Matches (13)
ENG v PAK (1)
T20WC Warm-up (5)
Vitality Blast (5)
CE Cup (2)
Match Analysis

The elegant minimalism of Rohit Sharma

In Nagpur, no one has radiated a sense of normalcy more than Rohit Sharma, playing a Test after 11 months and all but batting Australia out of the match

The Nagpur Test has been all about horses for courses. Australia dropped a batter who had averaged 87.50 over five Tests this season, fearing he might not have the game against spin to score runs in India. India left out a generational talent in the form of his life and picked a 32-year-old debutant on the hunch that he could translate, from T20s to Tests, his ability to take spin apart.
Some of the horses who would have featured anyway, meanwhile, have come out with unusual plans tailored, it would seem, to the course.
On day one, Alex Carey faced 22 balls from India's spinners and attempted to sweep, reverse-sweep or paddle sweep 19 of them. On day two, Cheteshwar Pujara, of all people, was out top-edging a sweep off the 14th ball he faced.
There's still time in this Test match for the horses-for-courses approach to be vindicated, of course, particularly with the pitch expected to break up in the second innings. But, for now, the best innings have come from batters who have batted, well, normally.
And no one has radiated more of a sense of normalcy than Rohit Sharma, who returned to Test cricket after 11 months and put India on the path towards batting Australia out of the Test match with a serene and self-assured 120, his ninth Test hundred and first as captain.
Eight of Rohit's nine Test hundreds have come in India, where he has now scored 1880 runs at the lordly average of 75.20. To India fans conditioned into disregarding - or at least under-rating - performances at home, it may seem like faint praise to call Rohit a master of Indian conditions. But it isn't. Calling him that, for one, doesn't preclude mastery elsewhere - he was arguably India's best top-order batter over their tours of Australia and England two years ago. And while it can be a useful catch-all term, "Indian conditions", like "Indian food", erases a whole lot of diversity.
Rohit's runs in India have come in all sorts of situations and on all sorts of pitches. His 149-ball 127 in Visakhapatnam was a blistering display of six-hitting when India needed quick runs to turn a reasonable first-innings lead into a match-winning declaration score with limited time remaining in the match. His 212 in Ranchi was built on a skilful defensive display against Kagiso Rabada either side of India slumping to 39 for 3 on the first morning. His 161 in Chennai was a triumph of seizing the advantage of a toss won on a square turner, by means of calculated risk-taking against both pace and spin.
Most pre-match estimations pegged Nagpur as a square turner, but Rohit didn't bat here like he had batted in Chennai. He didn't drive the seamers on the up, and he used the sweep - a defining feature of the Chepauk innings - sparingly. He stepped out often, but seldom to hit over the top - there was perhaps not enough bounce, and too much natural variation, for this to be a viable option.
Instead, Rohit trusted the slowness of the pitch to blunt the natural variation it offered Australia's spinners, and allowed himself, it seemed, to play an old-fashioned, merit-of-the-ball sort of innings.
He raced off the blocks, as he had done in Chennai, but in this case it was largely because Pat Cummins bowled what may have been the most erratic new-ball spell of his Test career. Cummins kept overpitching and straying on to Rohit's pads on the first evening, and Rohit, beautifully balanced, head right on top of the ball, flicked and glanced him for four fours in his first two overs.
With Australia's spinners often bowling a touch too full as well, Rohit raced to his half-century, and went to stumps batting on 56 off 69.
Day two was different. Australia's bowlers amped up their discipline as a collective, with Cummins setting the tone from one end, hitting the pitch hard and extracting the odd bit of sideways movement or indifferent bounce. From the other, Nathan Lyon and Todd Murphy probed diligently from around the wicket, drifting the ball across the right-handers and causing moments of uncertainty when natural variation caused the ball to slide on with that angle. Scott Boland then replaced Cummins, and proceeded to dry the runs up with a hypnotic spell of machine-like medium-fast, stacking his leg-side field and pounding away on a bail-bothering line and length.
