Rohit is at home, and in the house

THERE are times when you wish you could insert the tropes of fiction into factual narrative. Imagine what you could do with the concept of survivor’s guilt preying on the minds of two batsmen, Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane, who in the span of four overs were exonerated by a third umpire who, in the case of Rohit, saw a sliver of foot behind the crease which wasn’t there, and in the case of Rahane did not see the brush of ball on glove that was there.

Both batsmen were out. Both, in these days of multiple replays on the giant screen, would have known it. And both promptly gave their wickets away — Rohit, for once, sweeping without real power behind the shot and finding deep midwicket, and Rahane aiming a wild sweep at a delivery way too full for the shot. Rohit added two after the reprieve; Rahane added one. Cue a noir-style paragraph about survivor’s guilt weighing heavily on the two batsmen, inhibiting their minds, weighing down their bats… Damn!

One aspect of third umpire Anil Chaudhary’s twin faux pas merits a what-if. In the 75th over, Jack Leach got one to straighten, missing Rahane’s inside edge, hitting the pad, and bouncing high for Ollie Pope at short leg to hold. The appeal was turned down; England reviewed; the umpire did not find any contact with the bat; he upheld the on-field decision. Joe Root immediately spoke to the on-field umpire, to point out that the ball had brushed Rahane’s glove after striking the ball, and that the replay for the review should roll through till the ball was caught.

Root was right; the third umpire was wrong, and his error was rectified by the match referee, who reinstated the review England had lost. Enter the what-if: What if Rahane hadn’t gotten out five balls and one run later? Since the match referee was in a position to confirm that the third umpire had gotten it wrong, could he have intervened and given Rahane out with retrospective effect? What about the balls that were sent down between the reprieve and the course correction? Is there even a provision, in such a case, to declare a batsman out with retrospective effect? Shouldn’t there be — because after all, Rahane could well have gone on to a century and more, which on a wicket like this could prove decisive?

On a related note, I remember my sister once calling me on the phone and without even a hi-hello, going “You know, it is absolutely pointless spending money to child-proof a house — the little devils still manage to find a way to hurt themselves.” On similar lines, you introduce tech to idiot-proof on-field decisions and what happens? Off-field idiocy.

WHEN Rohit Sharma made his Test debut, Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan were opening for India and Sachin Tendulkar was batting at #4. In the seven-plus intervening years, Sharma has managed a grand total of 36 Tests, including this one — which is poor return for a career that started with two successive centuries in his first two Test innings.

What has weighed against him is his overseas record — averaging 80+ at home versus a tick over 20 abroad is a glaring anomaly, the kind that raises doubt. That said, it is only now, starting in Australia, that he is getting to open — so a mea culpa is due from my side for writing him off in the preview post yesterday.

That said: Rohit has the talent, for sure. In fact, it is almost an unwritten rule that you cannot name Rohit without the prefix “talented”, as though he were cricket’s version of Tom Ripley. So when he bats, the bar is set far higher than for lesser mortals. Today he lived up to that billing, playing an innings of splendour and, more importantly, being willing to be human, to err, to take the chances fated to him — an outside edge dropping short, an inner edge missing the stump, a bunt into the straight field when the ball stopped on his drive, and a half dozen other such near mishaps — and to keep doing his thing, regardless.

His thing is sublime stroke-play — and on the day, he added patience to his arsenal, and looked an entirely different player, playing on a planet far removed from the one on which lesser mortals, to wit all his team mates, found the going heavy. It was all there — the languid drives through covers and mid off; the almost casual pulls, both to and over the boundary, when Ben Stokes had the temerity to drop short on a pitch where the bounce was merely chest-high at best, and pace off the deck was almost non-existent; the square cuts and drives played so late they almost seem like afterthoughts. To these potent weapons, he added a context specific one: the sweep, fetching the ball from well outside the off stump, which he used repeatedly to put both Jack Leach and Moeen Ali off their lengths.

What made this innings worth its weight in bitcoins was context. Shubhman Gill, whose USP is an assured judgment of line and length, erred in horrendous fashion when he padded up to the third ball of the impressive Olly Stone’s first over, and was nailed in front. Cheteshwar Pujara flattered with quicksilver footwork against spin, and deceived with a hard-handed push to a Leach delivery well wide of off stump that put Stokes in business at slip. Virat Kohli came out, saw off four deliveries from Mooen and then, without getting to the pitch or into position, aimed a cover drive at a classic off-spinner’s delivery, landing outside off and turning in to hit top of off through the wide gate the batsman’s heave-ho had created. India was reduced to 86/3 within the second hour of play — and Rohit had scored 65 of those runs. In the morning session he attacked at every opportunity, going through to lunch on 80 off 78 balls, with 13 fours and a six as exclamation points.

With Rahane putting aside his recent run of low scores, and a few initial scares against the turning ball, behind him, Rohit found his ally, and pulled India into relatively safe harbour with a partnership of 162 off 310 deliveries (Rohit 96/169; Rahane 66/141) before the baffling passage of play that saw both batsmen saved from the gallows by the third umpire, only to immediately jump off the nearest cliff. Rishabh Pant — whose batting is deceptive in that it looks so mindless but in fact features a thoughtful selection of those shots he backs himself to play — and debutant Axar Patel saw India through to close on a level 300/6.

THE passage of play between Rahane’s dismissal and Axar’s arrival produced a point worth mentioning. Ravichandran Ashwin, batting ahead of Axar in order to keep the two left-handers apart, played an uncharacteristically fidgety knock of 13 off 19 balls, and fell running down the pitch at Joe Root only to poke the ball off his pads to short square leg. It was odd, from Ashwin, who has of late displayed both ability and inclination to put his head down and bat time.

The only explanation that makes sense is that the team management has decided India is in a good place runs-wise; that any and all additional runs from there were bonus; that batting time and overs was not an issue.

This is extrapolation on my part, but if I am reading this right, it is short-sighted thinking, for a plenitude of reasons. One: the longer you can bat on this, the more the pitch will wear, and make batting fraught for the team batting second. Second: If the deterioration continues, and there is no reason to suppose it won’t, then the third day onwards will be even tougher for batsmen.

Taken together, what India needs is a big first innings, firstly to give the bowlers cushion to attack (and remember, other than Ash, one spinner is a debutant and the other is returning to the playing eleven after a long spell on the bench) and, secondly, to reduce the burden on the third innings.

There is such a thing as too much of back-room premeditation and pre-determined game-plans.

Then again, Ash could have played as he did because it was just one of those days. I hope that’s it. And the way Pant and Axar Patel bat tomorrow morning will tell, one way or other.

For England, Leach has been the standout bowler, alongside Olly Stone with his considerable velocities. Root, on a wicket aiding turn, has been the surprise package; Stokes, who appears to be nursing some niggle, is a non-factor; Broad is there and thereabouts, and Moeen Ali, thus far, is the weak link, going in excess of 4.3 per over for his two wickets.

PS: Nope, not a word about the pitch. Not as yet. I’d rather wait to see both teams bat — and bowl. For now, it is dusty; it has grip and turn for the spinners; it is particularly difficult to bat on when a spinner, of any time, bowls flatter, quicker and fuller, taking out reaction time. Against that, once the ball gets soft — around the 35-over mark and later — the turn on offer markedly slows down, allowing batsmen more time to adjust. On the pace front, there is no sign of swing, conventional or reverse; there is no appreciable bounce either. Stuart Broad was reduced to a trundler, pretty much, once the shine was off; Olly Stone looked impressive, but only because he took the pitch out of play and focussed on pace on a very full length.

On that note, you can understand the “workload management” that made India rest Bumrah (though, unlike Anderson, Boom is young and you would think that the six days between Tests 2 and 3 is sufficient recovery time), but I can’t help thinking how lethal he could be, with his ability to target the stumps and the pads, on a pitch where the ball stays low.