Rohit Sharma: How he unlocked his potential as an ODI opener

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23 Jun 2020 | 06:16 AM
authorShubh Aggarwal

Rohit Sharma: How he unlocked his potential as an ODI opener

Rohit Sharma completes 13 years of international cricket today. We look back at the second half of his career that made him the most prolific ODI opener at present

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10 years ago when Sachin Tendulkar scored the first double hundred in ODI cricket, against South Africa in Gwalior, it was widely assumed that the score will remain unchallenged for a long time. Saeed Anwar’s 194 stood tall for 13 years as the highest individual ODI score. Charles Coventry levelled it in 2009. Hence, another double hundred seemed like a far-fetched prospect.

But it has now been breached several times. Eight double centuries have been scored. Rohit Sharma, astonishingly, alone has three. His top score is 264, which when he was growing up as a small boy, would have been a good total for a side to defend in most cases.

From his ODI debut, on this day in 2007, till June 5, 2013, Rohit played 88 ODIs averaging only 30.8 runs per dismissal with the bat. It was certainly below par for a batsman touted as India’s next big thing. He was tried at every spot including the opening slot for five innings which shows even the Indian management were trying to find a spot for him in the XI. During India’s ODI series in Sri Lanka in 2012, his scores read 5, 0, 0, 4, 4 aggregating only 13 runs in five innings. His average was 2.6 - the lowest by an Indian batsman in an ODI series with more than three games. At that point, Rohit’s career was like Schrodinger’s Cat, it could be both dead or alive. 

"I believe the decision to open in ODIs changed my career and it was a decision taken by MS Dhoni. I became a better batsman after that. In fact it helped me understand my game better, react better according to situations”, Rohit told PTI.

He scored 65 in the Champions Trophy opener, an excellent knock given the circumstances. A batting average of only 17 in the 18 months before that, a potent South African bowling attack, the opening game of an ICC tournament, fighting for his place in the side. The box had been opened and the cat was alive. His opening partner, Shikhar Dhawan hogged the limelight with a blistering ton in that game but Rohit will go on to unlock ODI greatness as an opener. 

Rohit’s rise as an opener concurred with the change in the dynamics of ODI cricket which witnessed a spike in team totals. In India, the transformation was first seen during Australia's seven-match ODI series in India in 2013 and Rohit played a pivotal part in defining it. 

Less than five months after sealing his spot as an opener, he twice helped India chase 350-plus scores in the series and then notched up his maiden double hundred. His next hundred was the gigantic 264 at Eden Gardens against Sri Lanka in 2014. Since becoming an established opener, he has scored a hundred every calendar year. In 2017, he recorded six tons. In 2019, he went a step ahead scoring seven of those, including five in the World Cup. 

Such has been his brilliance and consistency that comparing him with the top openers of the past does not seem like a gratuitous prospect anymore. Yes, ODI batting is much easier now and comparison through decades doesn’t sound healthy but the difference Rohit has created between himself and his peers is tough to ignore.

It won’t be any exaggeration to say that India found an opener like Rohit just in time to keep them updated to the snowballing batting numbers. 15 out of his 27 hundreds as an opener since Champions Trophy 2013 have propelled India to a score in excess of 300. Six others have come in match-winning cause while chasing less than 300. 

Rohit’s acceleration post completing his hundred while posting towering scores for himself is one of the most glorifying aspects of his batting. He turns the beast mode on and seems to have the capability of yielding a maximum result out of each delivery without breaking a sweat. This is the ability which has enabled him to score three ODI double hundreds. 

During the course of his first double hundred - 209 against Australia - Rohit scored his 100th run in the 38th over. During his 264 against Sri Lanka, he completed his hundred a bit early - in the 32nd over - enabling him to go to the extent of 264. During his third double-ton - 208* against Sri Lanka - he reached the 100th run in the 40th over. 

The old adage suggests that a side should double their score post the 30th over mark. The Mumbaikar does that individually. His strike rate in the last 10 overs is 203, the highest amongst all openers who have been a part of the death overs in at least five innings. 

In modern-day cricket, openers carrying on post their hundred has become an essential feature as they are the set batsmen who can explode in the slog overs and hence, create the match-winning difference. Australian opener, Aaron Finch added four ODI hundreds to his tally in 2017 and 2018 but Australia ended up on the losing side in each of those four games. All four of them were small hundreds - 124 against India, 107, 106 & 100 against England. He got out soon after reaching three figures, thereby missing out on a golden opportunity to seal the game for his side. This is where Rohit is ahead of the curve. With 224 ODIs in his career, he already has eight 150-plus scores, the most by any batsman. 

Quite incredibly, he achieves all this so effortlessly and with a minimum of fuss. His favorite stroke has been the pull, the shot which has churned out the most number of runs for him since Champions Trophy 2013 - 1,203. While pulling the spinners is relatively easier, the fact does not change for Rohit against pacers as well, whom he has accounted for 1,017 ODI runs as an opener. 

Before his arrival in 2007, not many Indian batsmen (except Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid) were considered to have an apt technique against the short ball. Rohit’s attacking game against that length is a breath of fresh air scattered in the arc between fine leg and long-on. Notably, he has 64 sixes to his name. The next best is Eoin Morgan with 29. 

At 33, Rohit is in a position where he is making his experience count. The only time in the innings where bowlers hold an edge over him is at the start and the opener is closing that door on the opposition as well with his maturity and subtle changes in his technique. 

Rohit’s 122* off 144 balls against South Africa in India’s opening game of the 2019 World Cup was the slowest hundred of his career, yet it was his best given the circumstances. "In my opinion this is by far his best ODI innings because of the kind of pressure the first game brings from a World Cup point of view," said skipper Virat Kohli after the game. Rohit held the innings together in a run-chase of 227 in what could have been a tricky chase. 

During his last ODI hundred - a match-winning 119 against Australia in Bengaluru earlier this year, Rohit opened up his stance to tackle the left-arm seamer (the kind of bowling that has troubled him early in his innings earlier) Mitchell Starc’s incoming delivery. 

That innings also saw him surpass the 9,000-run mark in ODIs making him the third fastest to reach the feat, only behind Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers, two of the biggest freaks in modern-day cricket. The list only suggests that Rohit is the closest to their level of eccentricity if not there already. After a tumultuous first six years in international cricket, one can safely conclude that he has unlocked his full potential as an opener. 

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