This rigorous test allowed the elegant minimalism of Rohit's defensive technique to shine through. The offspinners' natural variation troubled him every now and then, but it was the lesser danger on this pitch, from around the wicket. From that angle, it was hugely unlikely that either Lyon or Murphy would be able to beat his outside edge and threaten the stumps. If they did find the edge, there was seldom enough pace or bounce off the pitch for the ball to carry to slip, so long as Rohit didn't follow the ball with hard hands. This almost never happened.
The ball turning in was the bigger threat, but Rohit quelled it with superb judgement of line and length, and often the use of his feet to get close to the pitch of the ball. He skipped out nimbly, and almost never let his front pad get in the way of his bat coming down straight. Soft hands and the slowness of the pitch ensured that inside-edges seldom threatened to carry to short leg, and on the one occasion that Lyon drew a hard-hands flick from him, the inside-edge flew wide of short leg.
Against Boland and especially Cummins, Rohit's game was even more minimalistic. His trigger movement - back and across followed by forward and across, with his head over his front foot - left him in the perfect position to defend by transferring his weight on to either foot, allowing the ball to come into what AB de Villiers refers to as "the box" and meet the ball under his eyes.
A half-step forward was usually enough to drive balls pitched up, and to pull he only really needed to press his weight on to his front foot, unweight his back foot, and power through the hips.
Of late, a number of teams have tried to get him out playing that shot, in a contest that's high-risk and high-reward for both bowler and batter. In his first spell of the morning, Cummins stationed two catchers on the leg-side boundary and dug one in when Rohit was on 61 - Rohit pulled and just cleared deep square-leg leaping to his left. This pitch was too slow, and the bounce not yet uneven enough, for Australia to try that tactic too many times through the rest of the day.
That pull apart, Rohit's boundaries involved little risk. Some of them, for all that, were still breathtaking.
On day one, there was a push-drive off Lyon, the kind of shot that might go for four if a batter has timed it perfectly off a fast bowler, but this was off an offspinner and it absolutely flew to the boundary straight of mid-off. He brought up his fifty with the stealthiest of lap-sweeps, with barely any twist of the wrists at impact; he merely stretched out and let the ball hit his bat face, angled just so, and directed it into the gap fine of backward square-leg.
Perhaps the shot of Rohit's innings came after he had got past his century, when Murphy bowled to him with a short midwicket, a 30-yard straight midwicket stationed in line with the bowler's-end stumps, and a long-on. Rohit stepped out and twirled his wrists to bisect the two midwickets and beat long-on haring to his right.
The boundaries came when opportunities presented themselves; Rohit seldom went looking for them. A little less than halfway into the day's play, he had added to his overnight score just 38 off 95 balls, while four wickets had fallen at the other end, with the other batters and extras adding 43 between them.
India were 168 for 5 at this stage, and trailed by nine runs. They weren't exactly in strife, but they needed a significant lead to feel secure given they would have to bat last.
Rohit kept batting just as before, though, aware that two of India's three spin-bowling allrounders still had to bat. India needed one solid partnership to feel in control, and Rohit found the ally he needed in Ravindra Jadeja, who did the bulk of the scoring in a sixth-wicket stand of 61.
When Australia took the second new ball, India led by 52, and Rohit looked immovable. Then Cummins began to bowl like the Cummins we all know and love or fear depending on allegiance. He found Rohit's outside edge with his third ball, only for Steven Smith to shell the chance at second slip. The next ball was unforgettable, Cummins' state of mind adding a yard of furious pace to his outswinger while taking nothing away from his control. The ball pitched on the fullest edge of a good length - the one length that Rohit's minimalist defensive movements can leave him vulnerable against - and did just enough to beat the outside edge and send off stump spinning, a visual metaphor for the release of Cummins' pent-up emotions.
The dropped catch almost felt appropriate. An innings like that deserved to end like that.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo