His shirt soiled in the sweat and sand from the surface, blotches of red and brown smeared on his clothing like a piece of abstract art, his head sunk, Rohit Sharma staggered dejectedly into the pavilion, immune to the glee of his assailant Pat Cummins, oblivious to the applause ringing around him, or the incoming KS Bharat brushing his shoulder.
Just as he reached the boundary ropes, he turned back wistfully and shook his head in despair. To his name on the scoreboard read 120 runs, he had single-handedly put his team a dominant position, he had crafted perhaps his most valuable Test hundred, yet Sharma was discontent, unable to neither forget nor forgive himself for the momentary lapse in focus, for the fleeting forgetfulness to bring the bat down in time to blunt the ball.
For much of the day, until Pat Cummins took the new ball, he was impenetrable. Nothing would defeat him, not the devils of the pitch, not the discipline of Australia’s spinners, not his own intemperance. This was the most atypical Sharma hundred in Tests at home (his slowest after Oval too), yet this could be the most precious of his knocks in this format, one wherein he transformed into a different, almost unrecognisable batsman. But a hundred that ensured his team walked away with a sizable advantage.
The batsman who reeled off 56 off 69 balls on Day One was different to the one who gritted 64 runs off 143 balls on Day Two.
Those seem like two different types of innings altogether. Therein lies his mastery too. To bat in an uncharacteristic manner, to bat for the demands of the team and in lieu with the conditions. A conquest of conditions, bowlers and his own impulses. It was a knock constructed with different aesthetics — there still was grace and grandeur — but it was blended with sweat and soil.
Through this knock shone his remarkable gift to play differently on different days and conditions, a reflection as much as of his versatility as his flexibility. Not that he is unskilled at batting time, he has previously shed his flashiness in England, but seldom has he batted as circumspectly in home conditions as he did in this innings.
On Thursday evening, he whirred in fifth gear, taking a toll on tired Australian minds and bodies. Friday was more of consolidation and accumulation. A quick foundation laid, it was the time to gradually build the floors and construct an unclimbable sky-riser for Australia, who were fresher and steelier. He knew he was the sturdiest pillar holding the building steady, more so after India lost the wickets of Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli and Suryakumar Yadav in the space of 33 runs. At 168/5 on a turner, India were clutching at straws. But Sharma breathed assurance, though the crowd were fidgeting at his abstinence.
They had flocked — the Wardha Road that leads to the VCA stadium was busier than usual — to watch the boundary-blasting Sharma avatar, but instead he enthralled them with a treatise on playing spin bowling on a low, turning surface against an ultra-tight group of bowlers.
Playing a double-bluff
The Australians perhaps thought they could induce indiscretion by suffocating him. Cut out the boundaries, suffocate him and make him play a stroke in frustration. But here he played the double-bluff. He not only kept away from all the traps and lures, but kept defending stoutly, and in turn tiring and frustrating them to submission. There were long passages where he did not stroke a boundary, long phases where he did not score a run, especially in the first session. For 43 balls, either side of lunch, he did not strike a single boundary. He didn’t even bother. He would block, blunt and if the field permitted stole singles. This was pressure-free, risk-less batting at its best, one which the Australians should study to get insights into batting on the subcontinent.
The way he defied the around the stumps line of spinners Nathan Lyon and Todd Murphy could be a lesson to his batting colleagues too. Serene and steady, he neutered them by playing from inside the line.
From around the stumps, the most dangerous ball is the one that slides in with the angle, or even turns a fraction away, where a right-handed batsman would be tempted to lunge at the ball with an open bat-face. He was not afraid of the one that slips back, because the turn was slow and he had ample time to defend off the back-foot. Murphy, quicker than Lyon then started to bowl middle and leg, but Sharma would just stretch and defend with ease. Lyon would intermittently float the ball, dangling the bait to drive uppishly into short mid-on. But Sharma would not relent, though in his early eighties, he slapped a delicious flick off Murphy, just to remind the young bowler that he has the ammo to attack, but that he was deliberately not unleashing them.
He did not step down the surface too often, though he loves to. But he displayed that twinkling feet are not just about gliding down the surface, moving your feet quickly. His switch from back-foot to front-foot and vice versa, his quick and smooth transfer of weight, could be compiled into a manual of batting in the subcontinent.
As always, he struck some delightful strokes, some of which would have been unimaginable for most. Like a pull shot off Cummins. On a low-bounce surface, he dragged the ball from outside the off-stump, rolled his wrists over it and smeared him over backward square-leg. In touch, he could play impossible shots on impossible tracks. But how he kept aside such temptations was the beauty of his latest hundred, one that he would perhaps regard as his finest, in terms of how it contributed to his team’s cause as well as how he made his shirt dirty when achieving it.
But it would be an innings remembered for his grit and graft rather than his strokes. Later, when he buries the disappointment of his dismissal, the significance of the knock will emerge. And then perhaps he would clasp that dirtied shirt closer to his heart. A memento of the sand, sweat and sweet labour of Nagpur.