Rohit Sharma and the art of the non-violent six

He eases the ball over the rope with minimum fuss and a lack of warning about what is coming

Sambit Bal
Sambit Bal
So you think the ball has come out all right, the way you visualised it in your run-up - not full enough to be driven, not short enough to cut or pull, not on the legs to be clipped way, not wide enough for the batsman to free his arms. At best he can bunt or dab it for a single, but the percentages favour it being a dot ball, and that's what it looks like when you're in your follow-through. The batsman hasn't moved much, no intent at all, the bat is coming down straight - a pat down the wicket mostly, and you are thinking about your next ball.
And Rohit Sharma has hit you for a six. Maybe over your head. Maybe over long-off. Maybe over extra cover. Wherever the mood has taken him. Ask Mustafizur Rahman. Ask Pat Cummins. Ask Dhananjaya de Silva. Left-arm wobbler, right-arm fast, offspinner - when Rohit chooses the moment, the ball travels. Minimum fuss, maximum impact. He doesn't savage you, he chaperones you over the ropes in the manner of an aristocrat.
At worst, it's a masterful con job - he has deceived you into believing all is well, before extracting maximum value. At best, it's a work of art, a wonder of wonders, and if you were as generous a soul and as besotted with the game as Bishan Bedi, you would follow the arc of the ball till it finished its descent, and turn back to applaud. You know you have played your part in something quite divine. It's no humiliation, it's a moment of grace.
There are more prolific and devastating six-hitters than Rohit in contemporary cricket. Chris Gayle monsters them from as stationary a post. Andre Russell muscles them more regularly in T20. Jonny Bairstow can swing them hard. Jos Buttler can hit them all around the ground. But no one can be as explosive as non-violently as Rohit Sharma. What is a bludgeon for most is a caress for him.
There have been touch players who could clear the ropes with ease. Brian Lara did it with twinkling feet and a magic wand; Mark Waugh with rubber wrists; Sourav Ganguly with the gift of timing and by giving himself space. But even with those players, the effort was visible. They created momentum either with footwork or by cocking the wrists, or often with both, and there was always a forewarning. It's impossible to remember a batsman hitting a six with as much stillness and as languidly as Rohit.
The best driving is often an extension of a defensive shot, and it has been the hallmark of several great batsmen from India. Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar stroked past the bowler with little more than a push, and Virat Kohli often cover-drives without a hint of a follow-through, but Rohit extends this to casual six-hitting. The simple downswing of the bat and timing give the ball both elevation and distance. "Killing Me Softly with His Song" was perhaps composed in anticipation of his sixes.
Effortlessness, however, hasn't been the only theme of his record-breaking World Cup campaign. Five hundreds in eight innings don't come with six-hitting alone. Restraint, in fact, has been the distinguishing feature of his campaign. Like in the past, he has built his innings steadily, but unlike in the past, he has chosen to grind through the middle overs and has been unruffled by tough phases or dropped catches. He was unable to take India over the line against England on a pitch that got progressively more sluggish, but he fought his way through excellent spells from the English quick bowlers.
Though it seems ages ago, his first hundred came against the toughest bowling India have encountered in this World Cup. On a pitch where the second-highest score was 42, he marshalled India's tricky chase against South Africa as wickets fell steadily, with a determination and measured brilliance that set the tone of his campaign. Kagiso Rabada versus Virat Kohli was the anticipated battle, but Kohli ended up facing only five balls from Rabada before being dismissed by Andile Phehlukwayo, and it was Rohit who absorbed the full impact, facing 35 of Rabada's 60 deliveries.
The pitches were fresh and the weather heavy in that part of the tournament. Rabada harried Rohit with pace and skiddy bounce early on, and a miscued pull barely eluded a fielder. He was pinned on the pad, beaten past the outside edge, and even Chris Morris got a ball past him and had him fending over point. But Rohit battled through, and it was a six that turned the tide.
He had just been beaten on a drive the previous ball, and Rabada followed it with a ball at the ribs. In his normal position, Rohit would have been cramped for space, and been able to, at best, fend it off for a single. But behind every genius stroke there is anticipation and instinct: in this instance, he moved a shade inside, just a shade, mind you, not by way of premeditation but with a touch of intuition, and it was not so much the feet that moved but the upper body - just enough for the arms to free up and for the bat to meet the ball on the upswing. He pivoted on the back foot to complete a pull that took the ball flat over square leg.
In that moment you sensed the mood of the game change. Two fours came off the next four balls, one a defensive prod with an angled bat, and then a ferocious cut off the back foot behind point. Rabada would bowl one more over in that spell, but all through it he was perhaps replaying that one ball: just where did that stroke come from?
Now, that is perhaps our imagination. Rabada has probably put it out of this mind. But in the mind of the viewer, the mellow warmth of a Rohit Sharma six always lingers.

Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo @sambitbal