Batting intelligence is one of the unspoken aspects of cricket. While much is made of technique, temperament, bat speed, footwork, etc, batting intelligence is seldom mentioned.
The general acceptance is that outstanding cricketers have it, while others, even if similarly equipped with bat, pads, helmet, guard, etc, lack it.
The tendency is to bracket batting intelligence with temperament and while it is not wrong, there is a fine line that sets those with the former trait apart. Yes, batsmen would need temperament to play that long innings or perform under pressure. But the instinctive intelligence to grab opportunities and to take advantage of openings in field, laxity in rival attack or change in mood, form, or intensity defines players with outstanding batsmanship.
The classic example is Sachin Tendulkar in the 2003 World Cup against Pakistan. They had a very good total and would have brought unbearable pressure on the Indian batsmen through their battery of fast bowlers. Tendulkar sensed that he needed to make a statement instantly to push them back and hence took it on himself to go hell for leather against Shoaib Akthar.
The terrific attack not only demoralised the Pakistanis, but Akhtar went off the field to lick his wounds. After that it was a canter for India.
In the last three of their six matches (one vs Sri Lanka & five against Australia), the opening pair of Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane has shown notable batting acumen in playing in Indian conditions, whether setting a target or chasing.
Rahane, who usually bats only in one gear, showed refreshing change of approach by taking the lead on occasions. He realised that the Aussies would be more wary of Rohit and capitalised on the limited attention on him by knocking the ball around before they woke up to the threat.
On Sunday, for instance, when Rohit was gingerly finding his feet and the Aussies threw everything at him in an effort to get an early breakthrough, it was Rahane who looked aggressive as he played a few horizontal shots.
Once Rohit got into his stride, around the 15 over mark, runs flowed. The pair’s third successive century partnership was a credit to their batsmanship and understanding of the situation.
Of course, once regular opener Shikar Dhawan – who pulled out of the team to be with his ailing wife – returns, he would be the first choice along with Rohit. Rahane would have to sit out as his approach does not qualify him for a middle order spot in limited overs cricket.
The middle overs in ODIs call for batsmen who can score at seven and eight an over, especially between the 11th and 40th over when only four fielders would be permitted outside the inner circle.
In fact, skipper Virat Kohli, who praised Hardik Pandya for launching an assault on the Australian spinners, hinted as much when he said “with experience Hardik will learn to not throw away his wicket when well set. He has to continue and take the team over the line.”
Kohli obviously wants the youngster to ensure that he does not let the opposition off the hook by throwing away his wicket. Pandya is not only a hard-hitting batsman, but also a sharp runner between the wickets.
But before Pandya or even Kohli comes into bat, it would be the openers who would have to weather the two new balls and provide direction to the innings. The fact that Rahane, Rohit and Dhawan have shown their mettle at the top provides great comfort to the team.
India were not always so lucky with their ODI opening batsmen. Legend Sunil Gavaskar was always indifferent to limited overs cricket and thus until two batsmen of contrasting approach and ability, in Kris Srikkanth and Ravi Shastri, struck a fine combination Indian opening pairs were positively lightweight.
Shastri was dour, defensive and mostly squeezed the ball into gaps for singles and twos to keep his end going while Srikkanth would go hammer and thongs at the bowling. They had their success which included championship victories.
The Sachin Tendulkar-Saurav Ganguly combination met with lots of success while Virender Sehwag had a good run with Tendulkar, Ganguly and later with Gautam Gambhir.
Tendulkar, of course towered over the others and his presence at the batting crease did much to throw opposition plans off gear. Tendulkar was genius class and his batting acumen was extraordinary.
In the coming months, when ODIs would be played on bouncier, quicker South African and English pitches, the openers would need the ability and the batting intelligence to weather different challenges and at the same time be sharp enough to seize opportunities. On such qualities would depend India’s continued success.