There’s now a sense of maturity in my batting, admits India opener
With and without a bat, Rohit Sharma is in good form. He's in the runs – classily underscoring India’s rigorous defence of their ICC Champions Trophy title with 91 against Pakistan and now a run-a-ball 78 versus Sri Lanka - and he’s enjoying himself in the big city. On Tuesday, between the matches, he and his wife made the most of a rained-off practice session to buzz around London, documenting their trip for his 3.1m Instagram followers. He loves playing over here, he says. And little wonder, for it was here in England four years ago - in this very tournament - that Sharma’s career took flight.
Rohit is holding court on The Oval outfield ahead of India's tussle with Sri Lanka. Past his shoulder, net practice is winding down, with MS Dhoni seeing off a few throw-downs. Dhoni may no longer be in charge of this team, but his influence remains strong: everywhere you look in this squad you will find his players - players he identified, players he backed and believed in.
Four years ago, Rohit Sharma was one such story, just another middle-order flair player overflowing with class who had yet to define himself at the top level. The Sehwag-Sachin era had only just drawn to a close, meaning that a coveted opener’s berth in the newly formed ODI team was up for grabs. With the 2013 ICC Champions Trophy imminent, Dhoni turned to Sharma.
The move transformed him. Sharma went into that tournament holding just two ODI centuries from 88 matches at 31. In the first match against South Africa at Cardiff, he made 65 in a 127-run stand with Shikhar Dhawan, with whom he would form a formidable partnership. Since that match, Sharma the opener averages 51, with eight further centuries, two of which are doubles, including the record for the highest score in ODI history, 264 against Sri Lanka at Kolkata in 2014. For the record, no other man has ever hit two ODI doubles before. Not for nothing is Dhoni’s eye for a player the stuff of legend.
Now aged 30, hardened by 154 ODIs, is Sharma somewhere near his prime? “Yeah, I think so," he says now. "I understand my game better now. Since I’ve started opening the innings it’s certainly a different ball game.”
So natural does Sharma make it look that he gives the impression of being born to the role. The truth is that he had to learn and learn fast. "A lot of things come with opening the innings. You’ve got to be sound in your technique. You can’t just go and play your shots; you’ve got to understand the conditions and the bowlers bowling at you. Different guys have different game plans. I’m certainly one who likes to assess the conditions first and I’ve been successful doing that, but what works for me doesn’t work for them, and what works for them might not work for me. I’ve had to learn that, and yes, I understand that now.”
Another way to help understand the role is to accept the added responsibility that comes with it. "There’s a lot on your shoulders. You’ve got to tighten up when you open. There’s now a sense of maturity in my batting as well.”
Playing for India is unlike anything else in cricket, perhaps in sport itself. Faced with the sheer scale of support the team generates, it’s natural to want to keep the players incubated. "What this team does better,“ Sharma says, “is just to focus on the job in hand and not to worry about what’s happening outside. There are millions of expectations, but at the same time, if we do the right things, results will follow. And that really worked for us when we won [the trophy] in 2013, and we all take a lot of confidence from that tournament. We are very aware of the conditions and the type of cricket you need to play, the initial few moments are very important."
And how does Sharma deal with those 'millions of expectations’? By enjoying it, of course. “It is important to balance that out,” he says. "Things are always happening outside the field, but you certainly cannot control those things. The things you can control are what happens inside the field, and then we leave it up to the people! We all are aware of it, having 1.2 billion people all watching the game and loving it, and there will be expectations. But we’ve got to come out here and enjoy our cricket. That is the most important thing and we’ve been doing it for many years now, and when we do those things we play good cricket.”
He cites India’s opening game against Pakistan, a fixture that inflames the passions like no other. “In that first game there were lots of expectations. There were millions of people flying from different parts of the world to watch the game, so we are aware of it, you know? But at the same time, the moment you lose that focus, that’s when things start not to work for you. We stick to our plans and strategies and we leave it up to the people to see whatever happens… I’m sure we will not let them down."
There is little sign of it so far. Sharma and Dhawan have plundered 362 runs between them from just two fixtures so far in this year’s tournament.
Sharma may make batting look easy, but it would be an illusion. As the great stylist David Gower has said, “If someone says to you that you make it look easy while understanding that it isn’t - that is the highest compliment”. Still, like Gower before him, the graceful Sharma is fated to be judged by slightly different rules, when the truth is that the impression created when he leans on a straight drive or balletically swivel-pulls on his tiptoes is not the result of untouchable natural gifts but the culmination of years of toil and sweat. “I started my career as an off-spin bowler,” he laughs, "I was never a batsman. I’ve really worked on my game to be where I am today. Nothing has come naturally. People when they watch it on television and they commentate they think it’s all so natural, that it’s been gifted to him, but it’s not.
“I’ve worked on it, and people don’t get to see that, but to be fair to those people talking about how elegant my batting looks, they really don’t know what happens off the field.”
Sharma is at his peak as a batsman. Surely cracking the Test arena, where, despite making centuries in his first two innings he averages just 37 from 21 matches, is next?
“I would like to do more in Test cricket, but seriously, to be honest, I don’t get frustrated, I’m not too frustrated about it. Things will come and things will happen. I’ve just got to give myself some time to it, like I have to my ODI career.”
He returns again to his favourite theme, that which unlocks all the talent and lets it loose. “Yes, I would like to do more in my Test career than what I’ve done so far. But what is most important to me is: 'Am I enjoying my cricket?’”
To watch him bat in England, even just for an hour, is to have our answer.