Rohit Sharma aces the waiting game for overseas Test success
- The impressive performance of India's openers in the England Test series was a ringing endorsement of defensive batting in tough conditions abroad, writes Sanjay Manjrekar in his latest column.
It is a real shame the series that was going so well ended in an anti-climax. Who knows what the result would have been in the final Test, though you can’t but feel that India had a better shot at winning it.
I am going to pick out and focus on the one true gain for Indian cricket from this trip - it’s the performance of the opening batting pair.
The quality Indian bowling lived up to its expectation, but it was the batting that was going to be India’s vulnerability on this tour. Pujara, Virat and Rahane were out of form before the series and India had Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul as their openers for the first Test.
Rohit Sharma before this tour was 'suspect' in overseas conditions, especially as an opener. Also, he plays pace and bounce quite easily and swing was going to be his acid test, so England was going to be his toughest overseas challenge.
Then there was Rahul, India’s third choice opener playing at Nottingham after Shubman Gill and Mayank Agarwal became unavailable for selection. Before the first Test, Rahul had failed in four consecutive Test series as an opener.
India were put into bat twice in the series under a leaden sky. It could not have got more difficult for two sub-continental batsmen who hit through the line and are impact players in white-ball cricket, but the adjustment these guys made and the way they coped with the moving ball in favourable bowling conditions will remain my abiding memory of this trip.
Let's take Rohit Sharma first. He was more consistent than Rahul and there was a reason for this, in fact two. His temperament first, and specifically having control over his instincts, that too, not just in one or two matches but the whole series.
Rohit, simply put, implemented the ‘Pujara method’ of batsmanship in the series. He never once wavered from it when during the initial part of the series the big scores were not coming. Now, for Pujara himself this is easier to do. It’s his natural game, and to be fair, he does not have another option he can choose. Rohit has, as we well know.
Rohit’s patience and resilience for weeks together was a superhuman effort in my eyes because he can at will hit the ball out of the ground like he did to get to his 100 at Oval.
It also gives us an insight into the human mind, that it can reach such incredible levels of opposite kinds, that it can get the same body to strike at 150 in one format and then bat for a total of over 21 hours at a strike rate of 42.49 in four Tests.
Now that was the mind of Rohit. In England in Tests where pitches are responsive, mind alone does not help, you need to have the physical side of batting covered too, namely defensive technique.
Rohit did one simple thing to his batting in these Tests; he stopped playing the ball pitched on off or outside off to the covers. He either left those balls or played them straight to mid off. He did not once in the whole series play a big flourishing cover drive. When he played the cover drive it was more a careful push in the covers. That instinct pushing away from his body to hit or defend towards covers was put in deep freeze in England. It will come out soon though in IPL.
It was just amazing Test batting and incredible transformation from Rohit Sharma. it was basically true excellence in performance that gets me all excited.
Rahul had a weakness outside off. It was more a confusion whether to play or leave that ball outside off. This was what haunted him in that long period of failures. But this time he found a way around it; it was not the ideal way but he was clear and not in two minds about it.
He tucked his bat slightly behind the pad. When in doubt whether he should play the ball and if the ball left him at the last minute, he kept that bat where it was and the ball would harmlessly go to the keeper.
When Anderson started bowling into his stumps more later, Rahul was troubled a bit but his confidence did not nosedive after a few failures. Hopefully this state of mind continues.
That two Indian openers featured in the top five run-getters from both sides overseas was a feat rarely seen before in Indian cricket.
Finally, here is some food for thought.
Pujara in Australia in 2018-19 and Rohit and Rahul here made consistent contributions in overseas Tests that allowed India to win or dominate an overseas series.
The one common factor in these performances was that it was based on pure defence for long periods - the kind you saw in the 70s and 80s when batters defended for two sessions before finally playing freely and attackingly.
Defensive batting, although out of fashion a bit and more and more irrelevant in cricket today with its three formats, is a must have to win the tough Tests. Rohit is the latest endorsee of this.