At lunch on Day One, having taken first strike, India were three-down in 26 overs. Four of their top-five batsmen had combined to score 26/3 in 13 overs. The one remaining batsman had faced exactly the same number of balls for 80 undefeated runs.
The first session of the second Test at Chepauk didn’t belong to India, or to England. It belonged to Rohit Sharma.
Only thrice in the last 15 years has an Indian opener scored more runs in the opening session of a Test match; two of those instances came via the blade of Virender Sehwag, and the third against Test debutants Afghanistan by Shikhar Dhawan. Here’s what the Indian scorecard read at lunch in those games, respectively: 151/0 in 29 overs (Galle), 127/1 in 30 overs (Ahmedabad), 158/0 in 27 overs (Bengaluru).
On this occasion, on Saturday morning in Chennai, India were 106/3 in 26 overs when they went into the hut for lunch. ‘He’s batting on a different pitch’ is a phrase that gets thrown around quite liberally. You might not find a more accurate exhibit to represent it.
On a wicket markedly different from the one used for the first Test, with a five-day affair not a widespread expectation, that morning grabbing-of-the-horns by Rohit could prove to be the difference.
From there on, you knew this was always likely to head in one direction. Only once in a career, which is now into the 36th Test, has Rohit been dismissed in the 80s, and never in the 90s. And the propensity to go big after getting in is remarkable: four of his centuries have now resulted in scores above 150; of the other three, two have been unbeaten knocks, and the third saw a dismissal while setting up a third-innings declaration.
Unlike Rohit’s past massive knocks, though, this one didn’t see him scoring at a constantly-rising rate. For one, you can’t really maintain a strike rate trajectory of a 100 in a Test, regardless of who you are. Secondly, in what seemed a conscious decision, India took a relatively more cautious route after the lunch break — probably a prudent move given the expected wearing of this particular Chepauk surface.
400 runs in, say, 120-odd overs are likely to damage England’s hopes significantly more than 350 in 90 — and preventing the fall of wickets in the second session ensured India weren’t going to give England’s batsmen a sniff on the opening day.
It speaks volumes of Rohit’s run-making ability that even the more ‘cautious’ post-lunch version of him went about at more than three runs per over. Impressively, he didn’t allow England’s well-thought fields through the afternoon — in an attempt to dry out the boundaries — to frustrate him. Rohit only added five fours and a six to his tally after lunch, but still eased his way to 81 runs from the 153 balls he faced after the first interval.
In another deviation from the ‘Hitman at home’ template, Rohit was particularly brutal against pace, while more watchful against spin. This isn’t to say he didn’t go after the spinners, but the overall numbers were more balanced as a result of specific targetting: Moeen Ali’s off-spin was carted around, with a final tally of 59 runs from 64 balls; Jack Leach, however, was given the respect his control merited, with Rohit taking 41 from 87 Leach deliveries on Saturday. Against pace, India’s opening ace powered his way to 56 runs off 61 balls (25 off 38 versus Stuart Broad, 15 off 15 versus Olly Stone, 16 off eight versus Ben Stokes).
He also remained in control for the large part of the proceedings. Apart from one edged boundary off Stone in the last over before lunch, and one edge from Moeen that flew to the right of Stokes, none of Rohit’s 20 boundary hits were unintended results.
The most intended offering, meanwhile, was the sweep — India’s bane through Joe Root’s magnificent double century in the series opener, and a shot that Rohit admitted was worked upon in the build-up to the second Test. Half of his 12 boundaries against spin came via the sweep, perhaps best explaining Rohit’s visible distress when he finally fell to another attempted sweep, finding the boundary-rider square on the leg side off Leach’s bowling.
All in all, it was another chapter in the incredible home run of Rohit Sharma. The ‘Hitman’ has now amassed 1,504 runs from just 23 Test innings in India, at an average of 83.55; in the history of Test cricket, with a minimum of 20 innings in a country, only two entries exist of a player boasting a higher average in one nation: Don Bradman in England, and Don Bradman in Australia.
Since the move up the order to open the batting in Tests, Rohit now has four hundreds from nine innings at home, three of which have been scores in excess of 160. The last two of those home centuries now have come from/in positions of strife, as opposed to the conventional ‘template’ of hundreds by Indian openers in India.
At Ranchi, in late 2019, South Africa had India on the ropes at 39/3 on the first morning, before a giant association between Rohit and Ajinkya Rahane. 86/3 doesn’t have quite the same red-alert to it, but in the larger context — 1-0 down in a series, with no room for error in the hunt for a World Championship final berth — India were staring at quite the slippery slope on Saturday morning in Chennai.
India are unlikely to match the 497-run mountain they piled on against South Africa 16 months previously, but whatever they do get to, has set them up in prime position in this English duel.
And they have the Hitman’s blade to thank for that.