Ben Jones analyses a remarkable run of form from the Indian opener.
Rohit Sharma’s performance at this World Cup has been colossal. In just eight innings, he’s amassed 647 runs, runs of the highest class and elegance, against all the attacks the world can offer. On the biggest stage of all, he has delivered as few have done before him.
Simply as a stretch of high scores, it’s extraordinary. Of course, as with all World Cup performances, the context heightens the achievement, but really this isn’t anything new. What Rohit has been doing in this World Cup is what he’s been doing for two, three, four years, and longer. Along with his captain, Rohit is so far ahead at the top of the run-scoring charts as to make a mockery of the whole affair.
This isn’t normal. When a player is performing so much better than everyone else, both over a longer, more representative period, and on the high-pressure stage of a World Cup, they have to be doing something different to their colleagues. Surely they must have a trick, a cheat code, an unknown strategy that’s pulling them ahead. We all know Rohit Sharma is better than every ODI opener in the world, but why is he?
Well, he nails the basics. To sustain elite batting performance you generally need a high degree of control, even in the shorter forms of the game, and Rohit has maintained that throughout the tournament. His false shot percentage of 13.3% is the third lowest of the opening batsmen in this World Cup, bettered only by Rahmat Shah and teammate KL Rahul. The fact that both Rahul and Rohit do so well by this measure shows the influence of India’s cautious opening strategy, but it works both ways; India adopt that strategy because they know Rohit can execute it.
In terms of his scoring shots, Rohit’s activity figures are impressive, but in an unsurprising way. He hits more balls to the boundary than the average opener in this tournament, and faces fewer dots – exactly what you’d expect, for a man playing as well as Rohit.
But just as with his false shot percentage, Rohit isn’t far away from the pack. Plenty of other players are recording similarly impressive figures, without producing anywhere near the runs that he has; to try and find Rohit’s point of difference, we’ve got to get a little closer.
DOMINANCE OF SPIN
By all reasonable standards Rohit has dominated when facing pace bowling, but his average of 69 against pace is dwarfed by his average against spin, a vast and faintly comical 232. Only one spin bowler managed to dismiss him in the entire group stage. He’s been outrageous.
How does he do this? Well, he doesn’t look to play particularly unconventionally, at least in a way we can measure. He attacks 42% of spin deliveries, compared to the average of 44% for all batsmen. He hits them in conventional ways as well, hitting against and with the spin almost exactly as often as other right-handers in this World Cup.
His footwork is pretty typical. Rohit has come down the track 13 times against spin in this tournament, roughly 5% of the time; he’s scored 28 runs from those forays, and hasn’t been dismissed. Yet again, it’s not a strategy he’s used more or less than we’d expect – the average batsman has come down to 6% of spin deliveries in this tournament. It’s not something Rohit has done a lot, but it’s something he’s done effectively, enough for it do its job of disrupting a spinner’s length. Again, whilst his numbers are off the chart, he’s not doing anything unusual.
We’ve all seen Rohit take down enough bowling attacks to know that when he’s in form, he can hit any ball for six to any part of the ground he’d like. However, most of the time, he is a touch more orthodox – and conservative – than you might expect. Against good length deliveries (those pitching between 6m and 8m from the batsman’s stumps) he scores at less than 4rpo. That feels bizarre for a man of his power.
What we see here is Rohit’s willingness to reduced his attacking instincts when, essentially, the bowler gets it right. In the tournament as a whole, 32% of good length deliveries have been attacked. For Rohit, this figure is 25% – lower, albeit not by much. The majority of his runs have come from deliveries close to his body, on a good length, but they’ve come at relatively low strike rates, as the two graphics below make clear.
Early on in his innings, Rohit is even more careful about the areas he goes after. He basically refused to attack good length balls in the first 20 deliveries he faces – he’s only gone after seven in the whole tournament. While he’s getting his eye in, he restricts himself to going after full and short balls. Obviously, this limits the risk of him nicking off, and thus underpins his early control.
What Rohit has been known for, in the last four years, is gentle acceleration after the initial stages of the innings, before all-out attack when he’s made it through to the death overs. He’s reached the 40th over 11 times since the last World Cup, and when he’s got there he’s made it count.
When set in those final overs, Rohit is devastating. Nobody in the world scores quicker.
It’s a quality you don’t always associate with hitters like Rohit, but he has considerable composure and patience. Part of the reason he can trust himself to play out those good length balls is that he knows he can catch up in this period. His mental qualities amplify his technical skill.
In the first 30 balls he faces in an innings, Rohit scores 10% of his runs in the ‘V’ – in the next 30 balls, that rises to 21%. As he gets in, he trusts himself to hit down the ground, having assessed the conditions and being willing to trust the surface. It’s a subtle switch, but it’s important. It’s details like that which can make the difference.
In this World Cup, Rohit appears to have slightly tweaked his pattern of scoring; he’s been accelerating earlier, but without the explosive finale. After the 90th ball of his innings, he scored at more than 7rpo, the sort of rate which if others around you do their jobs, can bat the opposition out of the game; it’s also easier to sustain. It’s not the explosiveness that he’s managed over the last four years, but that slight reduction in power has contributed to a rise in consistency.
Essentially, he’s taken the component of his batting that was a complete outlier – his brutal acceleration – and made it more normal, more reliable, and more like everyone else.
Within the last month, it is reasonable to say that Rohit has still had a portion of good luck. He has been dropped five times, and no batsman has been dropped as often. Equally, it’s a figure that has only ballooned because of the time he’s been at the crease, when you consider that he’s actually only been dropped every 109 deliveries he’s faced. He has the ability to score so many runs after being dropped, and to score them so quickly. That’s as important as being given the chance.
The funny thing is, the only aspect of batting that Rohit does do quickly, is score. He rarely moves in a hurry at the crease. His set-up is so simple, his desired scoring areas so set in his mind, that he never looks frantic. Most of the work has been done before the ball reaches him, and so it feels as if he just allows the shot to take longer. He has more time, so he takes it, guides the ball away, lifts it to the fence, walks away quietly and marks his guard. His brilliance leaves few footprints.
There is something about Rohit’s batting, a quality that for simplicity’s sake, is often called ‘mechanical’. In a way, it’s a complement. It’s not that he’s technically rigid, in his stance or in the way he moves at the crease, but rather that everything works so efficiently, so expertly, that it produces such consistent results.
It’s a neat comparison, if a little harsh. There’s too much flair, too much beauty in the way he applies his gifts, to even invoke the drudgery of a machine. Yet it points to an essential aspect of his batting, the almost complete absence of weakness.
As you have probably realised having made it this far, it’s not the presence of any unique genius which makes Rohit so good – it’s the absence of flaws. It’s not that he does everything better than everyone else. It’s just that he does everything. He comes down the track enough; in this World Cup, he accelerates through his innings enough; he hits enough boundaries, but still rotates the strike. He does enough of everything, but never too much.
Rohit has attained this level of excellence by showing no weaknesses, no chinks in his armour, no obvious area to attack. He has become the complete ODI batsman. Worryingly, for English, Aussie and Kiwi fans, he shows no sign of stopping any time soon.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.