When Ian Chappell exclaimed on air, “This guy is ready for Test cricket”, after seeing a young Rohit Sharma bat during the series in Australia three years ago, genuine cricket followers in Mumbai already knew it.
That Sharma, born in the age of fast-food cricket, looked more like a Test batsman even before he made his domestic debut was clear to everyone who saw him bat in club and junior cricket. The time he had to play his strokes, the lazy elegance and the array of strokes for someone in his teens had created a buzz of the nature last heard when Sachin Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli were still in school.
Coming of age: Playing at the domestic level has made Sharma a consistent run-getter. By Clive Mason/Getty Images
Soon, Sharma was the most discussed topic in the city’s maidans and pavilions, expected to make rapid strides towards domestic and international cricket and eventually replace Mumbai’s favourite son as the next solid No. 4 batsman in Test cricket. That a Mumbaikar would take over from Tendulkar gave it a bit of romance; a fairy-tale ending that could become a reality in the years to follow.
Yet, three years since Chappell’s discovery, Sharma has just made his way into the Test squad, replacing Yuvraj Singh in the Indian team though Virat Kohli has been preferred to him in the playing XI for the third Test against the West Indies in Mumbai that started on Tuesday. But Sharma’s entry into the Test squad, after he seemed to have lost his way somewhat, is in itself a remarkable recovery for the 24-year-old.
Sharma says it is now time to push himself further, to take his batting to another level and more importantly, to put to use all he has learnt from his mistakes. For starters, he is leaner and fitter. He is also someone who has been hurt deeply, has had his cathartic moments, and regained the determination.
“I believe the best way to learn is through understanding your mistakes. Maturity comes through that and from the experiences you have had over the years. Looking back at the mistakes I have made and the knowledge I have got from my experiences in the last few years has helped me not just become a better cricketer but also a better person,” says Sharma.
“That is also showing in my batting. Earlier, I used to make brilliant 20s and 30s and get out but I have learnt to be more cautious with constructing my batting. I will always be an aggressive batsman but I am clearer about how I need to go about my batting,” Sharma adds.
The early rise
The 2006 Under-19 World Cup in Sri Lanka was the first time the world saw his talent. Runs in the Deodhar Trophy a few months later fast-tracked him into the India A squad for the New Zealand tour, even before Mumbai gave him a chance to play the Ranji Trophy.
It looked only a matter of time before Mumbai stalwart and then chairman of national selectors Dilip Vengsarkar would put Sharma’s case in front of the committee, and a few good innings for Mumbai during the season earned him that national call-up.
Sharma’s best months in international cricket came during his debut season in 2007-08. Rahul Dravid’s team exited the World Cup early and M.S. Dhoni led a young side to the World T20, where Sharma scored an unbeaten 50 in his debut innings against South Africa on a treacherous Durban wicket that helped India secure a victory.
In March 2008, Sharma made 66 in a partnership of 123 with Tendulkar advising, instructing and egging the youngster to play his natural game as India chased down Australia’s 239 to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three finals Down Under.
It seemed Sharma could do nothing wrong as a superb 2008 Indian Premier League (IPL) season followed with over 400 runs even though his team Deccan Chargers ended at the bottom, and inclusion in the Test squad against Sri Lanka seemed like a natural progression.
That’s when the first problem surfaced.
When he started out, Sharma’s talent was enough for people to overlook his inability to bat for long hours in the four-day first-class games. His exciting stroke play and uncanny ability to attack even the good deliveries was perceived as his superiority over bowlers rather than a weakness of not being ready to grind it out in the middle; a frailty that by this time began to haunt him.
Performances started to dip, cracks started appearing in his batting, and from the unhurried, exciting stroke maker, Sharma’s image changed to that of being uncommitted, lazy and too involved in the good times that follow every cricketer of note in the country.
From a future Test star, he became a T20 specialist, good only for 40-ball cameos.
If not for his cricketing abilities—of which Sanjay Manjrekar once said Sharma himself is not fully aware—and injuries to other batsmen, he might not have got the call-ups he did—these allowed him to remain a fringe player at least.
Ignored for almost a year, Sharma played the final One Day International (ODI) against South Africa in February 2010 and made 48 to ensure the selectors would not forget him in a hurry. He then scored back-to-back hundreds for the Suresh Raina-led second-string India team in Zimbabwe, a feat that earned him plaudits once again.
Except for this year’s World Cup, where he was sacrificed for an extra spinner, Sharma has been part of the Indian ODI set-up, although still not guaranteed a spot in the playing XI.
Process of maturity
Ajit Agarkar, the former India pacer and Sharma’s vice-captain in the Mumbai team, believes the last two years have seen the youngster come of age. “What’s done him a lot of good is that he has realized that there are a lot of batsmen in the Ranji Trophy who are scoring runs more consistently than him and they have been rewarded as well. So he understood that unless he scores a lot of runs himself, he will always be struggling to play for India,” says Agarkar.
“What has also helped him is the few years of domestic cricket. There’s also a lot of travelling and playing 10 games with just a three-day break in between. These experiences have made him a better batsman, and more importantly, a consistent run-getter. He is more mature now at 24 than he was at 20 or 22,” Agarkar adds.
Sharma accepts that age has a lot to do with his new approach to the game.
“I was not as mature as I am now and the change in outlook has helped me as a batsman and person. If you see, since the past one year or so, I have made big scores, something that wasn’t happening earlier. I am reading the match situations much better, planning my innings better, which is helping me bat for longer hours,” he says.
Sharma made a double hundred in Ranji Trophy last season and scored 732 runs in six games. He has two hundreds and a half-century in the three games this season. His ODI average since 2010 is 40.50 compared to his career average of 31.35. In 2011, the figure stands at 43.71.
If off the field Sharma’s naivety would get the better of him, on the field it was his aggressive instinct. But having gone through several frustrating periods where injury and inconsistent form kept him out of the India squad, Sharma realizes he has to make every day count, especially if he is to become a regular part of the Test squad.
Currently, his fight is restricted to the No. 6 spot, with Kohli the front-runner and Yuvraj Singh and Raina the other popular candidates. But Tendulkar, Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman will hang up their gloves soon and Sharma needs to ensure the selectors look to him first.
“I have realized that I won’t get regular opportunities to make an impact or prove myself. You have to work hard for them and fortunately, my hard work has paid off. I came into this season after an injury and it is never easy to start making runs straightaway.
“But I was lucky to have scored quite a lot of runs in the few games so far and more importantly, I am glad the selectors have recognized my efforts and given me another opportunity. Now, it is important that I make it count,” he says.
The transition period for India, when the big guns will slowly disappear off the radar, is likely to be a turbulent one and Sharma could lend a lot of stability to the middle order.
After all, that’s what everyone had picked him out to do in the first place.
Anand Naik is the editor of Sportal.co.in
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