Rohit Sharma: The Decider

Chetan Narula is the author of Skipper: A Definitive Account of India’s Greatest Captains
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Rohit Sharma has hit extraordinary form and that is good news because since 2016 whenever he has scored above 50, India has usually won

12,245. THAT’S THE TOTAL number of runs Rohit Sharma has scored across three formats in international cricket. Usually, in this sport’s parlance, when a batsman scales the 10,000-milestone, he is seen from a different viewpoint. Praise or criticism become monotonous, their lines blurred, as he garners respect for the blood and toil that has been put into scoring those runs.

Also, usually, these sorts of milestones normally concern any one particular format. Yet, Rohit’s case is an usual scenario—1,585 runs in 27 Tests, 8,329 runs in 209 ODIs (until the game against Pakistan in Manchester on June 16th), and 2,331 runs in 94 T20Is. Together, they do make for a 10,000-plus total. The question to ask is what has he earned so far in 11 years of international cricket.

“He is a special, special batsman,” said Sir Clive Lloyd on air during the India-South Africa game in Southampton on June 5th. Chasing 228 in nippy English conditions, Rohit played an uncharacteristic knock to score his 23rd ODI hundred and eased the Men in Blue to a wining start in the 2019 ODI World Cup.

“8,000-plus runs in ODIs alone, you just know he will finish as one of the all-time greats of the game,” added the two-time West Indies’ World Cup winning captain, as he continued showering praise on the centurion from the Southampton radio commentary box.

When told that Rohit had an abysmal record in Test cricket, averaging less than 40 in less than 30 matches, Lloyd was dismayed, confused even. How is it possible, was his next obvious thought, and the answer to it is a complicated one. For simplification, it suffices to say that Rohit hasn’t had the best of time adapting to the longer formats of the game. Meanwhile, in the shorter formats, be it ODIs or T20s, he has found himself at home.

Here’s a simple statistic to support that chain of thought. In the last three years since the 2016 World T20, India have won nearly 85 per cent of their ODIs whenever Rohit has crossed 50 runs. He averages 88-plus in this winning percentage. More importantly, it is quite similar to Virat Kohli’s winning contribution in the same time-period.

Since April 2016, India have won nearly 80 per cent ODIs whenever Kohli has crossed the 50-run mark. Further, their failure percentages are similar too—India lose in 40 per cent ODIs whenever either Rohit or Kohli doesn’t score a half- century. As such, the derivation here is a simple one.

Today, Rohit is among the most ferocious limited-overs’ batsmen in world cricket. All things considered, he is perhaps second only to Kohli in terms of the impact he has made for the Men in Blue. It won’t even be a stretch to say that he has proven to be team India’s most reliable batsman in the World Cup thus far. Well, numbers speak up for themselves—122 not out against South Africa, 57 against Australia and 140 against Pakistan; 319 runs in three matches, average 159.50, fourth in the top scorers’ table.

If you go by numbers alone, they will tell you that Rohit has delivered on his promise at least in terms of white-ball cricket. Hailing from the Mumbai school of cricket, he had everything to be successful on the international stage—supple wrists, every shot in the batting manual, that extra second to play his shots, more time than any other batsman today to hit sixes at will.

What he didn’t have, at least not in his first six years of international cricket, was consistency and temperament to find that particular trait so necessary to make it big. Sample this. Rohit made his ODI debut in June 2007, while Kohli only played his first ODI in August 2008. Cynics will argue that one year doesn’t make that much of a difference, at least on paper. Ask an athlete though, and he will tell you that his destiny might be dependent on the right timing.

Rohit had the natural gift of timing in his batting, but thanks to the aforementioned lack of consistency and temperament, he missed out on a lot of international cricket in his formative years. The simple fact that Kohli was chosen ahead of Rohit in India’s 2011 World Cup winning squad underlines how the former had stolen a march despite starting off later. It isn’t the proverbial tortoise-hare race, no. Instead, it is about realising the opportunity that has been granted to you, and making it count.

“If I can entertain people in some manner and make them laugh, it is a good thing. Beyond that, I don't pay attention to the criticism that comes my way on social media,” says Rohit Sharma, cricketer

Kohli did, and made it large. Rohit, on the other hand, didn’t quite follow the curve he was supposed to. Forget the longer format; just consider his runs from the 50-over format he is dominating today—from his international debut, until the end of 2012, Rohit scored 1,978 runs in 86 ODIs at average 30.43. It simply wasn’t good enough for someone as gifted as him. Few other batsmen are afforded such long ropes for such little return.

Then, things changed in 2013. One fine day, then-skipper MS Dhoni had an idea to promote Sharma to open the innings. He hasn’t looked back since; with 6,333 runs in 122 ODIs at average 59.74, he has scored 76 per cent of his runs whilst opening the batting. It includes three record-breaking ODI double hundreds as also another four scores over 150. And he has carried this form over to T20Is, where he recently became the only batsman to score four hundreds in the shortest format of the game.

“2013 was a different year. I had just turned into an opener from a middle-order batsman, and my batting has evolved a lot ever since. Whatever happened before 2013, just forget about that. Ask me about what has happened since then,” said Sharma in Port Elizabeth in January 2018, pointedly, after his 17th hundred had set up a first-ever ODI series’ win for India on South African soil.

