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Match Analysis

Aggressive Rohit uses trademark pull shot to find his sweet spot

He has been playing more attacking shots in 2021 than in the last two years, and the rewards have been worth the risk

Saurabh Somani
There is nothing quite like a Rohit Sharma pull shot to encapsulate the vast complexities in cricket. He did it to Trent Boult and then Lockie Ferguson in the third T20I against New Zealand. It is a shot marked by stillness - or at least the illusion of stillness through economy of movement - and yet the result is violence. It is a shot that belongs more in shorter formats, but the geometrical precision of the Rohit pull means it wouldn't be out of place in a Test match. It's a strength because it brings him plenty of runs, but it's also a weakness because he always goes for it, and that can get him out.
Actually, that last bit is not strictly a weakness in T20 cricket. If you're an opener in the shortest international format, you need to take the risk of getting out if the potential returns are sixes and fours.
It's a risk-reward equation that treads a fine line, especially when you're a batter like Rohit. Will the team benefit more by you buying some settling in time and setting yourself up for a bat-through-the-innings role? The risk is that you fall early, and balls have been eaten up without the big payoff at the end. The reward is that few can be as devastating when set. That risk is accentuated in strong batting sides.
The two main sides Rohit plays for - Mumbai Indians and the Indian T20I team - have both been strong batting units. Rohit's earlier method wasn't not-working. He was still a key component of the batting line-ups. But the great players find a way to evolve even when existing methods have worked well.
How do you measure the change in his method through numbers? You look at what Rohit does in the powerplays, when his team is batting first. When chasing, what batters do is largely dictated by the target. It's when batting first that you are free to set your own pace, and it's in the powerplay that openers can be more aggressive.
In 2019 and 2020 combined, Rohit faced 364 balls in the powerplay when batting first, and according to ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball data, he played an attacking shot 82 times, or to 22.53% of the balls. In 2021, Rohit played an attacking shot 68 times out of 230 balls faced in the powerplay while batting first - that's 29.57%.
Interestingly enough, while his strike rate in the powerplay did rise from 2019-20 to 2021, it only went from 131.3 to 133.9. However, his average has shot up from 34.14 to 61.60. Rohit has been playing more attacking shots alright, but he's seemingly found a balance between playing them 'safely'. That's supported by his control percentages too: In 2019 and 2020, his control percentage when playing attacking shots as per ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball data was 85.37%. That figure has dipped only marginally in 2021 and is 80.88%. He has been playing one third more attacking shots than he did, while his control has dipped only by about one-twentieth of what it was.
In the series against New Zealand, Rohit hit a particularly sweet spot - getting big runs at pace in a 3-0 sweep. However, the only time he consciously tried to attack more was in the third T20I at Eden Gardens, and that was because he had chosen to challenge himself and his team by batting first on winning the toss, and thus setting not just a par target, but one that could weather potential dew.
"Look, you want to evolve as a batsman, try out various things when you're playing the game," Rohit said at the press conference after the match. "Some days you feel good, some days you don't feel good and you don't want to take those chances. And some days you just feel that okay, it's your day and you can take those chances. All three games that I played, I didn't go with a certain approach. I just wanted to play the ball on merit and see what I can do after that. Except today, the last two games that we played, I just went with a very empty mind. I didn't want to think about anything, and there was no kind of conscious effort to do something different. Today I just wanted to do something different, I wanted to attack more. Other than that, I genuinely don't feel that I was trying to consciously do something different. I was just trying to play on the merit (of the ball) in the first two games. Today was a slightly different approach, yes."
"When you have certain strengths, you have to play to your strengths"
Rohit Sharma
Whether done consciously or not, his attacking shot percentage has risen sharply this year. Figures when chasing are too target-dependent for analysis, but they are useful for context. In 2021, Rohit has attacked 66 out of 144 balls in the powerplay when batting second, which is 45.83%. In comparison, in 2019 and 2020, he attacked 54 out of 224 balls faced in the powerplay in the second innings - 24.11%.
The natural evolution of the T20 game has perhaps played a part, as has increased batting depth. As India's T20I captain, that is also the direction he would like to take the team in. "If you see teams around the world, they bat pretty deep, till No. 8 or No.9. It becomes a very, very crucial part when you want to finish innings like that, your No.8 or No.9 can play a role," Rohit told host broadcaster Star after the third game.
A more aggressive Rohit up top naturally means viewers will get to see more of the Rohit pulls.
"I wouldn't say it comes naturally, I practiced a lot playing those kinds of shots," he said, shattering fond illusions of a genetically coded swivel, balance and timing. "Some days, it comes off really well, but I've gotten out many times playing that shot also. Which is why I keep saying, when you have certain strengths, you have to play to your strengths. Don't worry about getting out while you're doing that. You want to go out there and express yourself, and the way you can express yourself is actually doing what your strengths are."
The pull shot is Rohit's strength. And a Rohit looking to be more aggressive could just be India's strength.

Saurabh Somani is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo