Rohit Sharma: Languid elegance in search of patience

 India's Rohit Sharma celebrates his double century during 2nd day of the 3rd cricket test match against South Africa at JSCA Stadium in Ranchi. PTI file photo

Around two years ago, an episode of the 'Breakfast with Champions' was released that featured Gaurav Kapur in conversation with Virat Kohli. Among other things, Kohli shared an appreciation for Rohit Sharma on that show. There was a lot of praise for the batsman. Kohli saw him playing for the first time during their under-19 days and was overcome with a sense of reverence. 

There was always a buzz about Rohit in Indian cricket circles. With time and success, however, Kohli took over the mantle of the best batsman in the team. Rohit faltered, stumbled, and finally picked himself up to give Kohli a run for his money, albeit in one format. In the process, Rohit became an embodiment of 'what could have been' and one with the potential to still fulfil his destiny. 

When Rohit made his international debut against Ireland in Belfast back in 2007 (it may be unsurprising that it was in the ODI format), he brought with him the trademark class of Mumbai cricket, arguably the powerhouse of India in the sport. He was a batsman with elegance and charm, who could sit back and dispatch the bowlers to the farthest corners of the stadium without breaking a sweat. He had one of the most crucial qualities that a special batsman must possess: Plenty of time to see the ball. And he had flair. India, in its cricketing history, has seen plenty of graceful batsmen with signature shots. The straight drive of Sachin, the square cut of Dravid, the offside grandeur of Ganguly, the wristy flicks of Azhar and Laxman, among others. So it is little wonder that people took one look at Sharma's nonchalant pull shot and waited with bated breath for him to excel in the pinnacle of all cricket: Test matches. 

It was in the promised land that he failed to deliver. 

Over the years, he has become a 'galactico' in ODI cricket. Yes, in the first six years, he played as a middle-order batsman and scored 1,967 runs in 84 matches at an average of 31.72. That's a pretty dismal performance. The year 2011 was an exception, where he 582 runs in 13 matches at an average of 72.75. He came into his own once he started opening the innings in 2013. He grew by leaps and bounds, a batsman respected by all opponents across the globe. The recently concluded 2019 Cricket World Cup is a testament to his prowess. He scored a staggering 648 runs in 9 matches at an astonishing average of 81, including 5 centuries. 

Rohit's Test career has been a bleak tale, compared to his domination in the white ball arena. The graph has fluctuated time and again, with critics questioning his temperament and technique in away series where the pitches offer more pace than spin. To be fair to the critics, Rohit's away numbers have not been encouraging. If we exclude Bangladesh and the West Indies (both are currently trying to find their way in Test cricket) from the list of away teams, then Rohit's away stats are bound to raise eyebrows. In 15 matches, he has scored 760 runs at a 27.14 average, without a century. A look at the country-wise Test numbers: 

In Australia: 279 runs in 5 matches at an average of 31. 

In England: 34 runs in 1 match. 

In New Zealand: 122 runs in 2 matches at an average of 40.66. 

In South Africa: 123 runs in 4 matches at an average of 15.37. 

In Sri Lanka: 202 runs in 3 matches at an average of 33.66. 

A common deduction from these numbers is that Rohit struggles in countries that offer steep bounce and pace for bowlers, which have teams stacked with fearsome exponents of the red ball. His performances in Australia and South Africa do paint a poor picture, but his New Zealand stats may offer another point of view. Rohit played two matches in New Zealand and out of a total of 122 runs, 72 was scored in one innings. There's not a lot to go by but maybe New Zealand conditions did suit Rohit's approach better than Australia and South Africa. One can't really judge his ability based on a solitary match in England. His humungous exploits in the recent World Cup in England could ignite some hopes. The red ball, however, spites much more venom, especially in the hands of wily craftsmen like James Anderson and Stuart Board, or the new star Jofra Archer. His numbers in Sri Lanka are somewhat baffling, given his expertise on subcontinent pitches and familiarity with the conditions. 

There are away numbers and there are home numbers. Rohit may have struggled on away tours but his home numbers are close to 'Bradmanesque'. In the 12 matches that he has played at home, he has scored 1,298 runs at an average of 99.84 (just shy of Sir Don Bradman's career average of 99.94). The familiar pitches and comfort of home have propelled him onto a surreal plane, where he has created a fort that's almost impenetrable for the visiting teams. 

The team management is willing to back him in Test cricket right now, just like MS Dhoni once did in the ODIs. They have brought Rohit out of the middle-order, a position that was assigned to him for many years, and thrust him to face an examination at the top. India has suffered from the lack of a stable opener in Tests ever since the retirement of Virender Sehwag. Many stalwarts followed, trying to establish dominance as openers, without much success. Gautam Gambhir performed in patches in away tours, Murali Vijay flattered only to deceive, KL Rahul is still busy trying to find a temperament and rhythm suitable for the longer version. The gutsy Mayank Agarwal has shown some promise. His grind in Australia and exuberant display against South Africa at home showed his potential to perform at the top level. The fact that he has scored truckloads of runs on the domestic circuit adds to his credentials. 

The first chapter of Rohit's life as a Test opener has been fruitful. He took on a hapless South African attack and blunted the likes of Kagiso Rabada, Vernon Philander, Lungi Ngidi and Keshav Maharaj. He amassed 534 runs in the four innings that he batted, at an average of 132.25. As a result, he received the Man of the Series award. 

Only one Indian opener had plundered more runs in a series than Rohit: Virender Sehwag against Pakistan in 2004 where he scored 544 runs in the six innings he played. Rohit scored 10 runs less, in two fewer innings. 

It will be interesting to see whether Rohit manages to follow in the footsteps of his swashbuckling predecessor Sehwag or ends up in the same spectrum as VVS Laxman, who averaged only 28.54 during his tenure as a Test opener. Like other skilled batsmen, Rohit can create mountains of runs on Indian soil. The real test, however, will lie in the away tours -- a world where he has failed in the past. 

Greatness beckons those who perform in away countries. The lingering question about his ability to translate ODI success into Test cricket could then be quashed once and for all. India's tour of New Zealand in 2020 will be his litmus test, where he could either stamp his authority against an attack comprising Trent Boult, Lockie Ferguson, Tim Southee and Neil Wagner or he could fade away into the disappointment of his believers. 

For now, Rohit can continue to bask in the glory of his recent success. To quote Robert Frost, however, he still has "promises to keep, and miles to go" before he can sleep. 

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