India vs Australia 4th Test Day 2: Opening blows leave India a touch nervy
Taking stance is an opening batsman with a record three one-day double hundreds but an overseas Test average under 30. He is on the cusp of scoring consecutive fifties in Australia, which no Indian opener has managed this series. He has all the time in the world to get to it and much more, and had already belted Nathan Lyon once through point for a boundary.
But he has a rush of blood. Lyon unleashes a flighted delivery, tempting a hoick over mid-on. It dips though, luring the batsman into a half-hearted chip. Parked in the deep exactly for this, Mitchell Starc makes no mistake. Another promising start is wasted. Another chance to seal the opener’s spot goes abegging.
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Welcome to the experience of watching Rohit Sharma bat.
It’s an experiment, prodding Sharma into fitting the bill of an all-terrain opener across formats. He dominates in the shorter formats. And at home, he averages 88.33 in Tests. But with a meagre overseas average held up every time talk of opening the batting arises, Sharma’s Test validation remains incomplete.
At Sydney the previous week, he was on top of the bowling when he pulled Pat Cummins straight to Starc at deep square-leg with three overs left for stumps. He fell short again at the Gabba on Saturday when India needed him to bide his time. The longer Sharma stays, the quicker he scores. That wasn’t to be. Playing catch-up after Australia scored 369 in the first innings despite a decent performance by their inexperienced bowlers, India will now have to rely on Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane to do the bulk of the work in reducing the 307-run deficit.
Australia threatened to score much more but Shardul Thakur, who removed the set Tim Paine, and debutants Washington Sundar--he dismissed Cameron Green - and T Natarajan helped rein in the innings. India were 62/2 with Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane batting.
With Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc expected to continue pegging away at disconcerting lengths, the task looks uphill though. Stationed at second slip, twice Steve Smith didn’t get his hands to edges that flew off Pujara’s bat because he waited for the ball and didn’t push at it. He may not be third time lucky. And with the scoring having already seen a 30-ball lull, Rahane could come under pressure to play his shots in the first session on Sunday. That looks a risky proposition now after Sharma seemed to be steering India into a position from where they could slowly mount a charge Australia are all too familiar with.
Sunil Gavaskar, commentating on 7 Sport, was left fuming.
“Why? Why? Why? That’s an unbelievable shot. That’s an irresponsible shot,” the Indian batting legend said. “You’ve just hit a boundary a couple of deliveries earlier, why would you play that shot? You’re a senior player, there’s no excuse, absolutely no excuse for this shot. An unnecessary wicket, gifted away.”
Sharma though defended his shot selection.
“It’s a shot I have played very well in the past. It’s something I back myself to do,” he said after play ended early due to rain. “I know it looks bad but I don’t think too much into it. I want to make it count, I want to make it big. Having said that there is a process I like to follow. That is to make sure that when I’m in, I’m on top of the bowlers. Sometimes you get out, sometimes it goes over the rope. It was a sad dismissal but those are my shots and I will keep playing them.”
Sharma has looked the best opener this series, even better than the Australians. Trying to meet the ball under his eyes every time, his technique against fast bowlers has been solid. And he went through hoops to join the team this time—going to Bengaluru for injury rehab at the National Cricket Academy and staying in hard quarantine at a separate hotel on landing in Australia before he could open in the SCG Test. What did he do during those two weeks of quarantine? He made mental notes of the Australian bowling.
“I was watching the first two Tests and saw the discipline Aussie bowlers had; you have to try and figure out ways to score against these guys, they don’t give anything easy.” The preparation bore fruit. Asked to chase 407 at the SCG, Sharma dug in for a half-century, giving the tourists their best opening stand this series with Shubman Gill.
“In Sydney, there wasn’t much bounce, so I was staying on the leg-stump of the ball. Here I knew the line and lengths, particularly of the two right-handers (Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood). They try and test you outside off-stump all the time. I came a little bit on the off-stump to make sure I cover the line and don’t push my hands outside off-stump. That’s the little adjustment I did.”
It seems silly to debate who should open for India when you watch Sharma in full flow. His drives are majestic, the pull and hook shots even more glorious. And a safe bet at slip when a seamer like Shardul Thakur asks questions of the batsmen by getting the ball to move away. Two of the most important catches in this Test, of Steve Smith and Tim Paine, were taken by Sharma standing close. But all the three times he has batted this series he has got out playing attacking shots.
Sharma insists percentage cricket is not for him, and playing only in his 34th match into his ninth year in Test cricket may be playing a part in his thinking. But India would expect him, especially in Virat Kohli’s absence, to play the ideal foil to Cheteshwar Pujara to help the team assert itself abroad. And that may require the toning down of that impulse to attack.
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