Pulling punches: How Rohit Sharma executes those without violence

Remarkably, it's just one of a repertoire of pull shots at his disposal, which Sharma picks and chooses depending on a variety of factors, from the nature of the surface to the length.

The first quirk you notice when Rohit Sharma unfurls that whippet-like pick-up pull off short-of-length deliveries, sometimes even good-length ones, is his minimalism. Pull shots of all varieties are a blur of violence — the batsman shuffling across, moving backwards, the body arching sideways, the forearm muscle bulging as the bat viciously connects with the ball, and the extravagant flourish. Sample some of Michael Slater’s pulls on Youtube, which Richie Benaud likened to a “slap on the bowler’s face.”

But here Sharma is almost frozen in frame, the forearm hardly winking, the body swivelling minutely to get outside the line, and the wrists curling as the ball glides off the willow, a bit tilted than horiztontal. It’s more like a feline glance than a ferocious pull, manipulating the bowler’s pace than using his own power, shredding the innate machoness of the most physically dangerous shot in the coaching manual.

The side-on frame of the follow-through captures the beauty of the shot — the bat doesn’t end up behind his head, but parallel to his head, the back-leg straight like the pivot of a compass and the front-leg in the air so that it doesn’t obstruct the back-swing. And Sharma does all these as if in slow motion.

It’s an incredibly difficult shot to pull off — those that don’t have that extra second for judging the length dare not even dream, unless you want to be tied in knots. Even then, it’s risky, considering that the batsman has neither the length nor the width to think of a pull, forget executing one. It comes at such an awkward height, he can’t roll his wrists over it to keep the ball on the ground or get underneath the ball to loft it. But Sharma picks the length early, doesn’t lose his balance and has dexterous wrists to propel the ball wherever he wants to.

In a sense, it’s not an unfamiliar stroke. Several subcontinental batsmen in the aughts — notably Rahul Dravid in his accumulator avatar – embraced a similar method but to tuck a single or double off the hips, trying to keep the ball down and not whirling their wrists like Sharma.

The loose wrists enable placement. The top hand remains static, provides stability, while he twirls the bottom hand to whip the ball, generating the requisite elevation and momentum, besides making optimal use of the bowlers’ pace. When hitting in front of square, or through mid-wicket, Sharma drops the wrists so that he’s in absolute control of the stroke. Also the back-lift is minimal, there’s no need for it, because the wrists more than compensate for it.

Remarkably, it’s just one of a repertoire of pull shots at his disposal, which Sharma picks and chooses depending on a variety of factors, from the nature of the surface to the length. Unlike instinctive pullers, he seldom fetches the ball from outside the off-stump, he rather cuts or punches those balls. Only when it’s in line with the stumps does he venture, which means he’s not premeditating, rather relying on quick judgment and reaction speed like most great players — and in the shorter formats, he certainly is one.

Even more astounding is the range he has within one basic shot, which made him like a programmable boundary-pulling machine. You could vary the length of the ball (anywhere from the thigh to face height), the part of the field he would hit (long leg to midwicket, even mid-on occasionally), the arc of the ball (he could go up and over or spank devastating flat sixes) and the speed of the bowler.

All of these, he says, he acquired from playing on cement tracks and astro-turfs in Borivali, a Mumbai suburb. “In school cricket, in Borivali where I used to stay, if you didn’t have a pull shot or cut shot, you couldn’t survive. Nobody was going to bowl up to you. They were all going to bowl short and bounce you out. And the ball rises, so at times you had to play the pull off the front foot there. For most parts, you had to stay on the back foot. When most Indians walk out to bat, the first few deliveries are short balls,” he once explained.

Like with all high-risk shots, the pull had undone him a few times — most famously in what was shaping up to be his most impactful Test knock outside India in Centurion when he top-edged a pull off Kagiso Rabada, falling three runs shy of a half-century.

But it could easily be the shot that could define him, like his former Mumbai Indians skipper and Australian great Ricky Ponting, only that it’s lost in his expansive range of other eye-catching strokes like the drives and flicks, the back-foot punches and cuts. Little doubt though that he transcends the whole experience of watching a pull shot. It’s a shot that intimidates and thrills, but in Sharma’s hands (and wrists) it’s a delicate six-hitting tool, a stroke that enlightens as much as it enthralls.

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