“Wapsi matlab kya? Head samjha nahi sir. (What do you mean by return to form? I don’t understand.)’ Rohit Sharma made no attempt to suppress his disbelief when asked about his ‘comeback’ hundred after three years. “You are talking about three years, eight months of which we were at home because of Covid-19. We hardly played any matches,” Sharma said at the press conference on Tuesday after Indore’s ODI win.
“And last year we just played T20 cricket. And no one hits better than Suryakumar Yadav who also hit two (T20I) centuries, I don’t think anyone else has scored a century. In Test cricket I have only played two matches against Sri Lanka. Otherwise I got injured in between. Check all these things before you ask me.”
Sharma is one of those rare cricketers who usually laughs at him in criticism. This was different. Of all formats, Sharma literally owns the 50-plus version. He has three double hundreds, a sparkling World Cup record (1,019 runs at an average of 65.2 and a strike rate of 95.97 with six hundred and three fifties) and is one of the best openers in the game.
But he is not sitting on his laurels. Even as debate rages over whether India should move on to younger, fitter openers, Sharma has quietly given his batting approach a much-needed makeover that has resulted in an impressive run of scores since the T20 World Cup semi-final exit-27, 51 *, 83, 17, 42, 34, 51 and 101.
But when the stats are narrowed down to scoring or not scoring a hundred, it becomes extremely unfair to the work Sharma has put into his batting, claiming India needs to be more aggressive at the top. “I’ve only played 12 ODIs in three years,” he said. “Three years sounds like a lot, but in those three years I’ve only played 12 or 13 (17 actually) ODIs, if I’m not mistaken.”
T20 may be a different ball game but management has made it clear that Sharma will continue to lead and open in the ODIs. “You look at a lot of kids who look different at 19 years old, but not all of them are reaching their potential,” India head coach Rahul Dravid said before the latest ODI when asked if he had seen Sharma open for ten years now has seen.
“What Rohit has done over the last 15 years (he made his ODI debut in 2007) has now really changed his potential and he has been a great servant to Indian cricket and has done very well. Perhaps the turning point was when he finally got the chance to open ten years ago. His hallmark is his performance in ICC tournaments, such as in 2019 (4 tons in the ODI World Cup), but also his ability to score big runs when he gets going. Someone to have three double hundreds in this format, (it) is an absolutely phenomenal achievement.
“So yeah, he’s been quite successful. He’s someone who’s got that game right – an all round game – and you can’t really think of a kind of bowling that you can bowl against him where you know if he plays well you can keep him quiet, right? If you bowl fast and short he will take you down and he will take down spinners. He can swing well. So he has a very good, complete game. He has been a fantastic player for India and he has done well for us. Even in the last few games he was great to watch, the way he played. So it’s great to let him play the way he does.”
It may be a coincidence that Sharma hit a hundred just after Dravid praised him. But this has been coming for a long time. At the heart of this tweak in batting is the urgency shown in the power play, with Sharma going downfield more often, sweeping, reverse-sweeping, and playing the late cuts more regularly. Sharma didn’t hold back after a set, and it showed in the way he competed with fellow centurion Shubman Gill in Indore. It has also had a huge impact on Sharma’s success rate. Of batters who have opened in at least 20 innings since the 2019 World Cup final, Sharma has the fourth highest strike rate: 98.62, behind Jonny Bairstow (104.31), Quinton de Kock (100.65) and Jason Roy (98.86). Not only does he score more in the opening overs, Sharma’s aggression has also helped his partners settle down faster. That is always great news for India in a World Cup year.