When the ball is in what is often referred to as the corridor of uncertainty, it is designed to sow seeds of doubt in the batter’s mind: Is it too close to leave? Or a little too wide to attempt putting bat on ball? Watching a batter leave alone a ball that’s almost shaving the off stump can be as enthralling as watching the ball hit the middle of the bat and sail into the stands.
Both are a vindication of good judgement and perfect execution, with radically different outcomes. While one decision gives you six runs, the other allows you to stay put for longer so you can look to score plenty more. Similarly, stonewalling a perfect inswinger with a solid defence can give you an equal amount of pleasure.
There’s a subtle difference in the joy one derives from hitting fours and sixes and from exercising defensive options in challenging conditions – the lifespan of the former is usually limited, and often adrenaline is the fuel that drives it; the latter can go on for much longer and demands mental fortitude from the batter.
How one gets addicted to the rhythms of batting in Test cricket is not a topic that gets discussed all that often. But for a striking example of a display of the latter kind of innings and how it can cast an enchanting spell, look at how Rohit Sharma has batted since he set foot on English soil earlier this year.
Rohit is a runaway match-winner in white-ball cricket, but in Test cricket, his promotion to open the innings was considered a final throw of the dice to revive his career in the format, and also an attempt to get him to do what Virender Sehwag, another stroke-maker of high quality, did in the same role.
While Rohit batted the way he was expected to bat in India in Tests, he changed his game radically to meet the demands of English conditions. He decided to play everything close to his body, focusing a lot on leaving balls as well as on defending.
He went against his natural instinct, which is to attack at the first opportune moment. In fact, he buried that instinct so deep, it frequently took longer than usual for him to access it again when needed. Rohit’s attempt to play a totally different brand of cricket to that with which he got all his international success reflected two things: nurture is as influential as nature, if not more; and he has a burning desire to succeed in Tests.
When someone doesn’t have anything left to prove in the two most popular and rewarding formats of the game, you can understand it if he didn’t put the same amount of effort into succeeding in the third format – a significantly less materially rewarding one.
Laxman recalls his conversation with Rohit and explains why he has been so successful as an opener
Rohit decided to put himself out there, challenge himself, play a different game with unflinching commitment and belief in his new repertoire. He knew that this English summer had the potential to define his legacy as a Test cricketer. And it is remarkable that standing at such a crucial juncture so far into his career, he had the conviction to remould his game so drastically that he looked like a different batter altogether. The risk you run in these situations is that if you fail, you can’t forgive yourself for not going with what came naturally to you. Rohit took the risk and succeeded.
The first instinct against James Anderson and Ollie Robinson was to be defensive. Unless the ball was really full, he wouldn’t attempt driving it. He would trust his judgement of where the off stump was and would leave a lot of deliveries alone. The ones coming in, once again, would be dealt with defensively.
He earmarked Sam Curran in the first couple of Tests, and Moeen Ali thereafter, as his go-to bowlers against whom to score runs. He was so committed to this plan that he must have missed multiple scoring opportunities against Anderson and Robinson, but the fact that that did not bother him spoke volumes about his mindset. Sometimes you drift away from your initial plans of self-denial once the feet start moving freely and you’re more confident about the pace and bounce of the surface but Rohit’s discipline was quite similar to Sachin Tendulkar’s discipline in not playing the cover drive at all in his famous knock of 241 not out in Sydney in 2004.
Of course, once in a while, Rohit got out playing the pull or hook shots but part of the reason for those dismissals was also his predominant desire to defend. The shot that dismissed him in the first innings of the Headingley Test was an example.
The beauty of Test match batting and long stays in the middle is that you start falling in love with small things – the joy of leaving the ball alone, or simply defending it. I’m not suggesting that there’s less joy in white-ball runs, but the cadences of Test cricket are different, and they leave a deeper imprint. The joys of Test cricket are almost spiritual; once you’ve tasted them, nothing else can satisfy that craving anymore.
In England this summer Rohit seems to have taken a giant leap towards writing his legacy, an effort born of his love for the longer format.