He hates being called talented, but what do you do when he makes batting look so easy in challenging conditions?
Stuart Broad bowled hardly a bad ball in his first spell of four overs. He started off with a maiden, and drew five not-in-control responses from the India batsmen. There was one ball down the pads, and one half-volley, the latter when he attempted a yorker in the first over. There was nothing short and wide. Yet, despite that maiden, Broad ended up giving 21 runs in that spell. Rohit Sharma faced 19 of those balls for 16 runs.
Even before the profligate spin of Moeen Ali freed India up, Rohit had set the tone for the day. A tone that India needed on a pitch with puffs of dust and mini explosions in the first 15 minutes of play. When India lost their third wicket – two of them to balls that turned with dust flying off the top surface – Rohit had scored 65 off 62 out of a score of 85 for 3. Even after India had won an absolutely crucial toss, this was an essential innings against the new ball that turned faster than it did in the second session.
Ever since that series against South Africa in 2015-16, India have rarely asked for such a pitch. They have trusted their superior spinners – and fast bowlers – to out-bowl any visiting unit on normal Indian surfaces by first containing the first innings and then bursting through in the second. They have also trusted their batsmen to match the opposition even if they do manage a big score in the first innings. That didn’t happen in Chennai last week.
So India took what seems like a desperate step to ask for a rank turner for the first time since Pune 2016-17. When India did so in Pune, they were in their ninth Test of the season. This is their sixth of this season to go with the IPL and the limited-overs leg of the Australia tour. They are missing Ravindra Jadeja. They are down in the series. The spot in the World Test Championship final suddenly is not a formality anymore. To them it must have seemed a gamble worth taking in the week after lead spinner R Ashwin bowled 72 overs in his fifth Test of the season three days ago.
While the toss is crucial on both the Chennai tracks we have seen, it seems India back themselves to overturn the toss disadvantage on this surface more than the one last week. Things didn’t come down to that as Virat Kohli won the toss, but the next part of the job had to be carried out by Rohit. Anyone who faces the new ball really, and this time Shubman Gill encountered a rare failure. Not only do first-innings runs become more crucial on these pitches than on others, the pace of those runs matters too because things happen quickly and a collapse is always around the corner. Even the more defensively minded batsmen bat with more urgency on these pitches. Do unto others before they do unto you.
In that light, Rohit’s 161 off 231 out of the 248 runs than came while he was at the wicket is the perfect job you could ask of an opener. It might be hazardous and premature to judge a pitch before two sides have batted on it, but at times it seemed 161 alone might be a challenging total here against India’s spinners. To do so without appearing to stretch yourself or take undue risks is an exceptional ability.
All Rohit did differently to Australia was play certain shots that he had put away. He said later he had to be more proactive in these conditions. There he hardly played the square drive, instead leaving balls outside off and defending when they got straighter. Here, as early as the third over, he went for the square drive. That is excellent awareness of conditions: he knew even if he did connect with the outside half of the bat, there wouldn’t be any gully catches here. Rohit scored effortlessly against Olly Stone and Ben Stokes too. By the time England went to spin at both ends, India had 48 on the board in 12 overs.
Against spin too, Rohit pulled out the sweep shot liberally, a shot he played only four times out of 71 balls he faced from Nathan Lyon in Australia. He played 16 sweeps in this innings for 31 runs. The sweep again was part of the plan to be proactive against the turning ball, especially once he had pushed two men back on the boundary square on the leg side. He said he could now afford to even top-edge one or two. This is a shot India’s top order hardly played in the first Test; remember Rohit didn’t bat much against spin there. Here he advised Ajinkya Rahane to do the same. “Aada khel [Play across],” he was heard telling Rahane.
As he did with Lyon, Rohit didn’t mind stepping out here, doing so to 40 of the 170 balls of spin he faced in this innings. He defended on 17 of those occasions. The intent wasn’t always to score; all he wanted to do was deny the England bowlers target practice. Once he had put bowlers off their rhythm, Rohit scored smoothly off every error he had eked out of them.
Rohit hates being called talented and effortless because he feels it takes away from the hard work he puts into his batting. Yet what do you do when he makes batting look so easy in challenging conditions? If such batsmen are indeed prone to not making the most of the easier conditions, these pitches should bring the best out of them, keeping them in a heightened state of awareness. “Proactive”, as Rohit himself put it.
The impact of this innings will accurately put people in the mind of what Virender Sehwag used to do. It was quite apparent the conditions were not as easy as Rohit made them look. The second innings in these conditions is generally a roulette so any correlation between method and results is easier to establish in the first innings. And this knock was as good as any that could be asked of an opener.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo