Capable of inspiring both awe and exasperation, the batsman is still short of fulfilling expectations
It has been six and a half years since the ICC World Twenty20 made its maiden foray and turned the world cricketing order upside down. It has been six and a half years since India, young India, vibrant India, unfancied India, charted a magnificent path to the title against all odds.
The bulwarks of India's cricket – Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid, the then captain – all chose to sit out of the first World T20, allowing Dilip Vengsarkar’s selection panel to put out a side huge on talent and potential but not that high on experience. It also allowed the selectors to unleash a new leader in Mahendra Singh Dhoni, flowing locks and inscrutable visage part of the package that lent allure and aura to the Dhoni persona.
Few gave India even an outside chance at the title. After all, India had played exactly one Twenty20 International at that stage, the Indian Premier League was only in the conceptualisation stage, and the rest of the world had a clear edge when it came to familiarity with and exposure to the T20 game. So, what do Dhoni and his boys do? They play with refreshing abandon, relishing the opportunity to express themselves on the world stage without being bogged down by the pressure of expectations.
Pakistan was taken care of in a bowl-out in the first phase after the match ended in a tie, then England and South Africa were subjugated in the next round after a potentially decisive loss to New Zealand had threatened to derail its campaign. With Yuvraj Singh again at the forefront, India battered Australia in the semifinal, and held its nerve in a tense title round to repel a splendid fightback orchestrated by Misbah-ul-Haq to roll over the line. If only just.
Only three men from that squad of 15 figure in India’s scheme of things this time around. Dhoni is now firmly ensconced as the leader, the flowing mane having made way for closely cropped hair streaked liberally with grey. Yuvraj, him of the six sixes folklore that also catapulted Stuart Broad into cricketing history, is leaner if not meaner, his career and life having taken multiple twists and turns including the Player of the Tournament award at the 2011 World Cup and a successful, well chronicled battle with a rare form of cancer.
And then, there is Rohit Sharma. Easy on the eye, blessed with oodles of time, with timing that comes only to a chosen few, with a grace and elegance to die for. In 2007, Rohit was the new kid on the block, the one destined to carry the Mumbai school of batsmanship forward without necessarily showcasing the hard-as-nails attitude that used to be such an enviable facet of the cradle of India's cricket. Six and a half years later, Rohit continues to confound and exasperate, occasionally taking us on a wondrous journey of extraordinary highs but often lapsing into batting indiscretions of such silly hue that you wonder how someone can treat a god-given gift with such casual nonchalance.
Of course he doesn’t. Rohit Sharma works as hard as John Doe, is as determined as Virat Kohli, as hungry as Shikhar Dhawan, as committed as Ajinkya Rahane. It is just that he gives the impression that he couldn’t care less. Or, maybe, that’s the impression we have formed over the years. Maybe that’s not Rohit’s fault. But what do you say of someone in whom successive selection panels and think-tanks have invested massively and who, at 26, is still some way short of fulfilling the not unrealistic expectations triggered by his batsmanship and his awe-inspiring domestic record?
Rohit is almost an anachronism in this day and age of batter the cover off the ball. He is fluid, fluent, almost balletic. He hardly hits a shot in anger, yet he can score at a frenetic pace even in the T20 format, and clear the biggest of boundaries with consummately ridiculous ease. He runs well between the wickets, has worked hugely on physical fitness, is quick across the outfield and has an excellent arm, and his offspin is not to be scoffed at. In many ways, he is the complete package. Which is exactly why exasperation levels touch an all-time high with each middling to poor performance.
Rohit was an influential performer through the World T20 in 2007, providing the final push in the title clash with an unbeaten 30 off 16 deliveries, decisive in a game where only five runs separated the victor from the vanquished. He has a fairly impressive T20I record – 539 runs from 29 innings at a strike rate of 127.12, a majority of those runs coming in the middle order where he has also had such outstanding success for Deccan Chargers and Mumbai Indians in the IPL even if he is now the other half of the opening pair for India alongside Shikhar Dhawan.
“It was a challenging tournament in 2007 when we went there to South Africa,” Rohit says, seeking to draw parallels between then and now, with India desperately trying to make its first semifinal of this competition since the heady days in the land of the Protea. “We went as a very inexperienced side. We stand in the same situation right now also. But over the years, we have played a lot of T20 games. I am sure that experience will help us. We have just played the Asia Cup here (in Bangladesh). We can carry that experience into this tournament. This will be a challenging tournament, we have to be at our best. In 2007, nobody expected us to do well but we came out as the winner, so again here is a challenge for us and I am sure each and every one in this team is ready to take that challenge.”
Whether by accident or by design, India and Pakistan have invariably been drawn to meet each other early in the competition in nearly every event since the catastrophic 50-over World Cup in the Caribbean in 2007 when both crashed out of their respective groups in the first round. The Asian giants will kick off the Super 10 stage of the tournament on March 21, a game Rohit is looking forward to.
“It is good. If it is a challenging match first up and you win it, then you get momentum for the rest of the tournament,” he offers, then quickly switches to politically correct mode. “We don’t focus on who the opposition is, we want to play good cricket. The first match is always important. It’s important to start well, it will set the tone for the rest of the tournament.”
Yuvraj has been more out of the side than in since the 2011 World Cup, first ill health and then poor form keeping him away from the international spotlight. His enormous potential for damage in T20 cricket has earned him another recall, and Rohit for one is delighted to have the six sixes man back in the mix. “His experience will definitely help us. He has been a match-winner for us over the years. He will strengthen the batting for sure. We will try and use that to our advantage,” Rohit says. “I am sure he is keen to get back to the field to try and do what he has been doing all this while.”
Just as the rest of his teammates will be hoping Rohit will do what he has been doing in T20 cricket all this while, primarily for Mumbai Indians. T20 cricket perhaps doesn’t allow for more than sporadic bursts of brilliance but for now, India will take even that from the Rohit willow. Then again, only for now, perhaps.