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Shubman Gill and Rohit Sharma seal ODI series sweep against New Zealand with Test-match strokes

Easily the most entertaining opening pair in the world, both have the skills to make the brutal pull shot look beautiful.

Shubman Gill, right, greets India's captain Rohit Sharma after scoring century during the third one-day international cricket match between India and New Zealand in Indore, India, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade)
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Shubman Gill and Rohit Sharma seal ODI series sweep against New Zealand with Test-match strokes
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Three balls after Rohit Sharma completed his 30th century in this format, his partner Shubman Gill wrapped up his fourth century, his third in four innings, with a bow to the crowd.

Then in the space of two overs both departed. The 212-run opening stand in 26 overs largely featured classical strokes, and occasionally a touch of innovation. They struck a combined haul of 22 fours and 11 sixes.

Yet, when you revisit those 26 overs, you would not notice any savagery. Thrill is not the predominant emotion their batting throws up, though runs and boundaries flowing frequently do excite you.

Their strokes would not look out of place in red-ball cricket. Like the cover-driven four off Jacob Duffy that got Rohit’s innings flowing. The ball was just about over-pitched, Rohit took a half-stride, met the ball on the rise and just played it through the gaps. He did not watch the shot race to the fence, rather casually turned away to regather his focus.

The off-driven six of Duffy in fifth over was a thing of pure beauty, a shot that could be described in isolation. Duffy was extracting bounce on the quickest and bounciest surface in the series. The ball was short-of-length. But Rohit had already made up his mind. He thrusted his front-foot, not an extravagant stride, did not reach to the pitch of the ball, but met the ball on the rise, head and body still and then lifted it over his head, whipping up memories of another Mumbai great, Sachin Tendulkar.

But with Tendulkar, you expect him to be in the perfect position to play the stroke. Rohit was not, yet he could essay Tendulkar-like strokes. There was another tribute act to Tendulkar, when he stepped out to Duffy, and bludgeoned him with a flat bat over long-off. That was perhaps his only semi-muscled shot of the afternoon.

Rohit beautifies as brutal a stroke as the pull, one that he unfurled numerous times in his 85-ball knock. Duffy, in whose nightmare Rohit could recur, was pulled twice in two balls for a six and four. The latter was a remarkable shot, in that the ball was short of length, but Rohit rocked back and shuffled a fraction to carve room. True that he has perished to the pull of late, but still it is a folly to bowl short at him, not least on a ground with true bounce and short boundaries.

Rohit, though, has a challenger in Gill for the best puller in the team. Gill’s pulls are most text-book, in that he always shifts his weight onto the back-foot. The pull could be an awkward shot for tall players on subcontinental surfaces, where the ball does not bounce as much and hence they tend to struggle with the pulls. But not for Gill. The key is he does not look to pull every short ball, rather he looks to work it off his hips. Only when it is at least chest-high that he unfurls the pull and the hook.

There was a stunning hook off Duffy, who erred on the shorter side once too often and paid the price, ending his shift with horrific figures of 10-0-100-3.
But it was his treatment of Lockie Ferguson that screamed of his quality. The first ball of the eighth over, Ferguson, the quickest and toughest of New Zealand bowlers, induced a half-mishit down the ground for a four. He smiled wryly at him. Gill smiled back. He attempted an expansive drive next ball and was beaten.

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The next ball, Ferguson shortened the length and widened the line, only for Gill to dab it down the third man for a four. No violence, no wafting, just pure timing. A shaken Ferguson attempted a yorker—he possesses a sharp and accurate one too—but it turned out to be a full-toss that Gill just stroked between cover and extra-cover. Ferguson was clearly rattled and tried to bounce him out. But Gill just arched his tall frame a tad and upper cut him for a smooth six. That over would lift the tempo of their scoring.

By the 10th over they were purring along at eight an over. By the 15th over, it shot to 8.5, thanks to the introduction of Mitchell Santner, who Sharma welcomed with two sixes in three balls. and Daryl Mitchell, who Sharma greeted with a rare paddle sweep, followed by two fours in the next three balls.

When India raced to 165/0 in 20 overs, even ODI cricket’s first 500, the next evolutionary leap, loomed. Gill, fresh from a double hundred, dished out some gorgeous strokes, none as striking as the six he laced over extra-cover off Santner, nothing more than a front-foot stride, a back-foot shuffle to play the ball inside out and then a clean free swing of his bat. Soon after, he punished Michael Bracewell’s floaty off-breaks, hitting for a six and a four to enter his 90s.
But such a delirious tempo was unsustainable, as Rohit slowed a bit in his 90s and eventually both departed soon after completing their hundreds.

Creditably, New Zealand pulled things back with tight bowling from Santner and Ferguson, who ended up with economy rates below six, and despite a late onslaught by Hardik Pandya, restricted India the hosts to 385 for 9.

It was just the sixth time the pair has opened, but already they are hitting off like best friends. Pairing them itself was a brave, if a left-field decision, considering that Rohit’s long-time partner Shikhar Dhawan has not quite had a lean patch, KL Rahul was performing reasonably and there were aggressors and left-handers like Ishan Kishan. But the faith in Rohit-Gill association stands vindicated.

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There might have been a tinge of disappointment in the end, as India could not muster 400, and neither Gill or Rohit could produce a double hundred, which was not unachievable, but they were treated to a pair of two glorious hundreds, from the two most artful white-ball batsmen around.

First published on: 24-01-2023 at 21:27 IST
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