(Image Credit: CricTracker.com)
Cricketing tracks that play truant in terms of reneging on their responsibility to last the routine duration of a game are commonly referred to as minefields, dustbowls etc. When England spinner Jack Leach, landed a hard new ball that was just 9.1 overs old (or young), on a good length at the M.A. Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai on the 13th of February 2021, both India and England knew that they had more than just a misbehaving pitch on hand. A veritable explosion resulted from the spot where the ball landed. The scurrilous puff of dust had laid the ominous template for the rest of the game, and also, in all probability for the series as well. A series where the visitors led by Joe Root had their noses in front after besting India at the same venue a week before.
The writer S.S.Van Dine, in his “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories”, set out twenty quintessential elements that were vital for a crime or a mystery novel to succeed. Unfortunately, no similar recommendations exist for instructing batsmen to survive the vagaries of a track characterized by spiteful bounce and vicious turn. No more can anyone teach a batsman to protect his wicket on an unpredictable track than can one instruct a brave soldier to survive artillery barrages in the course of a trench warfare. The harsh reality here is ‘each one onto his own.’ This is exactly the situation which the Indian batsmen found themselves in, on an otherwise bright and sunny Chennai morning. The home team seemed to have squandered away a critical toss when in a grave error of judgment, young Shubman Gill shouldered arms to a lightning fast straight one from Olly Stone that saw him trapped plumb in front. As dead as a dodo for a blob. The prospects for an Indian revival seemed to be obfuscated by pixie dusts of doom when spin was introduced earlier than usual, and the pitch seemed to accommodate the entrants with more than a mere tinge of benevolence.
Batsmen over the course of their career develop their own methods to counter tracks that are unusual suspects. While the likes of Cheteshwar Pujara wage an attritional warfare, the clan of Rishabh Pant attempts to negate the malice of the pitch by resorting to pure and uninhibited aggression. But there is a unique breed of batsmen that cock a snook at both attrition and aggression. This singularly peculiar variety places its bet on pure aesthetics. A pioneer of this unusual method is Rohit Sharma. No batsman has this unimaginable propensity to exasperate a fan than this elegant right hander and the skipper of Mumbai Indians. Languid, lithe and lambent, Rohit Sharma has supple wrists, sublime stroke making and seraphic timing. Yet, more often than not his batting is a ‘gedankenexperiment’. People are left wondering what could have been than what actually has been. Just when he seems to be getting into a fluent and flawless rhythm, Rohit Sharma executes a shot which even Rohit Sharma would be wont to avoid thereby sacrificing his wicket. But on the days his strategy comes up trump, he is an epitome of incandescence.
The sparse Chennai crowd (the reduction being a necessity on account of the COVID-19 pandemic), on the 13th of February was lucky to witness a Rohit Sharma experiment come good. The opener oblivious to the early loss of Gill, set about collaring an honest and hard working English bowling attack comprising Stuart Broad, Olly Stone, Ben Stokes, Moeen Ali and Jack Leach. Rohit Sharma does not ‘smite’ sixes, he just assists the ball on its journey over the ropes. Rohit Sharma does not crunch or smash boundaries, he just whispers to the ball and munificently provides the direction which it needs to take for it to speed away towards the boundary ropes. In the contemporary history of the gentleman’s game, Rohit Sharma is the equivalent of Caesar Milan. Rohit Sharma is the ultimate “ball whisperer”. Ignoring the vicissitudes of a dangerous pitch, Sharma drove with elan, pulled with panache and flicked with exquisite grace. The preternatural gift of timing that has made him such a dangerous batsman, held friends and foes alike in thrall. Sharma also dusted off the closet a powerful weapon in the form of the sweep. A shot which he had abhorred during the course of the first test, the sweep turned out to be a trusted ally. Not allowing either Moeen or Leach to settle, Sharma swept them off on length to propitious results. An 85 run partnership with the obdurate Pujara was followed by a gargantuan 161 run partnership with Ajinkya Rahane. This after Captain Kohli was bamboozled and bewildered before being bested by a beauty by Moeen Ali. A ball that had drift, dip, deceit and direction.
Rohit Sharma, however, was like C.S.Forester’s boy who stood on the burning deck. When an entire philharmonic was at sixes and sevens, a single musician seemed to have orchestrated a symphony. Adept on the front foot and adroit on the back, Sharma, cut, pulled and drove with utter disdain. He was putting on an exhibition that was resplendent in quality and rewarding in quantity. He did all of this without seemingly expending a drop of sweat. The only physical discomfiture or exertion seemed to be the raising of the bat three times to signify scores of 50,100 and 150. When finally, Sharma perished sweeping Leach into the hands of Moeen Ali, his side was not just heaving a sigh of relief, but also ensconced in a cocoon of comfort. Sharma’s lambent 161 had placed India in a position of ascendancy if not utter dominance.
Livid with himself, on playing a ‘faulty’ shot, Sharma admonished himself by throwing his head back and swinging his bat with the frenzy of a man possessed. But he had done his duty. In fact, the man had transcended his call of duty by rising to the occasion in a manner that was inimitable and indomitable. Rohit Sharma has pulled off a trick which only Rohit Sharma was capable of. A trick resplendent in its import and imminence.
Meanwhile, it is time for day 2 of the Trench warfare and Rishabh Pant to hold the Indian tricolour aloft and afloat.