Rohit Sharma: A knight in white

An uncluttered state of mind has allowed Rohit Sharma to overcome the concerns over a promising talent not living up to expectations in Test cricket.

That was what Rohit Sharma was in the recent Test series against South Africa when he was offered the opening slot for the first time. The double century in Ranchi was the icing on the cake as 529 runs flowed from his bat in the series.   -  AP

The second ball of the 11th over of the third Test in Ranchi, from Kagiso Rabada, was a good length delivery that shaped back in and beat Rohit Sharma for pace and movement. But Sharma got a big edge back on to his pads.

Three balls later, Rabada’s legcutter pitched around off and then moved away sharply to square Sharma up completely. Rabada, in the middle of a truly outstanding new-ball spell in Ranchi, tested Sharma with his pace and hostility but the batsman showed skill and patience. He edged or missed the ball a few times, looked ugly even, but there was light at the other end of the bay.

When he finally perished on 212 after miscuing a pull, he had amassed 529 runs in his first four innings as Test opener, the most by an India opener in a Test series since Virender Sehwag’s 544 against Pakistan in 2005.

READ | India beats South Africa to complete 3-0 whitewash

Sharma’s contributions were central to India’s 3-0 whitewash of South Africa. The riveting battle between Rabada and Sharma in Ranchi was a microcosm of Sharma’s exploits the entire series: play close to the body, don’t follow the movement, and get behind the line.

Not long ago, his struggles in the longer format had led to some writing Sharma off as a red-ball player. Unlike in T20Is and ODIs, where the white ball swings for only a handful of overs, a batsman’s technical nous is put to test, sometimes exposed even, with the red ball moving for long periods.

Sharma prefers to start cautiously and bide his time before switching into higher gears seamlessly. In Ranchi, Sharma went from 23 off 55 balls to 117 off 164, collecting 94 runs off his last 109 balls.

Virat Kohli, at the start of the series, had revealed that getting Sharma to open in Tests had been discussed for a long time. “We felt like down the order, it was about finding a spot wherever possible, which wasn’t working both ways. For Rohit as well, I think a clarity of role was needed. Knowing that, you know, you have to play in a certain position is also very crucial for a player,” Kohli said.

Before the first Test in Visakhapatnam, Sharma had featured in only four of India’s 17 Tests since the start of 2018, a period when he struggled to cement his place at No. 6 or 5 or 7. Last year when India toured England for five Tests, Sharma had said he was open to batting up the order should an opportunity present itself.

South African paceman Kagiso Rabada congratulates Rohit after the latter’s double hundred. Rabada had bowled a tremendous opening spell, but Rohit had come through the ordeal by fire.   -  PTI

 

“Look, I have never been offered (the opportunity) to open the innings in Tests yet, but I am open to anything, as in whatever the team management wants,” Rohit said last August during a promotional event. “I never thought I will be an opener in ODIs when I started playing or when I was playing for India. But it happened along the way, so I (want to) keep my options open. No option is shut for me.”

Between 2009 and 2012, Sharma opened the innings thrice in first-class cricket, averaging an impressive 63. Now there are some Indian middle-order batsmen who went on to become successful openers; Virender Sehwag being prominent among them.

Sehwag, who was already opening in ODIs, made a smooth transition going on to become India’s first Test triple centurion against arch-rival Pakistan in Multan in 2004.

Even the current head coach, Ravi Shastri, began his Test career as a No. 10 but plied his trade as an opener too, a career-best 206 against Australia in Sydney in 1992 being the highlight.

Shastri had recently said he would hate to see a player of Rohit’s quality sitting in the reserves. “Rohit — different plane altogether. As an opener, your mindset has to be different. On the first day here (Ranchi), it was tough. Rohit worked his way out of it, but he kept thinking he had to work hard and cash in when the pitch gets better. That’s what happened,” Shastri said in a post-match chat with the official broadcaster.

Sharma’s 47 innings in the middle-order have yielded 1585 runs at an average of 39.62... These are not bad numbers considering he and teammate Ajinkya Rahane were vying for a spot in the middle-order, but what worked against Sharma was his inability to produce prolonged consistency.

Opening the innings changes the dynamics. Sharma is a compulsive stroke-maker, not a slogger, which means if he spends time at the crease then the scoring can be elevated to a breakneck pace, his control allowing the team to build pressure and force an outright result in its favour. “Despite missing close to two sessions because of rain, his pace in the batting gave us so much of time to bowl them out twice,” the skipper said in Ranchi.

This is an attribute that helps not just the team but the player batting at the other end as well, Cheteshwar Pujara being a case in point. Pujara took 20 balls to get off the mark in the second innings in Visakhapatnam, and at one point had managed only eight runs off 62 balls.

Sharma, at the other end, was scoring freely, which allowed Pujara the big cushion of time. He was finally out for 81, having scored 73 off the last 86 balls. “The way Rohit was batting, I felt we were scoring at a decent pace and I could take some extra time to settle down. He batted well in the first innings also but in the second innings, the situation was different. (Especially) to play all those strokes that he did on this wicket,” Pujara later said.

Skipper Virat Kohli said that the team management had been thinking of making Rohit an opener for quite sometime. That happened against South Africa to mutual benefit.   -  PTI

 

India travels to New Zealand in February-March next year, where it plays three Tests. Five years ago, when India toured Kiwiland, Sharma, batting at No. 5 and No. 6, had scored 122 runs in two Tests at an average of 40.67.

Coming out to bat at Eden Park, after the New Zealand seamers had run through India’s top-order reducing it to 51 for four, Sharma stemmed the rot with an attractive 120-ball 72 with eight fours and one six.

In overcast, seaming, swinging conditions, it will be a test of character, technique and toughness for Sharma, but the flamboyant right-hander can draw inspiration from his previous performance.

Smooth transtition

Sharma’s brand of limited-overs cricket today is perhaps exceeded only by Kohli. He is the only batsman to score three double hundreds in ODIs and was instrumental in India reaching the World Cup semifinals earlier this year.

Sharma’s five hundreds in the quadrennial event bettered Kumar Sangakkara’s single-tournament record of four, set in 2015. His behemoth run in ODI cricket is a case study in the promising possibilities that could emerge from a brilliant limited-overs template migrating superlatively to Test matches.

After becoming the first batsman to hit five centuries in a World Cup edition, Sharma, talking to Sanjay Manjrekar during a post-match chat, gave a sneak peek as to what goes behind racking up the big runs. “I come out thinking that I have not played any ODIs,” he said. “I have not got any hundreds in the tournament. It is just the first game in the tournament.”

Sharma, during the World Cup, had said that he is in a “good space” which has helped him shed the cloak of caution and play with freedom. The languid brilliance and lazy elegance of Rohit’s batting that has ultimately resulted in a ruthless streak is an extension of the ‘free Mumbai spirit.’

An uncluttered state of mind has allowed him to overcome the initial, at times prolonged, concerns over a promising talent not living up to expectations. He’s determined on the pitch and relaxed off it.

Sharma seizes opportunities with the mindset of an aggressor, and it is this commitment that served him well against South Africa and augurs well for the future too.