How the Brisbane Test reflected the agony and ecstasy of Rohit Sharma’s career in the longest format of the game

Rohit Sharma falls yet after a start.

Rohit Sharma is amongst the most loved cricketers. Rohit Sharma is amongst the most trolled cricketers. Rohit Sharma’s batting mesmerizes like nothing. Rohit Sharma’s methods can frustrate like anything.

It has been over a fortnight since that dismissal at the Gabba which had Sunil Gavsakar fuming in frustration, and the world couldn’t stop talking about it. The raging discussion stalled, thanks to the youngsters who architected India’s phenomenal win in Brisbane.

For an Indian fan, the Brisbane Test is all about joys. But to admirers of Rohit’s skills, we are still left with a lingering feeling of what if.

The Gabba has witnessed elegant 144s from India batsmen Sourav Ganguly and Murali Vijay. Perhaps the elegant 44 from Rohit Sharma in the first innings of the fourth Test at the venue created as much conversation. A 44 that sort of encapsulates Rohit Sharma’s enigmatic Test career, oscillating between the extremes of delight and frustration.

In this case, it was frustration.

Rohit Sharma. White clothes. Spinners. Outfield catches. It’s an age-old saga. With those rhythmic skips down the track, many hearts skip a beat, the ball is aerial, the world freezes and zillions of emotions fill the minds in those seconds; the conclusion – agony or ecstasy. And the bedlam breaks loose on social media and elsewhere. Most importantly, our minds. It messes up. 

On that particular Saturday, Rohit Sharma was making jaws drop with his stroke play, perhaps only the demons in his mind could get the better off him. It just needed a brilliant Nathan Lyon to needle it. We will come to that.

Batting is the finest piece of art when Rohit wields the willow.

When Pat Cummins had pitched it full on the off, a magical roll of wrists sent the ball straight through mid-on for a boundary. Only Rohit could perfect the VVS Laxman-esque artistry, a skill that has tormented Australia in the past.

The world’s best bowler, who had plotted his ouster in the most-memorable fourth innings in Sydney, didn’t bother to check the outcome of the delivery. Pat Cummins had seen worse. Australians had India on the mat at the Adelaide Oval in 2018, when Rohit Sharma, then a middle-order batsman, produced the unthinkable.

At 66 for four, on the first day of the series, Rohit would produce a long-lasting memory. A six off the best bowler over extra-cover. These are Rohit things, and when they come off, they become memories.

Coming to the Brisbane Test. Less than two overs after the flickish-drive off Cummins, a fuller ball from Cameron Green would be greeted with a half-stride defensive punch. Mere mortals, at max, could have generated as much power to reach the non-striker. Rohit Sharma had the fielders sprinting to the rope.

Rohit Sharma thrives on fast bowling. His skills against this ferocious aspect of the sport have only improved. But what about spin bowling? He averages 58 against spinners. You expect him to take on the 100-Test-old Lyon. Won’t you?

He punches Lyon through the point to move to 44. Two balls later, the wily off-spinner lures Rohit out of the crease with the flight and forces him to commit a false stroke to be caught at long-on. It brought back the haunting memories of the 2018 Adelaide Test, when a well-set Rohit would throw it away in a similar fashion.

The clouds hovered and expectedly, minutes later it would rain as the day’s play would end. Understandably, Indian fans had more reason to be disappointed.

February 9, 2010, Nagpur. Rohit Sharma was all set to earn the 263rd Test cap for India at the place of his birth. But a freak injury before the match against South Africa ruled him out. The cap fell upon Wriddhiman Saha, who played the Test as a batsman – a discipline considered as his weakness.

From there till the time he finally debuted, he saw 16 players leapfrog him to the Test cap, which included the likes of Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Ravichandran Ashwin, and Ajinkya Rahane.

During this time, Yuvraj Singh would say that it would be a grave injustice to their ability if both Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli didn’t get at least 8,000 runs in Test cricket. At 32, Virat is less than 700 runs from the mark. Rohit, who turns 34 in April, has just 2,270 runs.

Rohit’s international career accelerated to a new high ever since MS Dhoni trusted him to open regularly against the white ball in 2013. In the middle of a purple patch, he would finally be India’s 280th Test player when West Indies would tour the country that year, a series best remembered as Sachin Tendulkar’s farewell.

Rohit would go on to hog all the limelight with back-to-back hundreds, making it seem as if he was the rightful heir to the senior Mumbaikar’s slot.

In the calendars that rolled, Rohit Sharma in whites remained a curious case of extremities. He averages nearly 90 at home, while it hovers in the mid-20s overseas. None of his six hundreds in the 34 Tests he has played has come away from home. 

In the 2015 Sri Lanka tour, the Virat Kohli-Ravi Shastri duo would drop Pujara to accommodate Rohit, as they thought the latter was the right choice at No.3. Life isn’t easy for some when an axe called intent looms over you. 

