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Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The Eliminator: Rohit Sharma

Behind Rohit Sharma's run-feast has been self-denial and selective elimination. Shelving some of his productive yet risky strokes, he has emerged as a smarter batsman.

Written by Sandip G | New Delhi | Updated: July 18, 2019 9:25:14 am
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The story of Rohit Sharma’s gluttonous run-making this World Cup is as much as about the strokes he played as of those he restrained from. He unfurled a range of pulls, he smoked gorgeous sixes down the ground, he cut, he slapped, he drove, he slogged, he swept, every stroke mankind has invented. But he desisted from playing strokes that once were his staple, shed arguably in the evolutionary leap for perfection. Like the flowing on-the-rise cover-drives early in the innings, the whippy, squarish flicks, which he has curtailed, the cheeky oeuvre of paddle sweeps and late cuts, to which he has been completely indifferent to, and the wristy dabs behind square-leg, which he has almost entirely eschewed.

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The abstinence, though, was subtle, without his muscle memory rebelling. When Sachin Tendulkar refrained from cover drives in compiling a grinding 241 not out in Sydney, he made abstinence look painstaking, his front-foot almost always striding out, telegraphing his intention to leave the ball. Rohit’s looked more seamless, even undetectable. And unlike Tendulkar’s, it wasn’t curative, rather a preventive measure. The cover-drive has never been his serial killer—like most instinctive cover-drivers he has lived and died by that stroke, and hence no quibbles–but it hadn’t quite morphed into an all-devouring nemesis yet. Sharma was forensically cutting out the possible mode of dismissal. In England, where the ball could move, even the flat-seamed Kookaburra ones, the cover-drive posed risk, especially with his proneness to play it with an open face and not with a full front-foot stride. Rather, he would push the ball straight, between the bowler and mid-off.

Rohit Sharma Cricket World Cup 2019 performance How Rohit Sharma bats

So for 449 deliveries, from the IPL qualifier to the middle overs in England, he didn’t venture a single cover-driven four. He then stroked thrice in two overs, against Ben Stokes and Adil Rashid, but that was a combination of lurching run-rate and gift-wrapped wide balls. Even when driving early in the innings, he does those through the line of the ball, seldom reaches for the ball, seldom tries it on the rise. In that sense, he has reduced his over-dependence on the use of hands. These days, he keeps the hands close to the body so that he’s well-balanced.

Rohit Sharma Cricket World Cup 2019 performance Behind the wicket to long on

It’s for the balance that he has removed the flicks, it’s caressed through mid-wicket rather than square leg, and wristy dabs from his lexicon. As he stands so side-on at the crease, he tends to play those strokes around the front-pad. He can still pick it off his heels, but there’s a certain degree of risk. So the flicks and dabs entail risk, especially when he’s facing left-armers. The bat tends to come around the front-pad and he becomes proner to lbws. And he has a fair percentage of lbws at the start of his innings—17times for an average of 14.29. So when he tries to flick towards the square, his whole set up gets disturbed, his head sometimes falls over, he loses the balance. Hence, the abstinence. As for paddle-sweeps, he realised that the risk didn’t correspond tovalue. Why break-dance when you have ball-room steps? For someone who has two shots for every ball, he could choose the less audacious of the two. Not long ago, he worked in the opposite way. Besides, you get wiser as you approach sporting middle-age.

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As much as he denounced some of his strokes, he maximised others. Like the pulls, square-drives, the sweeps, slogs and the lofted on-drives. While binning all the risky shots in his repertoire is unthinkable, and utterly needless, reducing risk has been pivotal to his success. The effectiveness is best captured by the stat that he had the lowest false-short percentage among all opening batsmen, just 13.3. When you weave in the variable that he faced 659 deliveries in this World Cup, it’s a staggering number.

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Lost in his sparkling stroke-play is his reduced dot-ball percentage. For much his career, he was blamed for his (relative) inability to farm the strike. The boundaries, often, compensated, but some even misconstrued it as negligence. But the perfectionist that Rohit is, he studiously worked on every single thread of his craft that would make him a batting beast. Resultantly, among openers this World Cup, he had the least dot-ball percentage too, just 12.2. Resultantly, in the last two years, he has scored more than even Virat Kohli (3222 and 3139), the modern-day one-day batting metronome.

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This transformation is the most sparkling measure of his genius—that he’s as much as about the strokes he plays as the shots he doesn’t.

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