Rohit Sharma finds the way to be India’s cornerstone as Kohli goes for the kill
The one word Rohit Sharma hated more than any other through the initial part of his international career was talent.
As heir apparent to the batting greats of the generation before him, the next big thing from the storied Mumbai school of batsmanship, great things were expected of him. And expected of him instantly. When his natural ability did not translate into a mountain of runs, he would be taunted as talent, but no performance, on social media. The doubters used his strength to target him.
But this will not happen any longer. Instead Sharma has found his fix, solving a nagging problem for India. In this series Sharma has scored 368 runs at an average of 52.57 and has broken his run of 24 caps overseas without a century through his 127 at the Oval.
Only Joe Root has made more runs, leading a team that is 2-1 down with one match to play and over the course of this series experts have tried to make sense of what now works for Sharma; how he ended the starvation when not feasting in the familiar surroundings of India’s cricket grounds.
They posit that he has presented a straighter bat than before, not opening the face and playing towards cover or extra-cover as he had done in the past. This is backed up by wagon-wheel data that shows where Sharma has scored his runs. However, the question asked over the years in India is a slightly different one. Why did Sharma have such immense success in white-ball cricket, of the 50- and 20-over variety, without being able to make it big in Test cricket? This was mystifying.
As a batsman he had more time than anyone else to address the ball, his set up was immaculate, his technique tight and yet he never made a permanent home for himself in the longest format. First it was suggested that his place was only in the middle order. Then came the hypothesis that he was a flat-track bully.
The numbers backed up some of this, given his stupendous home record and his failures overseas. But this accounted for neither the situations he played in nor the man he is.
Sharma today is one of the best at what he does, even though he is not an opening batsman by choice. In this series he has shown that he has the technique, the mind and the skills to frustrate the best swing bowler in the world in English conditions, Jimmy Anderson, and keep the other wolves at bay.
At Trent Bridge he played 107 balls in the first dig and 34 in the second. At Lord’s it was 145 and 36. At Headingley 105 and 156. At the Oval 27 and 256. Sharma has only one hundred in this series, so far, but he has been the cornerstone on which India have been able to build.
In the last Test Virat Kohli turned to the stands and taunted the Barmy Army, mimicking their bugler. But he could do so only on the back of the performances of his teammates.
Tactically Kohli had his best day during the final hours of the Oval Test on Monday, getting his bowling changes spot on and putting fields in place that ensured that England were constantly under pressure.
Exceptional as he has been as a batsman, his captaincy has been open to question at times, from team selection to decisions on the field. He is India’s most successful Test captain but he has also had more resources to call upon than anyone else, especially the kind needed when playing away. No Indian captain has won two Tests in a series in England before. Kohli stands at the precipice of making it three.
The public personality of Kohli says he does not take a backward step. He does not even countenance drawing a Test. He would rather court defeat – as he did standing in as captain for MS Dhoni in Adelaide in 2014 –than try to stonewall.
In this approach lies England’s best chance of clawing back to draw the series. Most teams leading 2-1 would look first to secure the game and to take a win as a bonus. But Kohli’s India are looking at turning 2-1 to 3-1 and in Manchester it will be England who have to do all the running.
Before the Oval Test all the talk was around how Ravichandran Ashwin must play, but the management team thought otherwise. Now, with India’s four-quicks template delivering results the chatter – or noise as Kohli calls it – in India has quietened down – so much so that there is little expectation that Ashwin will even be considered for selection at Old Trafford. But, knowing how Kohli and Ravi Shastri work, they may play the celebrated off-spinner when it is least expected.