“That to me sums up his Test career. Waste of a lot of ability.” – Ian Chappell on Rohit Sharma’s dismissal. It isn’t often that one disagrees with the senior Chappell but there is always a first time for everything. The manner of his dismissal is bound to trigger debates and disappointments but overall, if anything, this knock showed that he can genuinely push the likes of Ajinkya Rahane for a Test spot.
He has rarely looked so secure in his defense in Tests in the past as he did at Adelaide, and his strokes didn’t have a whiff of desperation – he looked at ease, he looked like he cared, he looked like he belonged and there was enough there to hope that this time he is here to stay. It wasn’t just his dismissals in the previous overseas Tests that was the cause of concern; it was what he did otherwise, leading up to that exit that was the real headache. You could sense an underlying anxiety and certain hesitancy of mind in trusting his technique. Especially, the defence. More on that later.
Now to that dismissal which sent Chappell, and million others no doubt, on a here-we-go-again sigh. It’s an understandable reaction but it’s misplaced. He had just hit a six, a mistimed hit that had just about carried over the boundary. The question whether another big shot was needed immediately isn’t the right query. Are we okay if he had tried it two overs later and got out similarly? The question to be asked is what was he trying to do in that shot. What went wrong?
For starters, Nathan Lyon did a clever little switch: for someone who was turning it from outside off, he saw an advancing Sharma and pinged the middle and leg line. And got it turn and bounce. The combo cramped up Sharma who initially seemed to be looking at vast untenanted midwicket region but now had to end up dragging it square. Mistake.
For some reason, Sharma can be still a touch tentative when he steps down the track. It’s a shot he rarely plays too much even in ODIs, especially early in his knock. He stretches out and lofts. But it’s a shot that he has tried to his detriment in Tests. In Sri Lanka when he holed out to mid-off. In England when he miscued it to long-on. That urge to step down the track seems uncontrollable in Tests but strangely, it comes with a bit of tentativeness. He can easily come down the pitch and tap the spinners around for singles – it doesn’t have to be all or nothing charges. But he doesn’t do it in Tests.
In ODIs, we have seen him drive it down to long-on or long-off (in Tests, of course, the men stand up) – it suggests a lack of confidence in his wrists to nurdle it around square. He can and does work the ball around when the ball turns in from a short of length, but on the front foot, he prefers the straight lines or the slog-hoick. It’s time he adds the taps and nurdles when he goes down the track. He still should advance as it’s a trait that modern-day Indians, barring Cheteshwar Pujara, have shelved. And they have only suffered as a result, looking uncomfortable against quality spin. If Adelaide pitch continues to play the way it does, Lyon is going to loom over the Indians in the second innings if they show circumspection. Pujara is someone who plays the little shots after advancing down the pitch and Sharma can learn from him.
His has become such a minimalistic technique that it’s his strength and weakness. His batting soul is balance. It’s what he thrives on and it’s what also that drags him down. He has cut out any little foot movements while waiting at the crease – he moves late and decisively. It’s what makes him pull off astonishing shots – has there been a better shot in Tests in recent memory from any batsman than the gobsmacking six over covers he unfurled off Pat Cummins? It’s also why he twice edged Kemar Roach on a docile track in Mumbai in between two stunning sixes. The balls just about straightened outside off and Sharma, as ever so intent on keeping his shape and balance right, didn’t move his feet to cover but just pushed out at them. It fell short of slips but it hinted at why he still isn’t ready to open in Tests as some of his fans have been craving for. That would require an amount of tinkering which he doesn’t seem to ready for at this stage in his career. Let him breathe in the middle order for a while more at least.
There is so much effort in trying to be still at his crease – the head, the body, the hands, the feet, that he probably doesn’t think it’s going to help get into a position to cover for movement. In the past, when he has tried to do it, he has tripped – he would get in a tangle and has had to play around that front pad which has led to a few lbw dismissals. It seems, he has decided to ditch and opted for stillness over everything. It has worked for him in the shorter formats and in this knock it did help him look really compact.
Take the first ball after lunch for example. Cummins speared one across on a good length, tilting it in a touch, and Sharma was absolutely impregnable in defense.
It brought to mind Virender Sehwag, who lived by the mantra – seedha aaya toh rok, baaki sab tok (if it’s straight, block, everything else tonk). People got carried away by the tonk/tok that his wonderful defensive technique was overlooked. The very thing that made him a successful Test opener.
Sharma seems to have settled on a minimalistic technique that he is unlikely to tinker. It will be interesting to see how he goes about his job in the next couple of Tests – hopefully, after giving him this chance, Indian management won’t turn shy and bin him. There was enough there in Adelaide to warrant a longer run. The impatience in the selection in the past was understandable; he hadn’t done enough to earn their trust but this time, it does seem really different.