Rohit Sharma is the opener India always needed
- Between 2011 and 2020, India’s opening stands lasted only 6.4 overs on an average in Tests outside Asia. Rohit Sharma has completely changed that equation.
Nearly 14 years after his international debut, we may have finally seen what Rohit Sharma can really do with the bat. He didn’t have to do it. But that’s what the collective frenzy of a cricket-fanatic country can do to you. If you have scored two ODI double centuries by 2014, why can’t you bat with equal elan in Tests? The argument had its merits. Here is this exquisite timer of the cricket ball, a natural puller and hooker whose game relies entirely on the conjunction between balance and backlift. We deem it lazy elegance, duped by the illusion that Sharma has that extra second compared to his peers. He doesn’t. He just hits the ball better than everyone else.
Sharma doing well in white-ball cricket was like a fish taking to water. But come to think of it, even he didn’t waltz into the Test team. Sharma’s time came only when the time of the ‘Fab Four’ was up; a debut arranged in sync with the retirement of Sachin Tendulkar. The baton was ready to be passed on. But we weren’t ready to go easy on him, not after two centuries in his first two Tests, or an imperious 72 in Auckland, or a rather subdued 53 in Sydney in 2015. If he was too fluent, he was dubbed impetuous, not giving Test cricket the respect it deserves. Restraint triggered even more unkind responses. And throughout those uncertain times, Sharma---who otherwise opens for India in ODIs and T20Is as well as Mumbai Indians in the IPL--was shunted across the batting order, sometimes batting at No 3 or 4 but mostly three-down or at No 6. The permanence of a position was the least a batsman of Sharma’s caliber deserved. He finally got that in 2019, against South Africa at home.
But home is also where runs and form are taken most granted for. Sharma was breezing to centuries, daddy hundreds and double hundreds, almost belittling opposition bowlers. Was this supposed to be so easy? On to Australia then, where India were without Virat Kohli after the first Test. Sharma was at his defensive best at both Sydney and Brisbane after India had tried Prithvi Shaw and Mayank Agarwal in the first two Tests. Then came Southampton, in the most challenging conditions to bat, before Nottingham and Lord’s gave ample evidence of Sharma’s range with the bat. A noticeable trend in all these Tests has been the time Sharma spent at the crease: 27 overs and 30.2 overs in Sydney, 19.5 overs, 8.2 overs in Brisbane, 20.1 overs, 26.5 overs in Southampton, 37.3 overs in Nottingham and 43.4 overs at Lord’s. Between 2011 and 2020, India’s opening stands lasted only 6.4 overs on an average in Tests outside Asia. Sharma, the only constant at the top since 2021, was responsible to a great extent for changing that to 20.4 overs now.
The real test though was supposed to be England where the playing surfaces and overhead conditions often conspire against batsmen. Lord’s was most testing but Sharma made it look ridiculously easy. Why? His front-foot stride is a lot more restrained now. There is an intent to get behind the line and play as late as possible. His on-side game hasn’t diminished a bit, as evident from the way he kept glancing and clipping Sam Curran’s incoming deliveries. Rewind to the 2019 World Cup (where he scored five centuries) or the two Champion Trophy meets before that and Sharma’s ease in England (his best ODI average is 66.75 in England, better than even 61.32 at home) shouldn’t have come as a surprise. But there is still more to Test cricket than just connecting well. “Leaving the ball in England is very necessary,” said Sharma at the end of Day 1. “When you start the innings, the pitch isn’t true. Because of the softness of the pitch and sometimes the grass cover, the ball doesn’t quite come as expected. Balls outside the off stump, you need to understand what sort of height it’s carrying.”
This is where Sharma exhibited exemplary judgment, trusting his instincts and playing every ball according to its merit. Moving across the stumps with a high backlift, Sharma loaded up giving off this perception that he is ready to hit every ball. But even leaving the ball is a shot after all. Sharma did exactly that--leaving, weaving his way out, waiting, holding his shape till the ball was in his zone. It’s downright grueling, holding back till you are absolutely sure of the conversion success of a shot. “That’s the challenge of Test cricket, you may have lots of shots in your books but when the conditions are against you, you have to keep talking to yourself and cut down the unnecessary shots especially with the new ball,” said Sharma. That’s the difference between Rohit Sharma of 2013 and now. It takes him 47 balls to score his first boundary but the assurance Sharma inspires as Test opener will not be lost on India any time soon.