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Match Analysis

Rohit Sharma answers litmus test with calm assurance

He has done his homework diligently, and has been a reassuring presence for India at the top

Nagraj Gollapudi
Till James Anderson did what only he can do, Rohit Sharma made us think ahead of ourselves. What would he do if he became the first Indian batter to score a Test century at Lord's since Ajinkya Rahane in 2014? Would he do Misbah-ul-Haq style push-ups? Would he passionately kiss the badge on his helmet like Michael Slater? Or would he just be Rohit Sharma, and flash a sunlit smile to the dressing room, and his wife and daughter?
You can get carried away easily by Rohit. KL Rahul has beautiful hands that unleash gorgeous drives, but even he would agree that few make batting look as easy as when Rohit is in full flow. And when he flows, the opposition shudders.
The beauty about Rohit is that he will not get saddled with doubts and worries and what-ifs. Take the pull off the first bouncer England fired at him at the stroke of lunch on the second morning at Trent Bridge. Without even a blink, Rohit swivelled in his crease to pull Ollie Robinson high, but straight to Sam Curran at deep fine leg.
"If I see the ball in my area I have to play the shot. That's my shot. I have got runs playing that shot," Rohit explained to the media later that day.
He was not being cocky. Having studied batters who have succeeded in England, Rohit felt the way to do that was look to score while respecting the conditions. That is also his strength. His great success in white-ball cricket allows Rohit to punish bad balls effortlessly, like he did when he hit four boundaries in a single over from Curran in the first session.
However, Rohit has not tried to hit his way out of difficult questions asked by the opposition. Instead, in the short time he has been opening in Test cricket overseas, one standout factor has been his defensive game outside the off stump.
Assured footwork, judging lengths and lines accurately to leave balls alone or take a big stride - all these factors have allowed Rohit to stay solid at the crease, having batted thrice in this series, each time walking out with Rahul under overcast conditions, confronted by clinical and probing spells of fast bowling from Anderson and Robinson in particular.
That Rohit has been ready is only because he has been doing his homework diligently. On Wednesday, Rohit, Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara were the only three Indians at an optional training session. The session might have lasted about three quarters of an hour but Rohit's sole focus was whether he was judging the lengths and the seam position well while leaving balls that pitched on a length in the channel. It did not matter when at times he was beaten, or the ball sharply slanted into his pads, or he was opened up by a zinger. What mattered was he was reacting to the ball. And each time the ball was short, Rohit played his shot.
That mindset came into play on Thursday morning when England took advantage of the cloudy conditions and a pitch full of moisture by throttling the run rate. After the first 10 overs India had just 11 runs. After the first hour they had 35. It was the same pattern in both innings at Trent Bridge, where India started watchfully and then built momentum quickly. The 97-run alliance between the openers in the first innings at Trent Bridge was India's highest opening stand outside Asia since 2010. On Thursday, they bettered that by putting on 126.
In the first two decades of this century, Indian openers had batted for more than 20 overs in an innings on just five occasions in South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia. In 2021 alone, Rohit - along with Shubman Gill before this series and Rahul now - has helped India last at least 20 overs five time already in those countries.
One reason Rohit has been successful as a Test opener is because he has worked out the balance between attack and defence. In the first hour of the second session, Mark Wood had a chuckle after squaring him up with a fast legcutter delivered from wide of the crease. Rohit did not mind. Presented with a short 142kmh/88mph delivery on the middle stump, he quickly moved outside the line of the delivery to pull it for a boundary.
The last ball of the same over, Rohit nearly chased a wider delivery, on the fuller side, but backed out at the very last moment. That he could resist any temptation was because, just like Rahul, he kept the bat close to his body, stayed still in the crease, and had not pushed or poked unnecessarily. One way to measure the success of both Rohit and Rahul is to see how England have played on the vulnerabilities of the duo that come after them, Pujara and Virat Kohli, in the first two Tests - despite their vast experience, both batters have attempted to play at deliveries which Rohit and Rahul were mostly leaving.
Late in the afternoon, Rohit stood up to applaud Rahul when the latter became the first Indian to score a century in the series. More than having missed a chance to raise the bat, Rohit would have celebrated his opening partner's success because he had played a big role in the first two sessions when Rahul played the holding role.
This series was going to be the litmus test for Rohit, the Test opener. He has answered that with calm assurance.
As for how he might celebrate when he gets to the landmark, we can wait for that.

Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo