Laxman-Rohit-and-Kohli-leading-India

Since the end of January, India have been in outstanding T20I form, with series wins in Australia (3-0), at home against Sri Lanka (2-1) and rounding off their preparations for the World T20 in their own backyard by remaining unbeaten in five games on their way to the Asia Cup title in Bangladesh.

The genesis for these strong displays have come on the back of muscular batting displays shaped by two batsmen who have truly evolved in the T20 game by making subtle tweaks to their game that has allowed them to fuse consistency with their extraordinary skills.

India must count themselves extremely fortunate to have a limited-overs opener of the calibre of Rohit Sharma. Since the start of the home series against South Africa in October, Rohit has scored 465 runs in 13 innings at an average of 35.76 and a tremendous strike rate of 132.9. Especially in 20-over cricket, when one of the openers bats deep, say into the 12th or the 13th over, inevitably a strong launch pad is laid from where the middle order can tee off from ball one.

To me, there are two obvious reasons why Rohit has become such a model of consistency in T20 cricket. For one thing, his selection of shots has become exemplary. For another, he is giving himself a little more time to get his eye in before playing his strokes. Rohit is the kind of batsman who is extremely easy on the eye, and when the situation so demands, he can pull off the big strokes with effortless ease, clearing the boundary ropes without sacrificing either on elegance or orthodoxy.

In the past, Rohit has shown a propensity to be caught between and betwixt. He would either consume a lot of deliveries at the start of the innings and then be forced to play catch-up, which would necessitate him to play strokes that were not really on, or he would go too hard at the bowling right from the start without necessarily getting a measure of the pitch and the bowling. Now, in an increasing sign of growing maturity that comes with nearly a decade in international cricket, Rohit is in an ideal position to gradually build a T20 innings, though that does not mean that he will not put the bad balls away at the very start if the opportunity so presents itself.

This is the era of 360-degree players such as AB de Villiers, who is a master at not just being conventional but also blessed with the ability to play the reverse sweep, the reverse-paddle or the Dilscoop almost at will. Rohit does not often play any of these fancy strokes, and yet if you look at his wagon wheel at the end of a substantial knock, you will find that he too has scored all around the park. That makes him an extremely dangerous batsman to bowl at.

Since the time he was elevated to open the batting in limited-overs cricket more than three years back, Rohit has become an unqualified success, and his growing consistency, allied with an excellent strike-rate, is just the factor India required for their climbing up the ranks in both 50-over and 20-over cricket.

Rohit is also a bit of a rarity among Indian batsmen in that he is the only one I can recall who pulls the ball off the front foot. Conventional wisdom suggests that when you play the pull stroke, the bat comes from above the ball and you roll your wrist over so that you keep the ball down. Rohit is an exception to that rule; he often hits from under the ball, which means that he hits the ball in the air a lot, but it is a tactic that is working excellently for him. He either plonks the ball in the gaps or hits them over the rope. Occasionally, he will be dismissed playing the pull in the manner in which he hits it, because it does carry an element of risk, but his success rate with the stroke is fairly staggering and bowlers around the world must have realised by now that bowling short to him need not always be the best option.

If there is one thing that Rohit must tighten up, it is his game outside the off-stump early in the innings, and especially when the ball is doing something like it did at the Asia Cup. One of the dangers of great touch is that sometimes it produces so much confidence that you feel any stroke is on. Rohit was nicked off more than once early on in Bangladesh, but given the strides he has made as a learning cricketer, I am sure it is only a matter of time before he will come to terms with the fact that no matter how many he has scored in the previous game, each innings is still a fresh start.

That is something that Virat Kohli has mastered. At No. 3, he is fulcrum around which the Indian batting revolves, and he loves being in a position to control the innings, be it while batting first or especially while chasing, when he is completely in his elements. The three things that stand out about Virat are his adaptability, his consistency and his ability to win games for the country. I am not sure I have seen a batsman who has finished off games with more felicity than Virat. It is as if when he is chasing, he is not focussing on runs vs balls, or even feeling the pressure that comes with a run-chase, no matter how steep or easy it might be. Virat’s focus instead seems firmly trained on doing the processes right and not really concentrating too much on the outcome, because as cricket has taught us over the years, once you get the process right, the result pretty much takes care of itself.

Virat’s technique and adaptability shone through during his battle with Mohammad Aamer in what is one of the best spells of fast bowling I have seen in 20-over cricket for a long time. Aamer was making the ball talk, but Virat had an answer to everything, treating the good deliveries with respect, being sure of where his off-stump was and gradually wearing the bowler down. By the end of that spell, he was playing some gorgeous cover-drives, which is the ultimate testament to Virat’s growth as a thinking, evolving batsman.

A year and a half back in England, Virat had well-documented problems with the balls leaving him outside off-stump. He would go hard at even wide-ish deliveries, which meant he was often caught behind the stumps. He has identified that problem and worked diligently at setting it right. His technique outside off has improved tremendously, and bowlers will now need to find new avenues to keep him quiet. Bring the ball into him, and he will use those wonderful wrists of his to direct balls anywhere between mid-on and fine-leg. Bowl it outside off, and he is now the master of the cover-drive too, even if there is a little bit of atmospheric assistance or help from the surface.

The two aspects which have contributed to Virat’s improved off-side play are the change in his grip, and more importantly, his stance. Earlier, he used to stand with his feet well wide apart due to which he was less mobile and more stable at the crease. This is where the bio mechanical principle of mobility-stability comes into effect. A wider base means lesser mobility and more stability; on the other hand, a narrower base means more mobility and less stability.

Since he had a wide stance, Virat was reaching out to the balls with his hands without the optimal movement of his feet. By now reducing the width of his stance, something that was first obvious during the fourth Test against South Africa in Delhi, Virat has struck a balance between mobility and stability. His feet are moving much closer to the pitch of the ball and his head is a lot more where he wants it to be, which means that he is aware where his off-stump is and is able to play the ball the way he wants to — close to his body and right under his eyes.

The second contributing factor is his grip, which entails enhanced cocking of the wrist as he lifts his bat. By not cocking his wrist, he was from time to time closing the bat-face early on and was playing the ball with an angled bat. Now, the subtle technical shift allows him to be in complete control of his bat-swing. Compared to earlier, the bat comes down a lot straighter and is almost like an extension of the arms, and because the bat-face is open, he is now in a physical position to either play the ball through the off-side, or brings his wrists into play and works it on to the on-side.

Like Rohit, Virat is also an extremely orthodox player who has not felt the need to be over-creative like a Glenn Maxwell or a de Villiers. These men seek out gaps in the field with their unconventional stroke-play. Virat picks off those same gaps without compromising on orthodoxy, which in my book is a lot more difficult to do.

Given that for a majority of the recent games, either Rohit or Virat has batted deep into the innings, it has allowed India’s middle-order — the likes of Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina, Hardik Pandya and MS Dhoni — to come out and play cameos and push the total to pretty impressive proportion. Apart from the odd occasion in the Asia Cup, the middle order has not been required to rebuild the innings, and credit for that must go to Rohit and Virat.

These two men will once again have to show the way if India are to make a strong pitch for the World T20 title in their own backyard. Given their consistency and their command over the game right now which has manifested itself in their evolution as top-notch batsmen, I do not see any reason why they will not continue to fire at the top of the order, especially in more familiar conditions where the new ball may not do as much as it did in the Asia Cup.

(VVS Laxman, CricketCountry’s Chief Cricket Mentor, remains one of the finest and most elegant batsmen in history. He was part of the iconic Indian middle-order for over a decade and a half and played 134 Tests and 86 ODIs. He tweets at @vvslaxman281)