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Test cricket needed Rohit Sharma, and now it’s got him

Phil Walker by Phil Walker 5 minute read

Wisden Cricket Monthly editor-in-chief Phil Walker soaks in the everlasting beauty of Rohit Sharma’s 83 on the opening day of the Lord’s Test.

It’s the smile that gives him away. The head-tilt and eye-glint, and the way the left corner of the mouth hooks itself up into the fleshy bosom of his cheek. It’s there in the form of a nod, not just to the absurdities of all that hyper-fame, but to something else, not far from what Philip Roth called the irrational authority of beauty. It could almost pass for a mea culpa, a shrug emoji made flesh, one that says, ‘Look, I didn’t ask for this, it’s just how it goes.’ It has, now we look at it again, more than a hint of Gower’s. What’s it feel like to open for India, Rohit Sharma, and to do it like that, in that way, with those hands and that touch? Well, says the smile: it sort of feels like this.

He didn’t need to become a Test match opener. It certainly wasn’t essential. A batter can grow into greatness these days without all that hassle. And well, it’s not exactly a money-spinner. We needed Sharma the Test player much more than he did.

It was long a quirk of the modern circus that this immaculate technician, this side-on, soft-handed devotee of the old orthodoxy should be doing his work solely against the white ball, built around this perception that he lacked the gumption to deal with Test cricket. It was the best part of seven years from his ODI debut to the moment in 2013 when he was finally given a Test cap; and even then, strumming hundreds in each of his first two knocks, it was still felt as though he was toying with the format; that his heart was elsewhere. This happens to the stylists. They’re distrusted. Considered subversive. It’s just what they have to live with. It’s hard to be lazy, he’s fond of saying (behind that smile), when someone’s bouncing you at 150 clicks.

One or two of us think that style, being intrinsic to perception, is everything. Most just profess to hate the thing. Ask most cricketers about style and they’ll dangle the word at arm’s length like a soiled jockstrap. It’s not how, they’ll say sombrely, it’s how many. None of them really think that, of course; but we get it, they’re pros, they have to deal in currencies.

Sharma slips right in there, right alongside the other great doomed aesthetes. The secret art of style, David Gower once told me, is to cherish it, and still be able to achieve something. “If someone says to you that you make it look easy while understanding that it isn’t – that is the highest compliment.”

At Lord’s, under filthy skies in a bowler’s summer, Sharma made it look easy while no one misunderstood how hard it was. Every minuscule movement was a repudiation of batting’s assumed complexities. He batted this time on leg-stump, moving across and into line, where at Trent Bridge he’d hunkered on off-stump a little more. He rarely followed the swing, holding his shape as the ball wended off harmlessly past the edge. He pushed to mid-off imperiously and with showy abstinence. He dropped his hands on the rising ball; while his runs down behind square evoked even the velvet touch of an Atherton in his pomp. He overhit precisely nothing. His pull shot in front of midwicket, against Mark Wood, topping 90mph, stopped the ground in its tracks. Throughout, he eschewed the drive. It was chanceless.

And he played late, if he played at all. He cushioned the seventh ball of Wood’s day at his feet like it was a game of one-hand-one-bounce at a Dynamos session. That one was 94mph. This idea of time, says Gower, is an illusion of sorts. “The great players do have time, but it’s an ability to be in the right place at the right time, more often than not.” So really then, it’s about technique, and this sense of clarity and expressiveness which springs from order. As batting undertakes its latest paradigmatic shift, it’s worth noting – and clinging to the fact – that this particular white-ball deity does it just how your grandpa showed you.

There is, as we know, an irresistible power struggle going off between these two institutions which comes to the boil via these politicised slabs of turf that pass for cricket pitches. When England get shot out in a session on another dustbowl the howls of indignation that the game has been compromised, scandalously tilted to the home side, get louder just as the margin of defeat gets wider. So this is the subtext behind India’s approach on this tour. Accordingly, Kohli left out Ashwin again – we’ll beat you on your tracks, at your game, he’s saying. It’s there in the policy of bowling dry, of attrition with panache. And it’s there in their openers, classicists both, evoking these ageless greats from a game grown coarse.

On 83, Sharma was undone by a greying middle-aged man with an indie quiff. A hundred would have been nice and all, but not especially poetic. In time, if you’re that way inclined, you’ll remember Sharma’s 83 at Lord’s from the summer of ’21. It may not exist on an honours board, but it’ll live on for those who saw it.

It was KL Rahul who took the day, with a hundred. But it was Rohit Sharma who stole it. Test cricket is going through one of its fortnightly crises of faith. Today was just about as elegant a rebuttal as the dreamers could hope for.

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