Rohit Sharma, whose unbeaten hundred eased India to victory, came into the World Cup with a problem and a unique solution. For a while now, right through the IPL in fact, he had shelved the leg-side dabs. Those bread-and-butter shots for an Indian, or for any top-order batsman, to rotate strike against the seamers. The flicks, the wristy dabs, the nurdles to square-leg region were frozen away. Time and again through the IPL, whenever the seamers hurled full-length deliveries on middle and leg, Sharma would conscientiously try to hold his shape and push it away towards mid-on. In better days in the past, he would have wristed them past square-leg for a single at least. If not a boundary. Not any longer.
Wary of LBWs, and how he was losing his balance when he tried to work the balls to the leg-side, he has come with a plan of abstinence. Cut them out. You can cut shots like paddle scoops or late cuts or even a pull, but how do you shelve a shot that’s so instinctive and almost harmless in its essence, especially for an Indian batsman? An LBW dismissal has never been far away from Rohit through his career. Not only against the left-arm pacers, but also against the right-arm seamers who could nip it both ways. In the past, he has often put his left foot across and had problems playing around it. Last year, he seemed to have sorted that out as he sought to make intricate tweaks.
The essence of his batting was distilled into the stillness he achieves at the crease, these days. Minimalistic at its soul. It’s the startingly fluid bat swing that’s at his core — everything else he does is tailored towards achieving that. The still head, the minimal footwork, the balance and then he lets his hands go through. Anything that upsets his balance, throws him off. That leg-side flick was one such thing as he found himself shifting weight ungainly on the front foot. It obstructed his balance and hence, the bat flow. So, he has cut it out. Especially against the new ball.
It comes with obvious problems. Where a Virat Kohli would flick away middle-stump deliveries for runs and keep the runs ticking and pressure off, Sharma now has to find other ways to break the shackles early on in his innings. It’s in this context that he walked out to bat in the 228-run chase against South Africa at Southampton on Wednesday.
Young speedster Kagiso Rabada was in the mood to dish out trouble. He didn’t have many runs to play with but he realised this was it: make or break for his country and he had to lead from the front. The pitch offered some assistance, especially to the new ball. The bouncers and the toe-crushers returned. The ball fizzed off a length. Shikhar Dhawan was taken out and he nearly had Sharma too with a bouncer. But the hurried swat had the ball looping up behind, towards second slip, and Faf du Plessis couldn’t quite get his fingers under the ball as he rushed forward and lunged.
Sharma was on 1 and who knows what damage Rabada would have wreaked on the Indian middle order had that catch been taken?
It was one-way traffic until the 8th over, till Sharma had played 22 balls. He left a few, patted many, got into a tangle occasionally but had survived. Then came another Rabada bouncer and Sharma did what he does: the left leg hops in the air, the balance shifts to his right foot, and he helped it along over backward square-leg boundary. When the short ball is at his body, trying to cramp him up, he doles out this help-along-non-violent-pull.
Next ball was fuller and he came up with a defensive tap and when the ball rolled to third man boundary, the initial impression was that it was an edge. It wasn’t. It’s one of the shots that Sachin Tendulkar taught a young Kohli. When you want to run pacy balls to third man, don’t open the bat-face, just try to defend with a loose grip, with a tilted bat-face that doesn’t leave you in any danger of nicking it – and the ball invariably would run to third man. That’s what Sharma did then.
But the real jail-break moment arrived off the final ball of that over. It was a shortish ball that bounced chest high outside off but Sharma glided up on his toes and lifted himself in the air to ride the bounce and thumped it over point. Rabada would bowl one more over in that first spell but that shot had allayed worries, Sharma and India are going to be fine.
Kohli would fall soon, unable to get on top of the bounce off Andile Phehlukwayo’s delivery but it still required the ‘keeper Quinton de Kock to fly to his right with an outstretched right hand to bring it back safely to the ground.
The subsequent period was a good test for India – no Kohli, and the middle order can find its feet without the pressure of chasing a huge total. KL Rahul looked decent until Rabada came back in the 28th over. After two quiet overs from him, du Plessis signalled him to come back for the third over and Rabada produced a length ball that perhaps held up a touch on Rahul who occasionally drives without quite moving that front foot. He relies a lot on leaning the upper body forward and doesn’t quite take a stride and when that ball stopped, he couldn’t quite adjust, scooping it to mid-off.
Then Dhoni did what he does, dragging the game inexorably towards the end overs and Sharma too slowed down as the pair strived to ensure South Africa didn’t get back in the game.
Even at this stage, Sharma didn’t wrist any balls from the stumps. The abstinence continued. And he ended up with an unbeaten 122.