Chepauk opened its gate for fans. Cricket in India welcomed back spectators after a year of Covid-forced hiatus and as toss time approached, queues started to snake around the stadium. Fifty per cent occupancy was allowed and those who got the first day’s tickets were entertained by a Rohit Sharma sonata in sharp (read, sweep) notes.

Rohit was resplendent in his 231-ball 161; his seventh Test hundred and arguably his best. At the post-day press conference, the Indian opener said that he doesn’t rank his centuries. But it was a pitch where the ball turned in the first session of the first day and more than the bend, variable bounce was a major impediment for batsmen. After winning the toss, India finished the day on 300/6.

As a batsman, Rohit is spoilt for choice. Very few in this Indian team and probably in the world can match his range of shots. On a dodgy surface, he unboxed the sweep shot to neutralise the England spinners, Moeen Ali in particular.

It wasn’t a calculated risk. Far from it. In fact, the sweep shot helped him reduce the risk of being out leg-before on a pitch where some rough has already been created outside the right hander’s off stump at one end. Moeen targeted the rough and spun his off-breaks from there. Rohit swept, knowing full well that his front leg would always be outside the line of the off-stump. Rohit also suggested that Ajinkya Rahane follow the method during their 162-run fourth-wicket partnership, which turned the tide in India’s favour. Rahane scored 67.

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England have traditionally enjoyed a ‘sweeping’ upper hand in their contests against India. From Graham Gooch in the 1987 World Cup semifinal in Mumbai to Joe Root in the first Test of the ongoing series, the men from Blighty have consistently used the shot to good effect against Indian spinners. On Saturday, Rohit beat the tourists at their own game. His innings had 18 fours and two sixes, but he didn’t sweep everything that came his way.

Rohit started off with a gorgeous cover drive against Stuart Broad. He used his feet against Moeen to hit a six over long-off. He stood tall and unleashed a square cut against the impressive Olly Stone. A trademark pull sent a Ben Stokes delivery over the deep square-leg boundary. A bowler’s back drive was exquisite. But Rohit used the sweep shot as his first line of attack against Moeen, who was spinning the ball into him. Against left-arm spinner Jack Leach, he swept against the turn only when meeting the ball on the full. Rohit’s proactive approach put England under serious pressure and Root erred a bit with his field placements. Two legside fielders near the boundary, when Moeen bowled, were far too deep, giving Rohit the leeway that top-edges, if any, would fall in no man’s land.

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England had a good start to the game. Stone, who clocked 150kph at times, dismissed Shubman Gill in his first over of Test cricket in India. Gill misjudged a good length ball, shouldered arms and was caught plumb in front. Cheteshwar Pujara was building a partnership with Rohit before he pushed at a Leach delivery and was caught by Stokes at slip. The ball was dying on this surface. A couple of edges from Rohit didn’t carry to the slips. Pujara was probably in two minds, whether to steer the ball to the vacant third man region or play a defensive shot. Indecision cost him dear. Then, Kohli departed for a duck, bowled by Moeen, and India were suddenly 85/3. That Rohit was going at a rate of knots at the other end didn’t allow England to attack aggressively.

Rohit reached his half-century off just 47 balls. India reached 100 in the 25th over and the opener was batting on 75 off 76 deliveries. England resorted to a moderately defensive field against Rohit, but the batsman was happy to play in lower gear for a while. His hundred came off 130 balls and 150 in 208 deliveries. Also, after Root came into the attack from the Pattabhiraman End, things started to happen from England’s point of view. Root’s round-arm action was proving to be more effective on this surface compared to the two frontline spinners – Moeen and Leach.

After surviving a stumping appeal, Rohit holed out at deep square-leg. For once, he didn’t time his sweep against Leach to perfection. He had batted for over five hours in the Chennai heat and fatigue probably had crept in.

In his two Tests in Australia, Rohit got starts before getting out. Some of his shot selections drew flak from several quarters. But Rohit backed himself and spoke about not changing his way of playing. He has now scored 864 runs, including four hundreds, in nine Tests since he started as a long-form opener in October 2019. In the first Test, he got good deliveries in both innings. On Saturday, he was rewarded for his preparation and planning.

Rahane also scored a well-deserved half-century. The two Mumbai batsmen gel well in the middle. Throughout their partnership, Rohit and Rahane were talking, helping each other out. They ensured that India capitalised on the advantage of batting first on this wicket. For England, resting James Anderson turned out to be a selection error. The ball started to reverse in the afternoon and their finest exponent of reverse swing was cooling his heels. It didn’t augur well for the tourists.

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