Of late there has been a little bit of Sachin Tendulkar about Rohit Sharma’s batting. Not in the batting style but in the approach, even to the extent of Rohit’s shot selection. The slow boil of a Test match allows one to watch and savour that trait that bit more. On Saturday, he became the first Indian opener after Sunil Gavaskar in 1978 to have scored two hundreds in the same Test as he powered India to a position of strength.
Express Audio | What makes Rohit Sharma the gully boy of Indian Cricket
With a target of 395 to defend on a fourth-innings pitch, the Indian spinners went to work in fading daylight and Ravindra Jadeja trapped last innings’ centrurion Dean Elgar in front to leave the visitors at 11/1 after nine overs at the end of the fourth day’s play.
In the last few years of Tendulkar’s Test career, he had a staple diet of shots he would play, especially against the spinners. The conventional sweep used to throw the bowler off his lengths. Rohit too employed it a lot in the second innings. He swooped really low and like Tendulkar, stretched to meet the ball well ahead of him, sweeping it off the good-length area. Some, like VVS Laxman, would use the feet and some, like Rahul Dravid, would retreat deeply off the back foot to create their own lengths. Rohit chose the Tendulkar route of using sweeps to force the spinners to think about their lengths. Especially the South African left-arm spinner, Keshav Maharaj.
Tendulkar’s another trick was the paddle-shot against the offspinners, played with minimum of fuss to middle stump deliveries and it would successfully disarray the conventional field set-ups. Rohit too kept plugging the paddle shot to steal runs off Dane Peidt’s bowling.
Near the end of his Test career, Tendulkar made batting look almost risk-free with the options he chose, especially in the subcontinent, and Rohit seems to be getting there. He talked about it the other day, how he has a clarity about the shots he wants to play in Tests and the evidence has been on offer over the two knocks he has played in this match.
He rarely tried to work the ball across the line against the newish ball, preferring to tap the middle-stump deliveries to mid-on. He was pretty tight and compact against the seamers, careful in not letting his hands betray him for the outside-off deliveries, but we will have to wait for more seamer-friendly conditions to see how good he has become in that aspect.
More shades of Tendulkar were spotted in his slog-sweeps to the spinners, the off-spinner in particular. Probably because he was much shorter, Tendulkar’s down-on-his-knee slog-sweep seems far more compact than Rohit version but the effect is the same: the ball invariably sails over the midwicket boundary.
On day one, Mayank Agarwal shared a chat he had with Rohit in the middle after reverse sweeping a ball for four. How Rohit was talking about risk-free options to move the score at a brisk pace, and it’s the sign of the times that the reverse-sweep is one such option that opens up the field and upsets the spinners. Risk-free is Rohit’s theme these days, like Tendulkar.
A point of divergence
Probably the only shot where he differs from Tendulkar is the down-the-track charge — a shot Rohit has started to deploy a lot of late. Tendulkar went the other way, using it a lot in his earlier days and shelving it for the security of the crease as he aged. Rohit wasn’t that fluent with it his earlier days, often getting into problem, especially against the turning ball. Like the moment he was eventually dismissed by Maharaj, who spun one further away to leave Rohit stranded. But until then, he used the run-down-the-pitch routine fairly frequently, and especially after he was well-set. Until then the sweeps did the trick for him (to upset lengths) and once he got his eye in, he started the charge down the pitch.
The one area where he is likely to depart from the near-the-end-of-career version of Tendulkar is in the way he dominates once on top. Tendulkar could go at a steady pace throughout, never quite letting himself go, but Rohit seems inclined to bat far more freely and tries dominating, or as he says, “taking the game forward”.
There were couple of lovely moments in his partnership with Cheteshwar Pujara. The first came in the post-lunch session when Rohit thought there was a single on offer after the ball had squirted towards short point but when Pujara didn’t respond, he rushed back to his crease and could be heard through the stump mike: “Bhaag Be*****d!
Second came when he was in his 90s and Vernon Philander had a delivery full and tailing into his pads; Rohit went for the big across-the-line heave and missed. Immediately, Pujara walked across with a smile and stressed the need to re-focus. Two balls later, Pujara himself was trapped lbw by a Philander legcutter and Rohit stood mid-pitch head down for a while after the DRS didn’t save Pujara, who had trudged half way to the pavilion.
There was one other lighter moment, this time offered by Virat Kohli, when the replay confirmed that Senuran Muthusamy had stepped on the long-on rope to reprieve Rohit off Peidt. The television cameras were focused on the players in the middle, but in the pavilion, Kohli did a short little jig of joy.
And why not, India are in a good position by the end of the fourth day, though South Africa showed in the first innings that they can resist valiantly. Some rain is also predicted on the final day and it can’t be said that the pitch has disintegrated all that drastically.
Even though, they lost a big wicket a skimmer that straightened on the leg-stump line, South Africa would still remain hopeful that they can get the job done. India would hope that Jadeja could this time be the wrecker-in-chief with his left-arm spin. All in all, a good way to enter the last day of the first Test: the game is still alive and kicking and if South Africa shut India down, the series would look far more interesting. It also makes one wonder whether the Pune pitch will be scruffier and drier surface than this. But first, in the here and now, the Vizag Test awaits an Indian bowler or two to own it and push it towards a favourable denouement.