July 7, 2022

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How Indian opener Rohit Sharma went from ‘no hit’ to smash hit

Rohit Sharma might be forgiven for wondering what an opening batsman has to do to grab the headlines in India.

Because while his English opponents have been muttering darkly about the pitches, totalling only 491 runs in four innings during crushing defeats at Chennai and Ahmedabad, Sharma has taken up the gauntlet with a contempt bordering on genius.

The bouquets have mainly gone to India’s slow bowlers, Axar Patel and Ravichandran Ashwin. Between them, they have 42 wickets in this series at 13 apiece — and Patel didn’t even play in the first Test.

Rohit Sharma turns 34 next month and his rise to Test prominence has been a long haul

Rohit Sharma turns 34 next month and his rise to Test prominence has been a long haul

Rohit Sharma turns 34 next month and his rise to Test prominence has been a long haul

Yet Sharma’s batting has been equally instrumental in his side’s 2-1 lead.

It’s just that the story of his transformation from a white-ball hitter to a red-ball force of nature has been drowned out by the cacophony about the conditions.

In the second Test, his first-day 161 — out of 248 while he was at the wicket — was a tour de force, full of sweet footwork and brutal sweeps. And it took India to a close-of-play 300 for six — more than England would manage across their two innings.

Few quibbled when the match award went to Ashwin, who took eight wickets and scored a century from No 8. But it was Sharma who paved the way.

Sharma’s batting has been instrumental in India's 2-1 lead in the four-match Test series

Sharma’s batting has been instrumental in India's 2-1 lead in the four-match Test series

Sharma’s batting has been instrumental in India’s 2-1 lead in the four-match Test series

He was at it again during the third-Test bunfight at Ahmedabad, top-scoring in the match with 66 to give India a slender but valuable lead. The ease with which he knocked off a small fourth-innings target made you wonder whether concerns over the surface had tipped into paranoia.

Only Joe Root has scored more runs in this series than Sharma’s 296, although two-thirds of Root’s haul of 333 came during England’s win on a flat one in Chennai. The tougher the conditions, the more lovely Sharma’s flourish.

His rise to Test prominence has been a long haul. He turns 34 next month, yet it wasn’t until 18 months ago that he finally began to convince sceptics he could be more than the white-ball destroyer of attacks who holds the one-day world record (264 against Sri Lanka) and has scored more Twenty20 international centuries (four) than anyone in the game.

Sharma had spent most of his on-off Test career at five or six, although critics reckoned he was at sixes and sevens.

‘No hit’, they called him — the wasteful talent whose first two Test innings, 177 and 111 not out against West Indies back in November 2013, had become ancient history.

Then, after being promoted to open against South Africa in October 2019, Rohit decided to trust his natural game. He responded with 176, 127, 14 and 212, hitting 19 sixes along the way.

The bouquets have mainly gone to India’s slow bowlers, Axar Patel and Ravichandran Ashwin

The bouquets have mainly gone to India’s slow bowlers, Axar Patel and Ravichandran Ashwin

The bouquets have mainly gone to India’s slow bowlers, Axar Patel and Ravichandran Ashwin

And despite a quiet time during India’s triumphant tour of Australia recently, he can now lay claim to an eye-watering stat. Among batsmen with at least 1,000 runs, his average of 81 in Tests in India is the highest for any player in a single country in the game’s history, with the predictable exception of Don Bradman.

If England are to stand any chance of squaring the series in Thursday’s fourth Test, their first task will be to dismiss Sharma cheaply. The onus appears to be on Jack Leach, who has taken his wicket in each of the last four innings. Good luck to him.

Like so many India cricketers of the last 30 years, Sharma has operated in the shadow of two batting giants — first Sachin Tendulkar, whose last Test was Sharma’s first, then Virat Kohli.

But he is a singular character with an interest in the outside world. In 2018, he became a brand ambassador for the World Wildlife Fund’s campaign to save the Indian rhino. He has been a boon, too, for lovers of Indian celebrity gossip. Rumours of tension between him, Kohli and their wives tend to ebb and flow according to who has just unfollowed whom on Instagram.

Above all, though, Sharma is fast entering territory that once belonged almost exclusively to Australia’s David Warner — an international opening batsman capable of winning matches in all three formats of the game.

He is already a white-ball colossus, as his five centuries at the 2019 World Cup so vividly proved.

But if he can keep going like this as a Test opener, India may prove unstoppable.