India vs South Africa: Rohit Sharma, failing in South Africa

Even if Rohit Sharma collects a few more blobs in the remaining ODIs against South Africa, and even if he doesn’t do too well in the limited-overs games later in the year, he will — and should — open in next year’s World Cup in England. It’s not an attempt at sarcasm but a comment at reality. If the pitches are relatively flat — and since the 2013 Champions Trophy, England’s one-day pitches have been consistently dead — Rohit has to be unleashed without a doubt. The flattening of pitches has coincided with the rise of England’s ODI team, and they aren’t likely to tinker with their own success. What it says about Rohit’s legacy and standing in international cricket is another matter altogether.

Has there been another batsman who has almost touched greatness in limited-overs cricket on wickets without much venom, and looked almost ordinary otherwise?

In 11 matches in South Africa, in three series from 2011 to now, he has averaged just 11.45. A highest of 23 in 2011. The world over, only South Africa still retains some seam movement in ODI pitches. Otherwise, it’s a flat world out there.

Mind you, it’s not just on paata tracks that he does well — he can handle bounce, and Australian ODI tracks don’t trouble him all that much. His past record in ODIs Down Under is outstanding. He averages 57.50 in 16 matches there — way above his career average of 44.27. Pitches in Australia, especially for limited-overs games, have been flat for a while now. Sample this quote from Brett Lee when Rohit and Co. went hammer and tongs in the 2015-16 series: “I think this is where I start crying. I’ve been really disappointed… disappointed with the Australian pitches.”

Bounce and pace aren’t his nemesis; seam movement is.

He has turned in such astounding numbers in limited-overs cricket that over the years, people have been falling over each other to praise him. Understandably so. They have often looked for reasons beyond skill: temperament, pressure put on oneself, and such. If anything, ever since he became IPL captain, his attitude and temperament have remarkably improved. It’s a disservice to blame the troubles on his mindset.

And it isn’t as if he hasn’t evolved technically. A couple of days ago, former South African captain Kepler Wessels talked about how Rohit’s front foot comes across, blocking his body, and landing him in trouble when the ball seams in or out. It’s a fair observation, but something that Rohit has worked on a lot.

In the not-so-distant past, that criticism was spot-on. That front leg used to get in the way so much that he would end up playing around it — an unstill head would result in poor balance, and he would be troubled when the ball nipped around. In 2011, he would often get squared-up by Morne Morkel. And Rohit would react strangely. Like trying to cover drive on the up to short-of-length deliveries straightening outside off. And with the near-misses piling up, he would perish, hanging his bat out.

His technique then was pretty iffy. Almost like Ramnaresh Sarwan in some ways, another batsman who would repeatedly get squared up by straight deliveries just outside off. In subsequent attempts, Rohit had started to push that front leg across to try and get close to the ball. Unsurprisingly, more squaring up would result. But he has got it under control now. If anything, he has gone utterly minimalistic. There is no jerky movement — be it in the bat swing, or foot, or head. The hands flow, the bat swings down, nothing twitches much, and he just creams through the line. As if he was hitting a stationary ball. As if there is no deviation off the track. And more often than not, there isn’t much. It’s just the angles with which the bowlers work on flat tracks, going wide off the crease, or getting it to shape a bit — there are no major nip-backers or leg-cutters. Any minor deviation, he can handle by adjusting his hands. It’s also one of the reasons he doesn’t go hammer and tongs against the new ball even on flat tracks. The risks aren’t just worth it: why upset his balance?

Disturbing the equilibrium
But this minimalistic world of his is disturbed when the ball seams around a touch. The deviations can’t be tackled just with his hands. When he tries, he ends up playing away from the body, which is no good of course.

It’s wise to go back to what makes him such a wonderful batsman on flat tracks to assess where things go wrong. He can hit the ball on the up. He can punch short-of-length deliveries through wide mid-off. He can pull off the front foot. He can just flow his hands through the line of length deliveries. He can just bend his knees, arch his upper body back, create room and time, and punch away square of the wicket on the off. He can just lean forward or back to let his wonderful hands adjust to the length of the ball.

He can’t do any of that when the ball seams around a bit. In the past, he has tried to carry on as if it didn’t matter, but he failed. Of late, he has turned more circumspect in such conditions. In the two Tests he played on this tour of South Africa, he wasn’t caught out of position (read balance) often. He tried to see though the phase but the inability to rotate strike landed him in trouble. Perhaps, that’s the key for him to turn this tide over. Even in Tests.

The tendency to not rotate strike remains even in ODIs, especially in the Powerplay. On spice-less tracks, he can make up the run rate later, but this has hampered him on other tracks. Not that this South African series is an indication of that as he hasn’t even stayed there that long for him to feel the pressure of making up the run rate. May be the knowledge that he can’t make up later as easily preys on him on these tracks, and he ends up making mistakes.

It will be interesting to see how he goes in the next couple of games, assuming the new ball does a bit. Even if he fails, it’s just his reputation under question – India need not make any change in their World Cup plans. It’s a statement on how flat ODI pitches have become commonplace in world cricket and how much it cheapens the quality of play. The way the limited-overs game has been reduced to six-infested entertainment, there is no use hand-wringing over it. Rohit and his fans can whistle along.

Rohit’s travails
Rohit Sharma has fallen prey to Kagiso Rabada six times out of his eight dismissals on the tour — but there has been no discernible pattern. Twice he has been caught on the boundary hooking, twice out leg before to sharp nip-backers, once caught-and-bowled to a fullish delivery, and once caught behind.

Rohit has consistently failed to crack the South Africa code, while dominating almost everywhere in ODI cricket. He averages 11.45 in 11 innings in SA. In contrast, he averages 51.95 over 27 knocks in Australia, 53.30 over 12 innings in England, and 38.28 over eight innings in New Zealand. His career average over 178 ODIs is 44.27.