In the 30th over of the second innings in the Sydney Test, Rohit Sharma hit Nathan Lyon for a four. It was a significant shot, and not just because it brought up his fifty in his first Test opening away from home. It had more to do with the shot. He had skipped down the track to an offspinner, there was a long-on in place, and then he surprised those thinking "here we go again" by chipping the ball wide of long-on instead of trying to clear the field. It was actually not the first time in the innings that he had played this chip, deliberately towards the wide-mid-on/straight-midwicket region, but this was the exclamation point.
Sharma, spinners, and outfield catches are an old horror story for those who have felt frustrated by his returns in Tests. There was the time in Southampton - after India had conceded 569 - when he went to clear mid-off 14 overs before the new ball and five minutes before tea. He got too close to the ball, and holed out after having got a start and playing 61 balls.
On the last trip of Australia, in Adelaide, once again he got off to a start from 41 for 4, and then skipped out to Lyon. Nowhere near the pitch of the ball, he ended up dragging a catch to deep square-leg, out for 37 off 61. In Kanpur in 2016-17, he hit Mitchell Santner straight to mid-on. Gone for 35 off 67. Coming into this Test in Brisbane, Sharma had been out caught off spinners 12 times, six of them not to traditional catchers: the keeper, slips, gullies, silly point, short leg. On five of those occasions, he had got a start.
When Sharma added to those dismissals in Brisbane, with a severely depleted India looking to fight out a draw to take the Border-Gavaskar Trophy back with them, it was bound to attract undesired attraction. It always tends to happen in Test cricket when you get out to an attacking shot. Especially if you are Sharma because, at various points of your career, both Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane have been dropped to make way for you.
This dismissal has brought about the expected outrage, but as with the criticism of Pujara's (supposed lack of) intent, it isn't as though Sharma doesn't know the consequences of batting the way he does. There is a reason, a method, to what he does. So it is worth looking at it from his point of view too.
First of all, it is important to acknowledge how solid he has looked and how smart his options have been. Sharma has looked the best opener in this series, slightly ahead of Shubman Gill and way better than the Australians, who have had to face much less potent bowling. Against Lyon, too, Sharma has used more of a method than when he used to hole out to the outfielders.
Against fast bowlers, Sharma has looked more solid than ever. Before this tour, on his previous trips outside Asia and the West Indies, to length balls and full balls outside off from pace bowlers, Sharma played 16% towards mid-off and 27% towards covers. On this tour, the split has been an even 24%. By doing so, he has kept the keeper and the cordon less interested. It is perhaps a reaction to opening the innings and thus being more compact; if that is the case, it has done its job. He credits moving his guard closer to off for that tightness in his game.
Sharma has looked comfortable, rarely hurried, playing the ball right under his eyes. When he has driven, he has driven hard, which gives you a margin of error the defensive pokes or half-hearted drives don't. You can see why he gets more chances than others to play Test cricket; when he looks good, he is too good to be not utilised in Test cricket.
This little change has given him starts, and has brought his contest with Lyon into limelight. It was expected that before long, Lyon would test Sharma out with an in-out field. Sharma has refused to abandon his instinct of trying to dominate the spinner. He has instead introduced the chip shot to his game to keep the runs coming. A new shot is never a guarantee it will keep working; the bowlers will come back with new plans.
When he got out to Lyon in Brisbane, Sharma was not trying to hit a six or take the deep fielders on. He was just trying to chip wide of the man, but Lyon smartly moved his line closer to the stumps, taking his arms out of the shot. Perhaps he should have aborted the shot and defended, but you can't expect a batsman to do everything right. He trusted his instinct and his shot, and got done in by a good ball. As a matter of optics it looks worse this being Test cricket, but in Sharma's mind, he is probably taking as much risk as some other batsman do when defending Lyon.
This was by no means a reckless, desperate, get-out-of-jail swipe when bogged down by dots, but part of a larger plan to not let the bowlers settle. He might not be making the bowlers come up with their best ball to get him out, but he is also reducing their margin of error by being more attacking, which happens to be his natural game. That is a role Sharma is happy to take on in a series where the bowlers have benefited a lot from shutting down the scoring. Just like there is a Pujara method, there is a Rohit Sharma method too, which he will have to fine-tune while opening the innings at a time when opening in Tests has never been tougher. He has earned all the rope and breathing space.