Happy birthday to Hitman Ro’hit’ Sharma
Talent – an apparently heartening term that has followed Rohit Sharma around like a shadow; even haunted him at times. It seems to be a burden that the cricketing fraternity has enforced upon him and, after more than a decade in the national setting, he has been weighed down by the label.
Harsha Bhogle spoke of whispers in the domestic circuit; of coaches and scouts spotting the effortless, free-flowing stroke-play of a Mumbai teenager. Having cruised through first-class cricket, with an average well above 50, he shot to the limelight when he scored a brisk unbeaten triple-hundred at the Ranji level.
It all began after an injury to an in-form Yuvraj Singh in the 2007 T20 WC, when Rohit was called upon as a last-minute emergency replacement to play a league game against the hosts. After a lacklustre start to the Indian innings, the 20-year-old strode out into Kingsmead and stroked his way to a fluent half-century against the likes of Pollock, Ntini and Morkel as though he were having a net session. He went one step further and showed startling maturity under pressure to survive till the end of the innings, escorting India to a respectable total that they ultimately defended, knocking South Africa out of the tournament in their own backyard.
Indians have a thing for like-for-like replacements. More specifically, they have a thing for spotting similarities with the days gone by. Deep within the stat-obsessed Indian, there lies a cricketing romantic who is struck by nostalgia when manifested with the idea of an elegant-looking batsman with free-flowing batting style from Mumbai. That’s right – Rohit Sharma was touted to be the Great Sachin Tendulkar’s long-destined successor at number 4 in the Test batting line-up. After all, it added up: so much time to play his shots, effortless stroke-making capabilities even against express pace, and a wide repertoire of shots. This had to be God’s gift to cricket in the post-Tendulkar era, right?
Rohit was subsequently picked for the ODI team on a selection whim after his burst of vital performances in the T20 WC and his impressive Ranji Trophy record. He made an impression in the CB series Down Under, playing some crucial cameos against stalwarts like Brett Lee and Stuart Clark, and a more-than-competent Sri Lankan attack. These inspired away performances in the T20 WC and the CB series caught the eye of the selectors, and warranted him an extended run with the limited-overs side.
However, inconsistency and a knack of gifting his wicket away meant that he struggled to cement his spot in the side. Critics pointed out that he had too many shots for the same ball, and this meant that shot selection was becoming a bit of an issue for him. Furthermore, several experts spotted that he had trouble playing the short ball since his stance was too side-on and that he had no back-and-across trigger movement. His pedestrian batting average of 22 to go with a string of low scores and unconverted starts meant that he failed to cement a spot in the side for the 2011 Cricket World Cup squad…
Looking back at his career, Rohit Sharma would have the Indian Premier League to thank for keeping him in the reckoning and not being discarded liked several other young and talented cricketers who burst forth into national reckoning but couldn’t make it big at the highest level. In the first two years of the IPL, his performance stood out, as he made over 350 runs each time for the Deccan Chargers and proved his worth to his franchise. He was then transferred to the Mumbai Indians franchise in 2011 and has been one of their most consistent batsmen over the years.
Rohit continued to oscillate in and out of the Indian eleven without being able to establish himself in the side, having been given ample opportunities despite a well-established Indian middle-order. Alas, after making it to the Playing XI for the Nagpur Test against South Africa in 2010, he was lamentably injured in a warm-up football game after coming heart-breakingly close to receiving the coveted India cap. He was subsequently ruled out of the series in a gut-wrenching turn of events, and wouldn’t get another opportunity to prove his Test credentials for another 4 years.
Rohit’s proved himself on the IPL stage again in 2011 and made a comeback ODI squad for the tour of West Indies where he scored three half-centuries in five matches. However, this turned out to be another false dawn as he followed it up with a string of low scores in the CB series in Australia and a nightmare tour of Sri Lanka with 14 runs in 5 innings, including 2 ducks. He had already been given a more-than-extended run and was starting to build an unenviable reputation of a frustratingly fascinating player.
The generally fickle selectors, surprisingly, continued to back him. Eventually, due to lack of contenders for the opener’s spot in ODIs, MS Dhoni, the Indian captain, decided to try him as an opener in the limited-overs’ format.
