Rohit Sharma: An opening… or a dead end
What’s with Rohit Sharma that despite numerous examples of forced openers failing that we cling to the rare exceptions like Virender Sehwag to justify our hope that he would come good in Tests? Just recently, England tried the Sehwag template to hoist Jason Roy but he was dismantled and dishevelled by the end of the series that he had to be dropped for the final game.
Still, somehow, there is hope about Sharma. We know why of course – talented stars like him get that extra rope. Not necessarily, a consistent run over a few series but every now and then, an optimistic shove into a Test series to see if he can do some magic. He, of course, didn’t but what makes this time different?
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Probably because he is the best prepared he has ever been for a spot in Tests. Ideally, it should have been in the middle order but since that spot isn’t opening up, he has been given that old Indian back-door entry as an opener. Still there is a reason to hope. For a man who used to get squared-up to straight deliveries outside off stump, he has come a long way in terms of his balance at the wicket. It’s not been an overnight change either; slowly he has eased out one worry after another.
For a while, even when he was scoring big in ODIs, he used to get in a great deal of trouble against the ball that would duck back into him, especially if it was from a left-hander. The left leg would be pressed so far ahead and more importantly across the line, that he would get into an awful tangle. With quality seamers, there wasn’t much time to wriggle out of trouble – and he was an lbw candidate.
Sometime during the last IPL, one sensed he had worked out a plan. He stopped trying to work the ball to the leg, even if it meant tapping a ball on the middle and leg towards mid-on. The entire focus it seemed was on maintaining a balance and a side-on stance, feet not too wide at the crease.
The forward press became a matter of choice rather an involuntary movement. He began to look in better control out there. But it also meant a greater strain on his mental fortitude – he now had to ensure he doesn’t upset his balance by trying to flick. It created a few problems even in the dreamy World Cup in the early games where his aerial flick shots just about fell wide of lunging catchers at square-leg. He immediately shut the leg-side shop. Not easy for a free-flowing batsman like him but he did that.
Tightened off-side game
The game outside off stump also has improved but it’s still an area that could make or break his Test career. It’s a better version than in the past of course when he would fish and hang his bat away from the body. A loose-limbed fatal prod and would get him squared-up. You would wait for the replays to see if it was some vicious leg-cutter but it would turn out to be a ball that just about dinked away if anything.
Just the muscular twitch was understandable to an extent – 0Mahela Jayawardene would do offer a limp prod a lot in his young days but the squaring up was worrisome. All that has stopped in recent times. Simply put, he looks much better of control of his mind and as a result over his body in the middle.
But as Vernon Philander showed in the warm-up game the other day, it’s an area that will test him. The only good thing is he now is like any other opener who has a problem with that line.
All openers would have; it’s not such a egregious weakness as it used to be for him. It’s the ball that took him out in world cup semi-final when New Zealand’s Matt Henry took him out with a lovely curler.
Like any other opener, he needs some luck and while Indian team management might think they have provided him with cover by giving him a home series. But his luck, he would run into the most nagging new-ball bowler in world cricket today, Philander, who thrives on any hint of iffiness of technique and mind.
Expected: Pitch to play low
The Vizag pitch is expected to play low but there has been some rain in the air and more has been forecasted in the days to come. If there is even an iota of moisture in the air or the pitch, Philander would exploit it in his new-ball spell. And that’s the spell Sharma will be at his most tentative.
The general expectation about him is that if he gets through the first 10 overs, he will be good for the long haul in Indian conditions but he has to get through that period. There is another factor that he has to contend with: the impatience in this Indian think tank. Ask Ajinkya Rahane, R Ashwin, or even Cheteshwar Pujara.
The Australia series saved Pujara, and Rahane has climbed out of the grave with performances in the West Indies recently. Now, it’s the turn of Rishabh Pant. The word is that Wriddhiman Saha is almost certain to replace him in the playing eleven for the first Test at Vizag.
The current think tank doesn’t believe in long unimpeded runs. Make or break. Perform or perish. Insecurity as a performance-enhancing drug. Ashwin one senses is at that stage now. The fastest bowler to 250 wickets now finds himself at a vulnerable stage in his career – a state of affairs he couldn’t have imagined 20 months back.
Sharma now finds himself with a great opportunity in Tests but it comes with all these accompanying dark clouds. As he repeatedly kept saying in the last World Cup, he is at his best when he is at the best mental space.
It’s perhaps not a coincidence that his performance dipped after the world cup and particularly after that alleged tiff with Kohli. He now gets a crack at the Test spot he has desired for a while now and it would be fascinating to see what he makes of it. His game is at its best it has ever been, whether it’s enough to tackle the likes of Philander and Kagiso Rabada remains to be seen.