Ben Jones analyses a fantastic series performance for the Indian opener.
Rohit Sharma is in a very good moment. Three centuries in his four innings against South Africa, recording an astonishing average of 132.25 over the series, is a seriously impressive return for a player who started the home summer with plenty to prove in many people’s eyes. Right now, Rohit’s place in the side could barely be more secure, as his top order efforts laid the foundations for an emphatic 3-0 series win for Virat Kohli’s side, brushing aside the touring South Africans with minimal stress.
Of course, his performance transcends the matters of selection; on a purely statistical level, what he has achieved over the last few weeks is historic. Only three Indian batsman have ever averaged more in a home Test series than Rohit has done against South Africa, and that trio of Virat Kohli, VVS Laxman and Sachin Tendulkar do not represent bad company in the slightest.
What’s more, his 212 in Ranchi made him just the fourth player behind Chris Gayle, Virender Sehwag and Tendulkar to register a double-century in both Test cricket and ODI cricket. Again, Rohit has found himself in an elite group of players capable of producing match-defining performances in the two longer formats of the game.
Broadly, this level of dominance has come as a surprise. Pre-series, questioning Rohit’s ability to score runs against the red ball was a legitimate opinion, widely held by pundits who have seen more of his career than most. Of course, some people were more optimistic about how Rohit would go in this series particularly, purely because of where the matches would be taking place.
We all know about Rohit’s home record; nobody in history has played as many Tests as him in India, and recorded a better average. He stands a fair way apart from some of the finest batsmen to ever appear on those shores, with more than daylight between him and the chasing pack.
And yet, what has been more impressive than any of these numerical feats is the sense that Rohit has finally arrived as a Test cricketer. He has influenced matches before, to greater and lesser degrees, but this has been the first series where his presence has felt decisive, his runs the main weapon with which India have beaten the opposition.
This could well be because, more than ever, the Rohit Sharma we’ve seen in this series has resembled the Rohit Sharma we see in the ODI side.
It’s there in where he’s scored his runs in this series. Against seamers in ODIs, only a fairly small fraction of Rohit’s runs come straight down the ground, instead scoring the bulk of his runs square of the wicket. Pulling, with that trademark elegance, and cutting with aplomb.
In this series, we have seen those patterns broadly replicated, with Rohit making his runs in very similar areas to where he does in ODI cricket. Given the fact he’s also rocketed along at 4.64rpo, the feeling of watching the real Rohit has been increasing throughout the series.
And yet, you also point out that it’s been against spin that Rohit has looked most destructive, most closely resembling the run-machine that has beaten down all comers in the 50 over form of the game. This series he attacked spinners far more than seamers (26% of the time, compared to 21% of the time), and yet played with significantly less risk, recording 11% false shots against spin compared to 19% against pace. That’s the Rohit we know from ODI cricket, backing himself to recover any lost momentum caused by a cautious start, by hitting the spinners out of the attack. The basis of his success in this series has been getting through the new ball, yes, but it’s also been about hammering Maharaj, Piedt, Muthusamy and Linde once he’s set.
Away from the specifics of method, the most obvious way in which Rohit has come to resemble his ODI persona is where he is batting. After a few spells up and down the order in ODI cricket, Rohit has settled at the top of the order, his last 95 innings coming as an opener in a period which has seen him ascend to greatness in the format. In retrospective, it’s bizarre it took 50 Test innings for someone to think that, perhaps, the top of the order was where Rohit may thrive even in red ball. In the last two years India have used seven different openers, a figure that no other side in the world can beat, but in the pairing of Agarwal and Rohit they seem to have found a blend which works, at least in home conditions.
The next challenge for Rohit (in Test colours) is the visit of Bangladesh. A team in relative disarray both on and off the field, Bangladesh’s one previous visit to India in Test cricket ended in heavy defeat, and their recent loss to Afghanistan in home conditions suggests that their prowess in Asian conditions is not what it was even two years ago. This level of performance is obviously unsustainable for Rohit, but he will be licking his lips at the prospect of two more innings opening the batting in India. This time, he seems to have cracked it.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.