The term ‘masterstroke’ has always been a bit of an enigma, historically being used in a vague, result-based manner. The move to promote Rohit Sharma to the top of the order has paid enough dividends for it to be termed a masterstroke – India had finally found a candidate for the opener’s spot, and Rohit seemed to have finally scripted a turnaround after almost 5 years in and out of the side. With enough time to play himself in as an opener, Rohit and Dhawan formed a formidable opening partnership, playing a substantial role in India’s unbeaten and successful Champions’ Trophy campaign in 2013. Still, the talented tag followed him around, and Rohit – at long last – started to live up to it. In a run-fest of an ODI series against Australia, Rohit scored 491 runs in 6 outings, culminating in a violent 209 in the deciding ODI in Bangalore, joining a crème de la crème list of ODI double-centurions that comprised of Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag.
With the retirements of stalwarts like Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, the a new crop of Test batsmen needed to be honed, and opened up new avenues in the team. Rohit, at long last, earned the oh-so-desirable India Test cap against West Indies in the first Test at the Eden Gardens in his fabled ‘predecessor’s’ farewell series. Rohit wasn’t going to let this opportunity go begging and embraced the Test arena immediately, easing his way to a typically Rohit-esque 177 in his debut innings; a vital innings in the context of the match, dragging the momentum India’s way. He reinforced his metaphorical statement to the selectors with an unbeaten 111 in the following Test, enchanting a tearful Wankhede in Sachin Tendulkar’s farewell Test match and taming the West Indian bowling attack. After an injury-break, Rohit, as if to make up for lost time, ripped apart a hapless Sri Lankan attack on his way to a jaw-dropping 264 – wait for it – in an ODI at the Eden Gardens, making thirteen runs more than the entire Lankan team managed.
However, a worrying trend continued after the selectors picked him for the tour to Australia after his Kolkata epic: that of getting picked for away Test tours based on white ball performances in less testing conditions. He was picked after his 209 for the South Africa tour in late 2013 and looked technically inept in seaming conditions, committing to the line of the ball too early and playing as if it were a true wicket. His strength of picking the length early in ODIs was turning into a curse in Test matches. Similarly, having been picked for the tour of Australia on the back of his 264, he made just one fifty in 6 innings, looking completely at sea against the pace-heavy Australian attack, continuously playing away from the body, trying to hit through the line in conditions conducive to lateral movement and showing poor off-stump awareness.
Nevertheless he continued his golden run in ODIs, ending the 2015 World Cup campaign as India’s second-highest run-scorer with a total of 330 runs, with including a hundred in the quarter-final against Bangladesh to go with two fifties.
Rohit, the ODI player, finally delivered a break-through performance as an opener with an impeccable limited-overs tour of Australia in early 2016, making back-to-back hundreds and a 99 in the series and finally answering the faith of the selectors and his captain. He had become a one-day monster who developed a habit started his ODI innings in a slow and steady manner, but could really lay into any bowling attack once he was in. With an extended home season, Rohit continued to get chances in Tests and showed vast improvement in his technique, playing closer to his body and preventing his ODI game to amalgamate with his more air-tight Test technique. With four fifties and a hundred in his last 5 innings, he capped off a fruitful home season with an unprecedented third ODI double-century against a woebegone Sri Lankan attack.
Eerily enough, Rohit has once again been picked for the Test series in South Africa based on his performances at home. With the vexatious pattern of getting picked for away tours based on home performances, and no county stints in his CV, Rohit would be looking forward to correcting the glaring blemish in his record – Test performances outside the subcontinent.
With Ajinkya Rahane, one of the most complete batsmen in the side, breathing down his neck, Rohit Sharma must be swift in grabbing his Test opportunities, or he could soon find himself on the bench. His ODI performance, nonetheless, has been improving by leaps and bounds, as he caps off a laudable 2017 with 1293 runs and 6 centuries. A more technically sound batsman now, Rohit has shown improvement against the red ball with better awareness of his off-stump, a more compact technique, and a higher degree of patience. However, unless he is able to convert his ability into overseas runs, his tale will continue to be one that makes you ponder what could have been.