Rohit Sharma | The tipping point5 min read . Updated: 02 Oct 2013, 06:53 PM IST
Rohit Sharma's career has taken a turn for the better, after captaincy and a promotion in the batting order
Talent alone is a poor way to describe Rohit Sharma because it always needs add-ons to bring out its essence. God-gifted, succulent wrists, immaculate timing, and an envious array of shots—these are some phrases that help put together a complete picture of the cricketer.
It was in 2007 when he first broke through into international cricket. A successful outing in the Twenty20 (T20) World Cup in South Africa, followed by an upbeat performance in the 2008 Commonwealth Bank tri-series in Australia, enhanced his reputation. It was an optimum time, for India’s transition had just crossed its first milestone. Sourav Ganguly bid adieu in 2008 and a spot in the middle order opened up.
It is 2013 now. All those adjectives have been used over 102 One Day Internationals (ODI), 35 T20 Internationals and six Indian Premier League (IPL) seasons and a couple more have been added—inconsistent and temperamental. Opportunities have been granted time and again, only to be frittered away and Sharma is yet to play Test cricket, let alone make Ganguly’s spot his own.
“It’s disappointing not to have played Test cricket yet," he says. “My limited-overs’ debut came a long time ago and it has been a frustrating wait despite coming close on a couple of occasions."
There was this one chance in particular. India were on-tour in Australia (2011-2012) and their overseas record was taking a beating, having lost six Tests on the trot. Sharma was picked for that trip on the basis of his form in the Ranji Trophy and there was much anticipation that he would be picked for the third Test at Perth. He wasn’t.
“I am just 26 years old. I cannot worry about what happened in the past. I am still young and another chance will come about again. I have to score enough runs to be counted this time, by performing at a consistent level. Is it in my control after that point? No," he says.
This happens to the best of cricketers—some like to call it luck, others have changed their game to turn their fortunes and a few had circumstances that brought a spark that rejuvenated them.
Sharma recognizes that spark and it was unexpected. Mumbai Indians nominated Ricky Ponting as their captain for the 2013 IPL season. The first few games didn’t go as planned, the four-overseas players’ rule hampering their team selection, and Sharma took charge thereafter. It led to the Reliance-owned franchise’s first title win, which had not come previously under Sachin Tendulkar and Harbhajan Singh.
“I was happy when the Mumbai Indians’ captaincy came my way," Sharma says. “I took over after game six. It was a long road to the final and then winning the tournament, and I learnt a lot from it."
“I have never captained for a continuous stretch at any level and this was a welcome change, for Mumbai Indians are a high-profile IPL franchise. John Wright and the seniors were helpful, but they let me do my own thing during the games. As captain, you cannot let your shoulders droop and there is this onus on doing well yourself, making a personal contribution. I became aware of the situations around me, but I became even more self-aware," he claims. (At the time of going to print, Mumbai Indians were yet to play their match on Wednesday.)
At a young age, it is easy for the most talented cricketers to get overawed by the situation. They try to play in accordance with expectations. When it doesn’t work out, the criticisms come quickly. It is here that a tidal moment is needed, which can be used as a reference point. It helps sweep away all the criticism, giving the player the confidence to be a more mature cricketer. Sharma seems to have hit that stage finally.
It was evident in the 2013 International Cricket Council (ICC) Champions Trophy in June, where he forged a solid pairing at the top of the order with Shikhar Dhawan. “There were two openers in the squad, Shikhar and Murali Vijay. Both had been in good form over the past few months. So I was confident that if my chance came, it would only be in the middle order. But on the morning of the first game against South Africa, when the playing eleven was announced, I was told that I was opening the batting."
He started with 65 against South Africa and 52 versus West Indies, ending the tournament with an average of 35.40 in five matches. In the subsequent tri-series in the Caribbean (also featuring Sri Lanka), he brought up scores of 60, 5, 46, 48 not out and 58. He then closed out the season with an unbeaten 64 in Zimbabwe.
Circumstances played a part here too. After a continuous run of poor form, Virender Sehwag was dropped from the ODI series against England in January. Ajinkya Rahane was asked to open with Gautam Gambhir, but after three lacklustre performances, he too was dropped. Then, Sharma was asked to open the innings in the fourth ODI at Mohali.
“I believe there isn’t much difference between opening the innings and batting in the middle order. The number of overs you get to play is different, but beyond that, the way you pace your innings remains the same. The preparation changes a little yes, but for me, not too much," he says.
As much as he plays it down, that particular innings was important. His last six scores in ODIs in 2012-13 were 5, 0, 0, 4, 4 and 4, in five matches against Sri Lanka and one against Pakistan. It was a make or break time.
He delivered, scoring 83 off 93 deliveries and helping India to a five-wicket win. It was impossible to drop him from India’s next ODI squad thereafter, for the Champions Trophy, and he hasn’t looked back since.
In 2013, in 16 ODIs, Sharma has scored 580 runs at an average of 41.42. This is higher than his career average of 32.37. If there is one glaring miss, it is in his conversion rate. He has six fifties this year, that 83 being his highest score, but no hundreds. This, he believes, can be overlooked.
“People always find new things to criticize. If I don’t get runs, then it’s about runs. When I score runs, it’s about getting hundreds. When I do get a hundred, it will be something else. I don’t care what anyone says, I just have to keep doing my own thing," he says.
“I believe there is something special in store for me."
Chetan Narula is the author of Skipper: A Definitive Account of India’s Greatest Captains.