ROHIT WAS THE first batsman among India’s current lot to make his international debut. Part of the 2007 World T20 triumph in South Africa and then the 2008 CB series win in Australia, he was the designated torchbearer for Indian cricket’s future, one chosen to receive the baton from Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid. Only, it didn’t pan out in that fashion for quite a while. Others came and stole a march—Kohli in ODIs and T20s, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane in Tests—as Rohit was beset with inconsistency and injuries early in his Test career.

Instead of inspiring the next generation of Indian cricketers, he became the butt of jokes and a source of Internet memes, often finding himself associated with the word ‘talent’. We live in a world where social media rules the roost, and even cricketers who enjoy demi-god status in the country, are never away from its reach, for good or worse. And Rohit was well aware of this online debate he triggered every time he batted.

“If I can entertain people in some manner, and make them laugh, it is a good thing. Beyond that, I don’t pay attention to the criticism that comes my way on social media. I have had my fair share of that coming from media in the last few years. Now, I just want to move forward,” he had said in Port Elizabeth.

Following the Indian team, you can often come to know the cricketers’ personalities from a close distance. You start to identify which ones like to party, and who are reclusive. You recognise the groups that socialise together, and individuals who pay attention to family, even from miles away. You differentiate between the moody ones, and those who crave attention. That last bit is most relevant in Rohit’s case—he is neither, just landing bang in the middle of this equilibrium, very aware of what he does and says.

The simple fact that Kohli was chosen ahead of Rohit in India's 2011 World Cup winning squad underlines how the former had stolen a march despite starting off later

With time, there is a growing awareness about Rohit. There is a philosophical edge to it all, and it first demonstrated itself in South Africa that day. Now, Rohit exhibits this trait every time he talks.

Call it the responsibility of being vice-captain, or simply his natural progression through experience, there is certain calmness about him. It is almost as if he understands why there was so much frustration in the early stages of his career— a path to this current version of him. One wherein he is not only confident about his batting, but also can push the boundaries of what he can and cannot do on the field.

A key factor in Rohit’s success is his partnership with Shikhar Dhawan at the top of the order. In one sense of the word, they are both attacking batsmen, yet there are inherent dissimilarities. Dhawan only knows to bat in high gear; Rohit has the propensity to start slow and then pick up the pace.

Together, they have gone about drawing up the team’s ODI batting strategy. Combined with Kohli, this top-order has scored nearly 56 per cent of India’s runs in this format in the past two years. The trio likes to bat deep, eating up a high share of overs, pushing the game into high gear by the time death overs arrive, and then their flexible middle-order takes over. This batting plan worked to the tee against both Australia and Pakistan.

Batting with Dhawan allows Rohit to go through the gears in his own batting. The game against South Africa is a prime example. India were set 228 to win—an iffy target, like those 120-150 totals in ODI cricket in the 1990s and early 2000s. Teams would struggle to break down those small targets after losing a few early wickets. 220-odd is the 120-150 of this T20 era—an iffy total, especially in nippy English conditions where batsmen are never in and bowlers have a chance throughout the 100 overs.

In Southampton, Rohit had to weather a fantastic spell from Kagiso Rabada. On any other day, he would have tried to cut loose. The usual acceleration after a slow start never came. He saw off a tough spell and made his time at the crease count until the very end. The key was to leave as many deliveries as possible, and then rotate strike, while picking boundaries at the off chance. With South Africa’s bowlers on top, it was a game of attrition, and Rohit executed his game plan to perfection.

It was different against Pakistan. For one, there was no Dhawan, out injured, as KL Rahul took his place at the top. He started slow, and made sure Mohammad Amir’s threat was negated. Thereafter, he did cut loose but still only played second fiddle on a free-stroking innings.

Big occasion? He wanted to do a job for his side—got a start, built the innings, accelerated at will and made it count. He worked to his set ODI template, and carried on from where he left off against Australia and South Africa. He was in for the long haul—match situation and conditions suggested that there was a possibility of another double hundred. The difference was in acceleration point.

After scoring his 24th ODI hundred off 85 balls, Rohit slowed down, as he often does, scoring only 20-odd off the next 30 balls he faced, almost akin to how he starts any new innings coming to the crease. The difference is in acceleration— when batting on 100-plus, it comes out like a bolt and hits the opposition. Rohit then catapults himself into the big league, reaching the doubles, and with it, the Indian score zooms. Once past 300, it was a matter of whether Pakistan could or couldn’t chase.

“I think it’s just the space I am in right now. It’s a very good phase in my life. Having a daughter, a newly-born daughter in my life actually has put me in a good space. So, yeah, I think I’m enjoying my cricket coming off a great IPL campaign and then starting off here. We always know how important it is to start well. So the focus was always on that to start well and then see where the team is heading and then the individual,” said an elated Rohit, after India extended their World Cup winning run over Pakistan 7-0 starting 1992.

It isn’t progression in Rohit’s career alone. Instead, it is also the next step in evolution of this Indian team. They are no longer dependent on one star batsman (read Kohli), for they now have another to share his load. Finally, Rohit has become comfortable with what he was always intended to be—a superstar batsman, who reels off match-winning knocks at will and in big-game situations.

Long overdue perhaps, but talent has finally found its bearing.