In 2019, Rohit Sharma’s status as one of the pre-eminent limited-overs players of his day was long assured. He had more than 30 limited-overs international centuries. He was the proud owner of the highest ever score in one-day international cricket - a still absurd 264 - and hit the small matter of five centuries in the 2019 World Cup. He was also the captain of Mumbai Indians, the Indian Premier League’s most successful franchise. There was just one area of the sport in which Sharma was shunned from the top table: Test cricket.
There had been no hint of the troubles to come when Sharma breezed into Test cricket with a regal 177 on debut, and then followed it up with an undefeated 111 in his second innings. But Test cricket is seldom more facile than it was for Sharma in these games. He had the triple advantages of batting at six, batting at home and facing an enfeebled West Indies attack.
Sharma was reminded of these advantages as soon as he ventured outside India. On South Africa’s spicy wickets against a ferocious home attack, Sharma made just 45 runs in four innings. And so the template for his Test career was set: often imperious at home, but all too fallible away.
All of this explained why, in 2019, Sharma was ranked the number two ODI batsman in the world and yet was locked out of the Test side. He could scarcely complain: an average of 85.4 at home, aided by routinely coming in with India already dominant, fell to just 26.3 away.
Ravi Shastri, India’s head coach, had been trying to reprise his role as an ODI opener in domestic first-class cricket since 2015. But Sharma’s schedule did not allow him the chance: his last domestic first-class game was in 2016. After opening in just three first-class innings, and none for the previous seven years, Sharma was entrusted to open against South Africa in 2019. “It was my last chance,” Sharma later said.
Restored to the XI, Sharma unfurled twin centuries at Visakhapatnam: two innings of such assurance that they instantly rendered the notion that he could not thrive in Test cricket absurd. A double century against South Africa confirmed the impression.
Yet, in their own way, Sharma’s contributions in India’s victory in Australia were just as significant. If his returns - 26, 52, 44 and 7 - after regaining fitness from the third Test were unspectacular, the way in which Sharma withstood Australia’s ferocious new-ball pair while retaining his trademark panache suggested a Test player now finally indispensable in all climes.
Nine balls into the second Test against England, India’s hold on the series - and their prospects of reaching the World Test Championship, which depended on winning the series at least 2-1 - already seemed precarious. The orange-tinged wicket seemed designed to produce a Test on fast-forward; India were 0-1.
Sharma’s response to this hint of a crisis was a supreme extra cover drive off his next ball, from Stuart Broad, to get off the mark. It is one of Sharma’s trademark shots: transferring his weight onto the front foot languidly, without making a particularly pronounced movement, and trusting in his timing and balance to do the rest. If this was to be a Test played on fast-forward, Sharma was going to do the fast-forwarding.
Perhaps the best indication of Sharma’s approach came when Ben Stokes entered the attack in the tenth over. Sharma greeted him with a drive through point for four, and then followed it up with consecutive pulls - both, as is his wont, off the front foot - for six and four the following over. Stokes was whisked out of the attack and would not return throughout the day. Against spin, Sharma leant on his front foot game again, this time to sweep aggressively. At lunch, impervious to the struggles around him, Sharma had 80 from 78 balls; in the same number of balls, the rest of the top order had scored 26-3.
And yet in some ways Sharma’s best work was yet to come. He began the afternoon session assiduously playing out a maiden from Jack Leach. Paradoxically, a softer ball and easier batting conditions meant that Sharma judged it was now best to play more circumspectly. Sharma’s next 81 runs took 152 balls, barely half the pace he mustered before lunch; his paddle sweep for two to reach his seventh Test century encapsulated his newly calculating approach.
In the process, Sharma showcased a Test cricketer of range: the Virender Sehwag impersonation before lunch gave way to a clinical ruthlessness after it. Already, it would not be a surprise if Sharma has played this Test match’s decisive hand.
In nine Tests since his recall, Sharma now has four centuries and an average of 66.5. No other Test opener has more than his 864 runs in this period.
This run has cemented Sharma’s status as a behemoth of the modern game. Only four current players in world cricket - Virat Kohli, AB de Villiers, David Warner and Chris Gayle - can better his all-format tally of 40 international centuries.
Sharma the Test cricketer still has new roads to conquer. His staggering average of 83.6 at home, the highest of any cricketer not named Donald Bradman to play 10 Tests in any country, falls to a meagre 27 away, where he is still yet to score a Test hundred. India’s five-match Test series in England will test the full scope of his improvements against the moving ball.
But this was an innings of such resplendence and mastery that it suggested that, by the year’s end, Sharma position in the pantheon of modern batsmanship may need re-evaluating. Rather than a case study in the difficulties of thriving across the three formats, Sharma could soon be viewed among the rarefied elite of batsmen to excel in all formats at the same time.