If there is a defining shot of this World Cup, it’s the imperious down-the-pitch charge to seamers by India captain Rohit Sharma. If there is one defining ball from the 2015 World Cup final, it’s Mitchell Starc’s devilish yorker that clattered the stumps of the advancing Brendon McCullum, New Zealand’s talisman. Rohit versus Starc could well determine the outcome of the final.
Mirroring Australia’s ride, Starc has picked up his tempo mid-way, and is peaking as the final approaches. Australia need Starc to deliver the knock-out blow early, India need Rohit to dictate terms early.
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The ‘Rohit charge’ captures the way India have bossed around the opposition in this World Cup. It’s not a shot that has come in good times, when the team is riding a wave; instead, it’s that stroke of ballsiness that stirred the Indian batting unit, giving them freedom, direction, and the aura.
It’s the shot that has shredded plans and had the opponents looking for Plan B and C. From Trent Boul in the semi-final to Matt Henry in India’s first game against New Zealand – the only two matches where India were stretched a bit, Rohit has dismantled the well-laid plans with this shot. Matt Henry, the man who had knocked him out in the 2019 semi-final had started well here, but Rohit deflated him by advancing down the pitch and putting him beyond extra cover. Same with Boult, who had to quickly abandon his round-the-stumps plan to cramp Rohit.
When India and Australia met for the first time in this tournament in Chennai, it was Josh Hazlewood who trapped Rohit with a sharp nip-backer. However, this sluggish Ahmedabad pitch might not aid such trickery.
Of late, especially after the sand-paper gate of ball-tampering, the Aussies have also gone a bit soft. Former captains like Allan Border have been sighing if not in anger but in perplexity, seemingly bewildered by this ‘UnAustralian’ way. Machismo in sport, and in cricket, has been the Aussie way. They occasionally behaved like bullies, their coaches and cricketing system envied around the cricketing world. Even their swear words were aped.
The F-word for a particular generation in India didn’t come in from American movies but from watching zinc-creamed Aussies.
Under Pat Cummins, a fiercely competitive player with a ball or bat in hand but who has been called ‘unAustralian’ by their former players and ‘Captain Woke’ by tabloids, that softness has been accentuated.
It’s Starc who can make them snarl again on field if he can stub out Rohit with a brute of a ball. Against South Africans in the semi-final, the ‘good-old’ Aussies resurfaced after Starc knocked down the captain Temba Bavuma and the vice-captain Aiden Markram. Suddenly, the field of green was being coloured yellow. They seemed everywhere, diving, fist-pumping, back-slapping, and being in-the-face of the opponents against whom they had tampered the ball and forced into going soft.
A throwback to the 2015 World Cup final can be a fruitful detour. New Zealand were riding on the McCullum wave and for the first time in years looked like the team who swaggered more than their famous neighbours. It took Starc just three balls to yank the mask, and reveal the vulnerable Kiwi faces. A charge and a miss, a swing and a miss, and a yorker that shook the off stump. Game over. India showed in the first game here where they lost three wickets for nothing, that they have enough firepower to win the game. But in the pressure-cooker of a final, if Rohit falls early, it would be fascinating to see how the rest respond.
Rohit better than McCullum
Rohit is not McCullum, though. He isn’t driven by restless energy. He isn’t consumed by an urge to make a statement for the sake of it. The charge to seamers isn’t the defining shot of his game; it’s the pull and the lofted straight drive. It’s a shot he has actively pursued this World Cup to inspire his team-mates and unsettle the opponents.
But there are a few similarities as well. Like McCullum’s, this would be Rohit’s last ODI World Cup, and that can often trigger untameable urges in big moments. McCullum had come through to the captaincy after an unsavoury ending to the previous captain Ross Taylor. Virat Kohli stepped down in an unpleasant bubble. McCullum tattooed his brand on the team.
Unlike McCullum, though, Rohit the ODI version is a complete batsman. He has all the shots in the book, all the approaches – defense, attack, pacing, and has formidable in-form batsmen behind him. He has the cover that McCullum didn’t. Will he charge out to Starc and attack him with more conventional options?
The pitch can tempt him. Sluggish and flat-beauties have aided Rohit to turn on the enforcer version relatively easily and extend himself. The pitch can also force Starc to go all-out for his yorkers, bouncers, and the odd slower ball pretty early in the piece before the ball loses its shine. Neither is likely to play the waiting game with the World Cup on the line.