When he bats at the top of the order, as he does now in all forms of the game, Rohit Sharma likes taking his time to get going — irrespective of the colour of his jersey, or that of the ball. As a team, much more often than not, India, too, prefer taking that route.
If you go purely by what has happened at the other end (to that of Sharma) so far this series, you would say not much has changed. That’s because his partner, Shikhar Dhawan, has had sombre returns reading 41 off 42 balls and 31 off 27 balls.
In the first game at Delhi, where Sharma departed early, India’s score at the end of the Powerplay overs was 35/1 — 10 of which came from the first over, the only one Sharma batted in. That five-ball stay at the crease, amounting to nine runs, was obviously too flash-in-the-pan to even register. Try saying the same about Sharma’s evening out at Rajkot on Thursday!
What was different? Prior to 2019, there hadn’t been a single year where Sharma had a strike rate in excess of 132.5 from the first 15 balls he faced in T20Is. This year, that figure has improved to 138.88. At Rajkot, it was 206.67.
What difference did it make? India, who had an average Powerplay score of 43 from 11 prior T20Is in 2019, flew to 63/0 from the first six overs — 46 of those runs had come from the blade of the Indian captain for this series, off just 21 balls. At the end of 10 overs, Sharma stood at 79 off 36, India at 113/0 — their third-highest 10-over total in T20I history.
Why did Sharma, and India, need the difference? On the face of it, there isn’t any evidence to suggest that the Sharma-Dhawan combination — in the legions of Ganguly-Tendulkar, Gilchrist-Hayden and Haynes-Greenidge as far as ODIs are concerned — isn’t a safe bet for T20Is: they now boast more century partnerships in the shortest format than any other pair (four), and each of their 11 T20Is stands of 50+ have resulted in Indian wins.
The operative bit of that last statement, though, is safe; they are, undeniably, a safe pairing, but is safety all that safe a way to go when playing crash-and-bang cricket?
Look around the world, and notice the strike rates of the top opening batsmen in the format. In all T20I cricket, there have, till date, been 49 batsmen who have scored 500 or more runs as openers — Sharma’s strike rate (140.03), among that list, puts him in at 14th position; Dhawan’s (128.34) sees him languish further down at 28th.
Can India afford to be playing T20 cricket, going into 2020, with both their openers more wary than scary? No, they can’t.
The devil’s advocate stares in the face, too, when you examine that list more keenly and spot someone named KL Rahul ranked as high as number nine with a strike rate of 142.67 as opener; but, for the time being at least, India appear to be standing by their opening duo across all limited overs cricket — so that line of argument, unfortunately or not, is moot.
It becomes the simplest of equations from there on (even if its practical implementation might not be quite as simple in certain scenarios): one out of Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan should must go hard from ball one. And that one had to be Sharma, right?
Even with his more measured approach, Sharma remains among the faster scorers in the T20I game; of the 27 batsmen with 1500 or more runs in the format, only four score their runs faster than the 32-year-old — Glenn Maxwell, Aaron Finch, Chris Gayle and David Warner.
By bare cricketing metrics, six-hitting is the foremost indicator of a batsman’s destructive ability, and here’s just how far ahead India’s ‘Hitman’ stands on that count: since the start of 2015, Martin Guptill is second in terms of clearing the ropes across all international cricket with 174 maximums. Sharma leads him by 115 sixes.
If this Rohit Sharma, this beast-mode-activated Rohit Sharma of the last few years, starts firing from the word go, it means carnage. It also means a correction of India’s now corroded T20I template.
It only helps that this upping of the tempo comes at the end of this annus mirabilis: in 2019, Sharma won an unprecedented fourth IPL title as captain, scored an unprecedented five hundreds at a single World Cup AND managed an until-very-recently unimaginable second coming in Test cricket.
Rohit’s Mumbai Indians have firmly established themselves as the IPL’s best. Rohit’s powers in the ODI game enable India to walk into every 50-over game they play as favourites. Rohit’s rise from the top in Tests, potentially, further strengthens the world’s top-ranked Test team.
Of the four setups Rohit regularly turns out for, there’s just one setup — the Indian T20I setup — that isn’t quite the best-oiled machinery. Not yet, at least.
2019 could well go down as the year of Rohit Sharma, but in 2020, India’s bid to reclaim 20-20 cricket’s throne at the T20 World Cup is likely to rest on how much of a hit their ‘Hitman’ can be.
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