As a sudden burst of drizzle spluttered across the Coolidge Ground, pounding the asbestos-roofed stands, and the players scampered for shade, Rohit Sharma dragged himself out of the congested dressing room and plunged onto the grass near the boundary ropes, feeling the beady drops on his face.
Some of his colleagues bantered: “Mumbai ki baarish ki yaad aati hai kya?” Some of the motley Caribbean spectators barracked: “Our men will make you smell the ball.” But Rohit remained shut in his world, kissed the rain and rolled a couple of rolls on the ground, much endearingly for the spectators.
He wasn’t playing to the gallery, Rohit was just being Rohit. This streak, however, can often be misconstrued for triviality, a word his critics spew whenever he plays a loose stroke to get out, as he did to terminate his otherwise splendorous knock of 68. He was looking utterly untroubled before trying to whip a delivery pitched slightly outside the off-stump.
Until then, there was no stroke that betrayed a semblance of impudence or imprudence. He was flowing as quietly and smoothly as the traffic in this island, looking to play as straight as he could, as close to the body as he could, as late as he could, shelving all the frills in his game, leaving the balls judiciously outside the off-stump, and even cutting out some of his percentage strokes like the front-foot pull and the slap through point. A brace of straight drives was so straight that it was blocked by the middle-stumps at the non-striker’s end. It’s a shot he plays with such sweet timing, such power and grace, that it makes grown men sigh. Rohit was restrained, but didn’t make it look like labour. Of all the Indian batsmen, he and Cheteshwar Pujara batted with the utmost clarity and purpose.
That’s before he committed to that stroke that invited his demise. But the indiscretion of the stroke was more of a visual effect. The shot was always on. The ball wasn’t doing anything alarming, the bounce was even and the bowler wasn’t quick. Rohit’s swing was fluid, maybe the bat flipped a little at the point of impact, and it took a sterling piece of athleticism by the fielder, who ran from straightish long-on to almost deep mid-wicket to complete the catch.
More often than not, it would have banged onto the roof of the dressing room. No one would have pointed an accusatory finger had it been Pujara who had played the same stroke at the same score. Or even Virat Kohli.
But then, men like Rohit are often accused of gloriously living and ingloriously dying by the same sword. Seldom do people fathom it as an occupational hazard. Yes, there were times in his career he has played rash strokes, but perceiving every stroke as rash is harsh on him. So rather than agonising over the silly strokes he sometimes gets out to – in fact his Test career thus far can be summed up through a variety of such outrageous strokes – it’s an opportune time to dwell on those 68 glorious runs, which had the otherwise restless and boisterous crowd entranced, and the relevance of an in-form Rohit. Not merely for the aesthetic value he brings into a match – if any, it should be a secondary concern – but his ability of winning Test matches, home and abroad, a reason he’s been persisted with despite the usual flatter-to-deceive trope that hangs around his neck.
A different tangent
One could argue why someone like Karun Nair, despite a triple century, was dumped like a dry leaf. Undoubtedly, he was unlucky, but Rohit, in sync, operates on a different tangent altogether. It’s the allowance of supreme talent that he’s getting, and the discernible eyes of judges of the game are swayed as much by the big scores as the intangibles such as composure and suitability, besides their gut feeling when they see a batsman. In this regard, he’s a notch or two above the trailing pack.
In fairness, Rohit hasn’t always looked out of place in the five-day game, barring in England, where the extravagantly swinging Duke ball and its masterful purveyors can be his nemesis, as it was VVS Laxman’s. Against all other patterns and arcs a cricket ball can whip up, he’s skilled to exorcise, be it pace, bounce or spin.
A parallel with Laxman can be as illustrative as it could be instructive. Until that knock in Sydney 1999, Laxman was blamed and dumped out of the side for his profligate stroke-play. And that breakthrough, career-altering 167 was his 31st innings. At the same juncture- that’s 27 Tests – Laxman had a slightly inferior average of 36, compared to Rohit’s 39, though by this time he had scripted the piece de resistance of Indian cricket, the 281 in Kolkata. So likewise, a man long anointed as Laxman’s heir should ideally get a similar amount of opportunities.
In the past couple of years, Rohit had demonstrated not only his ambition to blaze in the whites but also adequateness. In South Africa, there were patches when he had looked supreme. Like the 47 he scored in the second innings on a difficult Cape Town track. In Australia, there were phases when he had looked divine. Like the counter-punching 37 in Adelaide after the early setbacks. On both instances, he could have gone on and conquered the summit. But didn’t. On both instances, he floundered attempting his percentage strokes. A pull off Kagiso Rabada in Cape Town and a slog-sweep off Nathan Lyon.
But then, who could begrudge Rohit playing those shots. As many as one-third of his runs in the recent World Cup came through pulls. As for slog-sweeps, he’s perhaps the best Indian executor of them. No doubt though, that more discretion should have gone behind those strokes, like weaving in the match-circumstance and the bowlers.
Nonetheless, based on the evidence of those little uncut gems, Rohit is not far away from that definitive, spot-sealing big score. Thus, he’s at the same juncture in his pre-opening ODI days. It’s all well-storied how it all changed when he strung together a few big scores, rapidly transforming into an ODI batting phenomenon. Moreover, there wouldn’t be a better time to reprise the same in red-ball cricket, what with a sensational World Cup just behind him. With his Mumbai colleague Ajinkya Rahane is in the middle of a slump so that he could nudge him out of the line-up.
Hence, though the series might not be a definitive test of mettle, a fresh start, and a string of good scores could set the wheels of Rohit’s Test-match redemption rolling. Beckoning him is also a long home season, which should further present him the opportunity to nail down the spot, and then bask in the rain of runs, like the summer shower that pattered on the Coolidge roofs.