In 2018, the same team management would drop Rahane in South Africa to fit Rohit in the middle-order, as he had been invincible at home. In Sydney last month, Rohit replaced Mayank Agarwal, the opener.

With Rohit’s skills, versatility, and ODI legacy, there’s an irresistible temptation. Why else would his return be awaited so much despite the modest numbers overseas? Why else would he walk into the side as the vice-captain when less than a year-and-a-half back, he struggled to make the playing XI?

Pundits to fans to captains have scratched their heads, trying to figure out the reason for Rohit Sharma’s overseas failures. The question remains – why? 

This has been a challenging era for openers worldwide, and it doesn’t get any easier. 

On a brighter side, Rohit Sharma has looked comfortable in his avatar as a Test opener. For a batsman with known discomfort against the moving ball early in the innings, Rohit has adjusted well. It needed a very good ball from Pat Cummins in the Brisbane Test’s second innings to produce Rohit’s edge.

His comfort against the best pace attack in the world comes due to an adjustment in his game. Sanjay Manjrekar pointed out that earlier, Rohit would look to play more through cover and now, it’s an even distribution between cover and mid-off. In fact, that’s where he has played almost 50% of his strokes and has never looked this solid. The approach makes him less susceptible to nick balls to the wicket-keeper or slips.

In the first innings of the Brisbane Test, when Cummins finally produced the outside edge, Rohit immediately adjusted by dropping the bottom hand, ensuring the ball stayed low as he angled the bat to find the gap through the cordon. 

In the Sydney Test, Cummins would force him to pull with a man stationed deep. Rohit would go for that and fall after his fifty. In Brisbane, Josh Hazlewood would try the same, but Rohit would keep the pull shot down, cutting out the risk.

When Green provided the width, Rohit cut it with authority. Rohit was in some touch.

Therefore, fans remain gutted after Rohit Sharma fell to Nathan Lyon, while critics readied the dagger, and many analysts defended his decision-making, linking it to a method.

A method that works for Pujara will not work for Rohit Sharma and vice-versa. Agreed.

“I was actually trying to pierce the long-on and that deep square-leg fielder, but it didn’t connect the way I would have loved to. It was something I won’t regret. It is something I like to do. I like to put the pressure on the bowler once I am in, and that is my role in the team. To make sure I keep putting that pressure on the bowlers because we have seen throughout the series how run-scoring has been difficult for both the teams,” Rohit Sharma backed his method after the day’s play and called it a part of the plan.

He had executed the stroke to perfection in Sydney to reach his fifty. He saw those are his shots, and he will keep playing them. When they come off – they add to the ecstasy part.

But then there’s situational awareness.

Before the series began, the odds were heavily stacked against India. Then the 36 all-out happened, Kohli departed, while Ishant Sharma and Bhuvneshwar Kumar remained unavailable. Rohit Sharma would miss the first two Tests, Mohammed Shami and Ravindra Jadeja broke their hands, Umesh Yadav and Navdeep Saini broke down during the Test, and the heroes from Sydney – Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari – were ruled out due to their respective injuries.

Despite the adversities, the brave Indian side clung on to 1-1 before Brisbane, where your most experienced bowler is playing his third Test, your only spinner is making his debut, and none of your bowlers had debuted before this series. You don’t know if one of your two-Test old frontline bowlers would play any further part in the Test or not.

Batting remains India’s hope against the outstanding Australian bowling attack. The bowlers kept you in the Test. Even a draw would ensure India adding points to their World Test Championship tally and returning home with the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.

Given the background, India would benefit from cutting down the risk more than the stubbornness of any method. Sometimes fortitude over dictating terms is a good idea.

Rohit Sharma has fallen to that shot before. With fielders stationed there and Lyon preparing the bait, Test cricket is also about curbing those instincts and altering a plan to suit the demands. Not to mention, the clouds hovered as well. It was a matter of time before the skies would open up.

And if the approach doesn’t need an introspection, wouldn’t Rohit Sharma’s overseas numbers reflect better success?

Test cricket is ruthless. Your chances to succeed are lower than the humbling failures. So when you get those starts, making them count is the key.

Ricky Ponting knows more about making them count. Once Rohit Sharma’s captain in Mumbai Indians (MI), he would soon hand over the reins to him, and the rest is history. Five IPL titles.

Ponting, who would later coach Rohit Sharma at MI, puts things into perspective and probably answers the why:

“(Rohit Sharma’s) record away from home is not great, (and) that’s where innings like today become so important for someone like him. If you want to change that record around and be recognised as a great Test match batsman away from your conditions, you’ve got to capitalise on starts like he (had) today.”

Maybe a part to construct the path towards greatness lies in flexibility and adaptation, and it’s more in the mind.

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