15-20 and sometimes even a half-century before getting out. Even against West Indies, I made a half-century [in Antigua], but I was getting dismissed after being set.
I didn't feel that technically I had to do something dramatically different. Of course, wherever I thought I could improve, I definitely worked on those areas and analysed them. Then I wondered why I wasn't able to score runs. I feel there comes a time in every player's career where runs elude you despite doing the right things. There are also times when you don't do the right things but everything still goes in your favour.
What are the technical adjustments you made? Did you decide to cut out a few strokes at the start?
There are a few changes I made, but I don't want to discuss them. That [cutting out strokes] is more a mental aspect than a technical one. You apply your mind and work out which shot leaves you at a greater risk of getting out. Such things are always a part of your planning as a batsman -which shot is on or not on a certain pitch. I am more of an instinctive player who likes to play on the merit of the ball rather than think about which shots I have to shelve. I enjoy playing shots and that gives me confidence.
How did your form impact you mentally? You have had a pretty good ODI record, including an average of 57.40 from five games in Australia last year. But did your poor run in Test cricket impact your ODI game as well?
If you look at ODIs, I was among the runs when we last played in Australia. Even in the T20s I made runs. I played only two ODIs after the Australia series [against England this January], and then I was dropped from the XI. Of course, when you aren't in good form, there is always pressure on you to make runs in international cricket, regardless of the format. I feel that the flow - like, when I was doing well, I was playing all the three formats - naturally got affected when I wasn't scoring runs [in Test matches]. The impact of my poor run in Test matches was felt in ODIs and T20s as well. It wasn't as if my ODI record suffered because of those two matches - my records are still very strong - but the flow will obviously be affected.
You were getting out after making starts. What do you think was behind that? Was it a concentration issue or just a lengthy bad patch?
I talk to [VVS] Laxman bhai a lot because I spend time with him at Sunrisers Hyderabad in the IPL. On the mental aspects, I always look to be positive and relaxed. Every moment is a new one. Planning is one thing, but what you feel out there in the middle is a totally different ball game. When I was getting out for 25-30, I wanted to somehow grit it out and convert it into a bigger score. I know what my strengths are, but still somehow things haven't gone my way.
What did you do differently in the Deodhar Trophy?
I was very relaxed. Of course, you want to put on partnerships, say a 50-run partnership that will stabilise the team. Once you spend time, the flow starts coming, and I am that kind of batsman who makes runs quickly once I am in the flow. I was playing on merit and didn't really worry too much about what I needed to do. Actually, I enjoyed my cricket more in these few months because there was less pressure on me and I was free.
It's easy to ask someone who is out of form to stay relaxed. But how easy is it to actually put it into practice, given that you are looking for a place in the Champions Trophy squad?
It totally depends on the individual and how he handles pressure. It is always easier said than done. I wasn't playing well in the Indian team, and no matter how much I wanted to relax, I couldn't because you know where you stand. At the end of the day, when you are giving your best and yet things are not happening, frustration creeps in.
Playing cricket is the love of my life. But then you have to accept things in life. This time [away from the India side] has taught me to accept things, and I can say it has made me a more relaxed person. Heart of hearts, I know I followed my process and gave my best. I am just going to enjoy my game and let's see how it goes.
Others are also doing well and there is always competition for batsmen in India. I believe I know my game and if I perform well, my impact is very strong on the game. Luckily things went my way in the last two matches.
You keep talking about sticking to the same processes. What are these processes?
The first step in my process includes brushing my teeth (laughs). Training includes gym sessions thrice a week, when there are no matches. Then there are running sessions and two-three net sessions and throwdowns in between. Then I work on improving a particular shot. This is generally the process I have followed.
Do you miss being a part of a successful India dressing room, especially after being there in the first half of the season?
It makes me happy to see that the boys are doing well. There is also a bit of sadness that I am not a part of it. But then, wherever I am, I am happy. I enjoy laughing - that is one of my strengths - and I like making people laugh. Whether it is the Delhi team or the India team, it really doesn't matter to me. I just want to be in a happy space and make sure people around me are happy. For me to have to go back to the Indian team and play, I have to stay positive and happy. That's the only way I can climb the ladder again. Of course, I am happy for those who are doing well for India, but I want to return to the team because I know I have the ability to play international cricket for a long time.
Do the guys in the national side stay in touch with you?
Everybody is busy with his own life, so it [talking to each other] doesn't happen often. But when we meet, it is always a fun reunion.
The chairman of selectors, MSK Prasad, watched you in the Deodhar Trophy. Have you spoken with him or any other member of the selection committee about what you need to do to return to the side?
When I know that myself, what can I ask him (laughs)? If I do well and score runs, I will come back to the team. I will say that the selectors have been very supportive and they always communicate nicely and tell you what their plans are and where we stand.
Before you got injured in Kolkata, you were obviously going through a lean trot. At that point, did you wish you'd rather be dropped than be put through the misery of another failure?
I never wished to be dropped. In fact, I was putting all my efforts into getting back to form. I felt very proud for continuing to bat with a fractured hand against New Zealand. I stood there for my team. Playing with a broken hand when I was not among the runs was a very satisfying moment for me. I cherish it.
When you go through a rough patch, you will be out of the team, and those who do well will be picked. The selection committee and team management gave me a fair chance, but I didn't perform.
Over the last year or so, you have been relentlessly trolled on social media. Does that affect you?
I don't read anything on social media (laughs). If I am going to do well, they will write good things about me. If I am going to play badly, they will write bad things about me. There are people who may make fun of or criticise others. Such people are necessary because they drive you to do better and act as motivating factors. I want to thank everybody, including my critics, because if they don't say what they say, I won't be pushed into doing what I am doing.
It's up to how a person sees such things. You can channel the energy and just do your work. I don't want to direct my energy elsewhere. I am so much in love with my work that people can abuse me for a lifetime, but they cannot stop me from working or holding a bat. They are not in my shoes, so they will never understand what a cricketer may be going through. When you go through tough times, you actually end up growing more than during the good times. I have always enjoyed the game. It always has made me strong.
Has the support of your family helped?
Their support has been very significant. I am always thankful to my wife, kids and parents. They know how hard I work. My wife likes to talk about how I went through the day, about my emotions, and can tell me how I can handle those things. These are small things but are special. The main thing is, I like living life without tension.
It depends on your outlook: you can keep cribbing about what you have lost, but you can also look at how many things you have gained. So many wonderful players have gone by without playing for India, but I have been lucky enough to represent my country. There are two sides to everything, and it is up to you to decide what you want to look at. I don't find it worth fretting over everything, because I have a beautiful family and beautiful parents. I have a beautiful life, so I should appreciate those things rather than just being obsessed with the ups and downs in cricket. Cricket is very close to my heart and I want to make it big here, but that doesn't take happiness away from my life.
When you see the competition around you, what do you think you need to do to stand out from the crowd?
Firstly, fitness is very important. You always have to maintain high standards of fitness. And then there is performance, of course - if your form is good, then there is no worry. Thirdly, if you see, someone like [KL] Rahul or Rohit [Sharma] are doing well… When Rahul came, he took my place just like I replaced someone else when I came into the side. That's how I see it. If they can replace me, I can replace them again. What's the big deal in it?
How important is this year's IPL going to be for you?
It's very important, but every tournament is important for me, regardless of whether I am playing for Delhi or India. Every match is important because I create a habit out of it. I will never play a match with less intensity. If I am playing in the Deodhar Trophy, I am playing with the same intensity as I would for India. That is a big process for me. I want to keep performing well in the IPL as well and try to win another title for Sunrisers Hyderabad.
Arun Venugopal is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo. @scarletrun