I really like watching Rohit Sharma bat. When he's in full flow there are few who come close to him in the sheer ability to play strokes, and when he bats that way, it's worth paying for a ticket and withstanding the elements in the stands.
Isn't that the case with almost everyone who watches Indian cricket and the IPL? Rohit makes batting look easy. He's one of the rare Indian batsmen who isn't bothered by pace or bounce. In fact, he relishes both: he uses the pace to put the ball in gaps and the bounce to get under it to go aerial.
Recently I had a chat with the Mumbai Indians fielding coach Jonty Rhodes and he brought up another important aspect of Rohit's batting, especially in the shorter formats. Rhodes' observation was that whenever the team was stuck in slightly tricky conditions or against a potent bowling attack, the arrival of Rohit at the crease changed the dynamics. The ball seems to lose its venom when he's on strike.
Perhaps that's what the Indian dressing room thinks too. While the captain and the coaching staff have changed, the overall opinion about Rohit hasn't. The earlier regime backed him to the hilt and the current one is going down the same path.
"Rohit, like most modern batsmen, has wonderful hands. When he's not able to reach the ball with the feet - and this happens often because of the lack of foot movement - he gets to the ball with his hands"
So what does Rohit have that others don't? How does he have more time to play his shots against seriously fast deliveries?
There are two ways to create the illusion of having more time. One, pick the ball out of the hand a fraction quicker than other players do; or two, be blessed with super-quick body movement that lets you get into the right position sooner than most. Both are easier said than done. Inzamam-ul-Haq was an example of the former, and AB de Villiers seems to belong to the latter category.
When a batsman reaches the desired position to execute a shot before the ball arrives, it creates the illusion of him having more time to play. Rohit does this by not moving too much in the crease. He has a trigger movement of a slight forward press, and that's where he stays most of the time. From there he is able to play attacking or defensive shots. He also possesses the rare ability to play strokes off both feet from the same position. So if the bowler pitches it full, he's already in the right position to execute the shot, but even when the bowler digs it in short, he just transfers the weight to the back foot (without actually moving the back leg) and plays cuts and pulls.
Rohit, like most modern batsmen, has wonderful hands. When he's not able to reach the ball with the feet - and this happens often because of the lack of foot movement - he gets to the ball with his hands. Since batsmen these days look for room to free their arms, bowlers have started bowling a lot straighter to deny them width. That's why Rohit's method of always staying not just inside the line of the ball but also a little away from it has worked for him, especially in the shorter formats.
There is, though, a slight issue with this technique while playing Test cricket, where the lines of attack are different. Since bowlers aren't too worried about wide deliveries and leaking runs, they are happy to bowl a fifth-or-sixth-stump line, with a packed off-side field, for longer stretches. Also, the slip cordon takes care of the edges that fly off the bat if the batsman decides to flash, unlike in limited-overs cricket. Test cricket, especially in slightly bowler-friendly conditions, demands the batsman use his feet - both front and back. You can't simply stand in one position for all kinds of deliveries and shots, for the ball is constantly doing something in the air and off the surface.
There's another little thing about Rohit's weight transference, which is likely to get him into trouble when the ball is moving sideways and he's playing shots off the front foot. Ideally, while playing off the front foot the head should be above that foot; that ensures the body weight is going forward. Rohit's head is rarely in that position. Instead, his head is always somewhere over the middle of the body, and that's why the ball sneaks through his defence every now and then. The next time you watch India play, look at this difference between Virat Kohli and Rohit; Kohli's head is always over the front foot, and that's why he is able to hit shots down the ground to balls on the up, while Rohit prefers to go square of the pitch to identical deliveries.
Modern batsmen are brought up on flat pitches and have moulded their games accordingly, and that's why when the ball does a little more than expected, many are ill-equipped to handle it. It isn't a coincidence that we are seeing more batting collapses than before. We often hear cricketers talk about the mental adjustment to be made while switching formats, and they have got used to making that change. But it isn't only about the mind: the technical aspect must also be looked at differently for cricket in whites.
Rohit has a flourishing one-day and T20 career, and that is likely to remain so for a long time, but if he wants to have an equally successful Test career, he might have to consider changing a few things in his batting to suit the demands of the longer format.