The second ball of the 46th over of the India innings, bowled by Bangladesh’s quickest bowler Rubel Hossain, was pitched up and on the middle stump. It was a perfectly decent ball in the death overs of an innings. Rohit Sharma, his timing audacious, his bat not needing to describe the full arc of a follow through, lofted it over long off for six. Frustrated at the treatment meted out to a good ball, Hossain pitched the next one short. Rohit rocked bat and swat-pulled it in front of square for four. The last ball of the over, again not a bad delivery, he lofted over extra cover for four.
Those three shots epitomise what bowlers fear about Rohit; he can play on either side of the wicket with equally dazzling fluency; it is hard to set a field to him; and he can punish good balls. Unlike the fearsome hitters of this World Cup, unlike Glenn Maxwell, AB de Villiers or James Faulkner, Rohit does not imbue his shotmaking with preternatural power. Because he sees the ball and picks up the length early, he has more time to play his shots. He caresses and glides. If the ball were a cat, it would purr when Rohit strokes it.
Each of his big innings follows a pattern. His first fifty is sedate by modern standards, his strike rate in the region of 75 to 80. (This is also why, when he falls before having got to his fifty, it seems as though he has consumed too many balls for too few runs.) He cannons along at a rate of more than 100 after that. Once he gets to a hundred (as he has on seven occasions in his long, stop-start, in equal measures delightful and exasperating career), he becomes unstoppable.
Against Bangladesh he took 70 balls for his first fifty. His second fifty came from 37 balls. And his last 37 runs were scored from 18 balls – a strike rate of more than 200.
In his first ODI double century against Australia at Bangalore in 2014, he made 209 from 158 balls with 12 fours and 16 sixes – more sixes than anyone has ever hit in the course of an innings. He scored his first fifty off 71 balls; from his last 18 balls he pillaged 59 runs – again the pattern. This was how Rohit dealt with one Xavier Doherty over: 6;4;0;6;4; and 6 – 26 runs plundered in a sequence of pulls, drives, sweeps and cuts.
Overs like that one, stretches of batting like the ones we have seen from Rohit in his big innings, can change a game. This is why, more than anyone else, Rohit will be able to decisively influence a match if he sticks around towards the end of an innings. India do not have a player of the likes of Maxwell, AB or Faulkner. Because of that, India have consistently scored fewer in the final ten or 15 overs compared to the big guns such as Australia and South Africa.
India made more than they previously have in the last ten overs against Bangladesh because of Rohit’s presence. It was because he was out in the 47th over that India could not get beyond 320 – the final over yielded only six singles.
When India play the semi-final at Sydney on March 26, whether they have Rohit’s languid and lethal presence in the final overs could be decisive.