July 3, 2013

Viva Rohit Sharma

His consistently assured batting versus the short ball at the top of the innings made for pleasant viewing in the Champions Trophy

Rohit Sharma: not shy against the short stuff © Associated Press

At times I hope to be able to watch a show that features the world's bowlers in discussion about the effect batsmen have on them and their bowling. About specifics, in detail. And cross-check those against impressions I have formed watching play unfold on television. A bit like the Allan Donald, Wasim Akram, Alec Stewart ESPNcricinfo video series on bowlers and batsmen, but with an extended bowlers' panel - a sort of round table. I wonder what bowlers would have had to say about bowling to the Indians in the Champions Trophy. Especially right at the top of the innings.

For now, I'll take the liberty of theorising on the topic.

This Champions Trophy was, from an Indian point of view, about the precise interventions of Ravindra Jadeja, the fearless flair of Shikhar Dhawan, and the team's vibrancy in the field. Virat Kohli's brilliance was evident in patches, so were R Ashwin's variety and Bhuvneshwar Kumar's control. To my mind, though, some of the standout shots of the tournament came from Rohit Sharma. (There was one blistering pull from Kohli as well.) Rohit's presence at the top of the order has been mentioned, in a partnership kind of way - as a foil to the simmering strokeplay of Dhawan, but I thought that Rohit had the most impact on the bowling upfront.

Back to those shots. South Africa in the tournament opener, seemed hell-bent on bouncing India out of the game. It is another matter that they didn't appear to have a back-up plan. Granted, the pitches for the Champions Trophy weren't the bounciest or the quickest around by any stretch. But really, the sure-footed way Rohit dealt with a bunch of the early short balls was what pushed them back.

Morne Morkel bounced once; Rohit, arcing back slightly from that initial forward push, put the shortish ball away behind square. Just a short-arm jab. This after being hit in the midriff a couple of balls before. Rory Kleinveldt pitched short, really short, and heading down leg; Rohit played a rasping pull away through square. Ryan McLaren went short next; this time Rohit played the pull with care, rising with the ball and rolling his wrists with a certain amount of deliberation to keep the ball down. Each time, what impressed was the amount of time he had when he played the shot, and that he was in total control.

Next to Kemar Roach. A couple of short, widish balls were put away behind point with a flourish, in a manner reminiscent of the Rohit of five years ago, in the Commonwealth Bank series in Australia. Square cuts and drives off the faster bowlers seem to stick in your mind longer, especially if these aren't off rank short balls.

And then to what was the toughest opening attack on view in the tournament, especially given the relative absence of Dale Steyn. The pacy swing of Junaid Khan and the steepling bounce of Mohammad Irfan: every other opening batting pair seemed to be fairly ill at ease against them.

At the start of Irfan's third over, Rohit, moving forward despite the obvious threat of bounce, steered a square drive a bit off the outer half of the bat through point. The next ball, a rapid bouncer, was taken off his shoulder, behind square. Again, the shot modulated to the bowler's length and bounce, and to the field. A pick-up-and-drop over the man stationed just behind square. The next ball was short and quick once again; this time Rohit dropped his wrists and let it pass. Often, once the batsman's reaction to the quick bowler's bouncer is seen (not least by the bowler) to be unhurried and in control, the rest seems easy in comparison.

Indian batsmen in the immediate aftermath of the Gavaskar-Amarnath era, with the exception of Sachin Tendulkar and Sanjay Manjrekar, appeared to freeze against the short ball. Later in the piece, Rahul Dravid came along. He pulled, did not hook often, and appeared wholly unfussed in the face of the short ball. Then Tendulkar appeared to put the hook away in cold storage after a compelling beginning. In the late '90s came VVS Laxman and his silken brushstrokes through midwicket. Virender Sehwag, having carved a swathe for himself in the point and cover area, got bowlers to fret enough about a line that was supposed to have been met by a conservative block or a leave that they weren't in enough of an attacking frame of mind to be forthcoming with the bouncer. MS Dhoni down the order prefers to attack the short ball most times, and is usually comfortable with it. Generally, though, from an Indian batting point of view, the hook and other attacking options against the quick, short ball directed at the body made only very sporadic appearances through the '90s till now.

This is why Rohit's consistently assured, attacking batting versus the short ball at the top of the innings made for especially pleasant viewing. His shot-making has always had striking similarities with Mark Waugh's. The comparisons seem all the more relevant now with his promotion to opener in ODIs. Let's hope the similarities don't end there.

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