Ahead of World Cup, Rohit Sharma adopting new avatar to give India quicker starts

Rohit Sharma’s 85-ball 101 during India’s 90-run victory over New Zealand on Tuesday ended a long-awaited drought of centuries, going back three years.

In that time, though, his stats suggest he has made a key change to his approach at the top of the innings.

With the 2023 World Cup on the horizon, the Indian captain is trying to transform himself into an aggressive opener and give India the kind of quick-fire starts that Virender Sehwag gave during the 2011 World Cup. The former opener scored 380 runs from seven games at an average of 47.50 and a blistering strike rate of 122.50 in the tournament.

Prior to Tuesday, since his last 100, Rohit had been averaging 39.61 from 15 innings at a strike rate of 103.62, giving his side quick starts with the bat, going after the bowlers right from the first ball.

This comes as a stark difference to how he had been starting innings in the past.

The 35-year-old began his India career as a middle-order batsman. Before 2013, he scored 1,978 runs at an average of 23 with a mediocre strike rate. Odd innings every now and then showed the class of the batsman, but represented nothing substantial.

It was not until he was handed the responsibility of being India’s opener that Rohit become one of the greatest white-ball batsmen in the country’s history. Holder of a world-record three double-hundreds, as well as the highest individual score in ODIs (264), he has amassed 7,663 runs at an average of 55.93 as an opener, at a strike rate of 92.71.

However, Rohit’s high strike rate can be attributed to how he explodes after getting himself in. According to ESPNCricinfo, Rohit strikes at 72.93 in the first powerplay of an ODI innings compared to Virender Sehwag’s strike rate of 98.86 in the same phase (Since the stats are available).

Rohit, in his recently-adopted new avatar, aspires to change that due to the needs of the team.

‘Accumulators’ at the top

“Both openers (Gill and Kishan) have done really well. But looking at how both have gone through, I think it is fair that we give Gill a chance to have a fair run because, in the last games, Gill got a lot of runs as well.” Rohit said before the first ODI against New Zealand.

This statement gives a fair indication that Gill is going to get a long rope in the side and has a strong chance of starting as an opener in the World Cup, while Virat Kohli will keep his place as the number three batsman for India.

Both Virat and Gill have extremely good averages and more than decent strike rates for the modern game. Nonetheless, both batters are what cricket fans would call “accumulators”.

Gill and Virat are not the Sehwags of this world but more like Sachin Tendulkar or Gautam Gambir, who rotate the strike to build their innings and blast at the end. Virat’s recent 166 in Thiruvananthapuram against Sri Lanka had eight sixes, his personal highest in an ODI innings. However, all of them came after he had reached his 100.

Virat Kohli strikes at 73.88 whenever he has come in the first Powerplay to bat and Gill strikes at 92.32 in his short career so far.

With two of the top three being “accumulators”, it becomes necessary for Rohit to be the aggressor at the top and push the opposition on the back foot. Even if he goes early there is enough pedigree in the remaining top two to lay a solid foundation for the likes of Hardik Pandya and Suryakumar Yadav to capitalise on.

The World Cup question

For India, delivering the top honours is an absolute necessity to whet the appetite of its cricket-crazy fans, especially considering their trophy-cabinet has been empty since 2013.

The recently concluded 2022 World Cup in Australia may be of a different format, but showed what pressure can do to even the more experienced players like KL Rahul and Rohit himself. The side adopted a safety-first approach, especially the top order of the batting, despite playing attacking cricket until before the tournament.

“Whatever I have seen of him (Dhoni) leading the side for all these years, he never panicked, took time while taking decisions. There are those similarities in me too,” Rohit said in 2018 when he took the reigns for a brief period for the Asia Cup. However, the pressure of the big occasion was on display on him as a full-time captain, and the entire team, during the 2022 semifinal against England.

The ODI World Cup comes back to India after 12 years and the pressure will be ramped up higher than what the team faced in 2015, 2019 or even at the 2022 T20 World Cup. To play freely for him at the top and captain the side in a home world cup is no easy feat.

Time will tell whether Rohit can do a Sehwag from the 2011 World Cup, or put out the ODI version of his under-pressure performance at the T20 World Cup.

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