Rohit Sharma: Ton-up at the top

Rohit Sharma’s isn’t a story about a method in the madness; it is all about a brilliant batsman who is supremely talented and gives full expression to his potential in limited-overs cricket.

Rohit Sharma has added his own allure to this brand of opening, but he has done it in his own distinctive way.   -  Getty Images

Opening batsmen are supposed to be fire-proof barn doors. They have to counter fresh fast bowlers itching to knock off the batsman’s head or his stumps. These special willow wielders are the first to draw inferences about the pitch and they relay these deductions back to their mates in the dressing room.

Caution, a watchful eye, a strong will to rein in the adrenaline and stop motor memory goading the hands to free up and have a mighty hit are all intrinsic to the art of being the inaugural batsman from among the playing eleven. The opener steps out to face the new ball either on a first-day morning or a second-day post-tea session, when the shadows lengthen and the opposition fielders form a tight mesh.

It isn’t easy, and that’s why if an average of 50 is deemed excellent for a middle-order player, a 40 per innings for the men who sit atop the batting tree is considered splendid. Even a 35-plus, if it is over an extended career, is deemed fine, like it did for former England captain and current wordsmith Michael Atherton. In 115 Tests, he scored 7,728 runs at an average of 37.49.

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The classical template is about possessing a rigid defence, and the trait of flair wasn’t considered essential. The great Sunil Gavaskar fitted into that rarefied zone, though he did have a biff when he wanted. Among openers, he is the gold standard. But over the decades, the perception has changed, and within India emerged K. Srikkanth, bat-twirler, nose-twitcher and above all an aggressive batsman who, as Imran Khan once told Ravi Shastri, could slam a perfect delivery for six and then block the innocuous full toss.

Team insiders say Rohit Sharma is a relaxed skipper as and when Virat Kohli takes a break.   -  AP


Much later the Srikkanth school had another student — Virender Sehwag. He destroyed bowling attacks, be it in Tests or One-Day Internationals and India flew high. From being the solid wall, the new sub-sect of openers became battle tanks smashing fortresses, running amok among rival troops. Sehwag’s tenure overlapped with the Sachin Tendulkar-Sourav Ganguly era. The duo bought in their combine of right-handed assurance and left-handed grace in a brilliant fusion that rained runs for India in ODIs.

Rohit Sharma has added his own allure to this brand of opening, but he has done it in his own distinctive way. An excellent middle-order batsman yet to cement his spot in Tests, Rohit undergoes a metamorphosis when he wears the blue shade and strides out as an opener in ODIs. It is a quirky juxtaposition when you compare him with fellow-Mumbaikar Ajinkya Rahane. The latter has seized his Test spot but has fallen out of favour in ODIs. In Rohit’s case, the reverse has seemingly happened, though he does get a few games in cricket’s longest format.

The Rohit in ODIs is a brooding menace, occasionally prone to sticking his tongue out and his eyes light up when he sights a delivery in his zone. The hands unfurl, the bat swing is measured and soon the ball is sailing into the stands. His isn’t a woodcutter approach and his technique is organised. He sights the ball early and then improvises.

The opener seems unhurried; he takes his time, shuffles around the crease, taps the pitch a few times. The visage doesn’t reveal anything and then he takes guard. In the rushed world of ODIs, he freezes those pre-delivery routines. And then he either grinds into a defensive shot or explodes with a mammoth strike.

This isn’t a story about a method in the madness; it is all about a brilliant batsman who is supremely talented and gives full expression to that potential in limited-overs cricket but somehow fails to do the same in Tests. Ability and stamina are in abundance and it is no surprise that Rohit has three double hundreds to his credit in ODIs. He has also forged a wonderful synergy with Shikhar Dhawan. The two are friends off the field too, calling each other “partner,” and it shows when they open together.

In the current World Cup, Rohit has again revealed his supreme class. A gritty 122 against South Africa, a 57 in the game involving Australia, a 140 in the joust pitting Pakistan and the lone blip (1) suffered while countering Afghanistan are part of his bouquet after four matches. The first three knocks revealed a welcome facet in his repertoire — the ability to swallow his ego and play according to the situation while also ensuring that his team stays ahead.

It is not that he didn’t care enough in the past, but at present he has moved into the elder statesman’s role. After his innings against South Africa at Southampton, he said: “Come on, I have played more than 200 ODIs and that experience should count.” At 32, Rohit knows that perhaps another World Cup four years down the line might be difficult, and he is keen to help the Men in Blue wrest the silverware. Plus, he is the vice-captain and it is a responsibility he savours.

Team insiders say he is a relaxed skipper as and when Virat Kohli takes a break. He doesn’t suffer fools, is not swayed by flattery and, like a Mumbaikar clinging to a suburban train and just heading to work, Rohit’s mind is zoned into the tasks on hand and the manner in which they could be executed.

Despite preferring first strike, once Rohit knew new opening partner K. L. Rahul also loved doing that, he moved to the non-striker’s end.   -  AFP

The addition of patience to his skill set has been a tremendous value add. And he is large-hearted. Despite preferring to take first strike, once he knew that new opening partner K. L. Rahul, who stepped up for an injured Dhawan, also loved doing that, he gladly moved to the non-striker’s end. “I just wanted to make him comfortable. He is opening in ODIs and he needed that space,” Rohit said.

Rohit has always been a secure individual. In a line-up that has the brilliance of Kohli and the chutzpah of M. S. Dhoni, Rohit was never dwarfed. He held his own and at some level he has started seeing the larger picture of life. The birth of his daughter has relaxed him more. There is nothing like returning home to a warm family and hearing a baby’s gurgles. “I am much calmer and I am in a good space following the birth of my daughter,” Rohit said after his match-winning ton against Pakistan. And his sense of dry humour was evident, too. When a scribe asked about his advice to his rival unit, Rohit wryly quipped: “Make me the Pakistan coach and I will tell you.”

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There are openers of all kinds in international cricket. David Warner on his return following the ball-tampering crisis has excelled with the bat. He is a dangerous entity, but Rohit’s 2.0 version is a wee bit ahead of his Aussie counterpart. He is solid, knows his value to the team and puts a heavy price on his wicket. There is the small matter of some tentativeness against spin, and it was evident against Afghanistan, but that’s more of a mindset issue for a batsman who loves the ball to come fast onto the bat.

Rohit should sort this minor quibble in a remarkable career that has mixed firecracker sixes and the solid forward-press defensive shot. There is joy in sending the white ball into the skies. There is peace in defending an incisive delivery. And Rohit has cracked both the codes while constantly ticking over India’s scoreboard.