In 2011, less than two months after not being part of the World Cup winning squad, Rohit Sharma toured the West Indies with a hung-over Indian team. He had returned to the ODI team for the 5-match series. As had others like Parthiv Patel, Shikhar Dhawan, S. Badrinath, Murali Vijay and Amit Mishra – all the ‘almost’ players, victims of the golden generation – who filled in for senior players like MS Dhoni, Yuvraj Singh, Zaheer Khan, Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir. This ‘B’ team was led by Suresh Raina.
This was the time Rohit Sharma occupied the middle order. He had done so, for years now, since his debut in 2007, and then with the Deccan Chargers, and then with the Mumbai Indians. He finished the 5-match series, which India won 3-2, as India’s top scorer and the ‘Man Of The Series’. This should have felt like redemption, but it didn’t quite. It felt like how it should have always been. It felt like making up for lost time. It felt normal. He had been around and back in the last six months. He had endured far more than he was ever expected to. After all, he was Rohit Sharma. This was already his 5th year in international cricket. And yet, this award-winning series felt like a beginning to an end he has suffered only 175 days ago.
He had batted at 4 and 5 for a long time, before abruptly being pushed to the top as an opener in January 2011, only two months before the all-important World Cup. This is not entirely a disaster for any young batsman looking to make a mark. Except, Rohit shouldn’t have been seeking to make a mark after so long. Except, he should have been a sure-in for the next dozen tournaments. And except, this occurred midway through an ODI series in the all-consuming South Africa, in which Rohit was already going through a slump in form at his usual middle-order spots. After scores of 9 and 11 in the first two matches batting at 7 and 4 (unsettling, already), Sharma was “promoted” to open the innings with an equally unsettled Murali Vijay. South Africa isn’t the best place to be shuffled around in, more so if it’s against bowlers like Morne Morkel, Dale Steyn and Tsotsobe.
But then again, Rohit hadn’t exactly shored up the middle order in a while – therefore, this “punishment”, or this blessing, depending on how one looked at it, was a long time coming. He wasn’t at his fittest either. T20 success had come easy to him, they said, which is why many thought he wasn’t pushing for a test spot. But only Rohit knew the kind of disappointment he felt after twisting his ankle during a game of football before the Nagpur Test against South Africa in 2010. Seconds before he was about to make his test debut as the “next big hope from Mumbai”, Wriddhiman Saha was handed his position as a specialist batsman. He hadn’t quite recovered after being slighted by destiny that morning. He eventually made his Test debut three years later in Tendulkar’s farewell series. Three years – a lifetime in Indian batsman years.
As it turned out, Rohit played those next two games in South Africa as an ODI opener like a child fulfilling his duty for the heck of it. He didn’t think back to 1993 and how Sachin Tendulkar – the man he incidentally replaced here to open the innings – grabbed the opportunity in New Zealand with a sparking 80-odd and never looked back. Instead, he played like a batsman condemned to be punished on the cusp of the biggest tournament of any player’s career.
This was the ‘experimental’ series – the final litmus test before the World Cup. It was already a bit unfortunate to be up against a younger, less talented Virat Kohli, who seemed to have peaked and made a mark at exactly this time to grab the coveted no. 3 spot. It was either the opener’s spot – which the management was still confused about, considering Sehwag and Gambhir were still in the wings – or the “batting bowler” or “bowling batter” spot at 7 – Dhoni’s favorite floating position which never really brought out the best in a specialist like Rohit.
In the final game, Rohit was bowled by a seemingly harmless fuller ball by Tsotsobe for 5. At that moment, he didn’t know he had done enough to be dropped. At that moment, he was still India’s best bet in the lower-middle order, where he could – if in form – finish with a flourish. And at that moment, he had even bowled two overs, as many as Raina and Yusuf Pathan, his nearest part-time bowling competitors. Two hours later, when Pathan walked back into the hut after a last-gasp, lost-cause 105 off merely 70 balls, Rohit Sharma had lost his spot. He knew it, Pathan knew it, the team knew it. There was nothing more they could do. There were no more spots he could bat at.
Two years later, in January 2013, life was about to come full circle. Sehwag had been dropped. Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit’s Mumbai teammate and old friend, had taken his place to join a soon-to-be-dropped Gambhir. Rahane failed in the first three games, was dropped, and Rohit made his comeback into the Indian ODI team at Mohali – as an opener. Rohit was almost 27 now, and was a World T20 winner. But he wasn’t a ‘World Cup’ winner. He buckled down and played perhaps the most important innings of his life. He made 83 fine runs, which was soon to be eclipsed by Raina’s 89 belligerent runs. India chased down 258 with 15 balls to spare, and clinched the series 3-1. Rohit had returned. At long last. And I suspect he wasn’t the only one breathing a deep sigh of relief. The entire team was. This was an Indian team in grave transition. The senior players were falling like flies, and the younger ones weren’t stepping up. They had even lost a Test series at home to England. This was a team in dire straits – and they needed an opener, a batsman, a successor, as much as Rohit needed them. Rahane, at that point, must have felt a lot like Rohit did two years ago when Yusuf slipped through with a blinder.
This wasn’t even a Rohit blinder though.
Many would come later – his first of two double centuries, his consecutive debut Test centuries, successful Champions Trophy partnerships with Shikhar Dhawan – and he would spread his wings and ease into this unnatural position through the year.
But for now, this 83 had all but assured him breathing space after a year in which he had averaged 12 in international matches. He was disappointed to be trapped leg-before to Finn when he looked good for a century. I remember smashing my remote, because by then my elation at his comeback had slowly transformed into a flaming greed – one that could only be fanned by numbers and landmarks, which were the only things that selectors and enthusiasts took notice of. I was wrong. He failed in the next game, but he had done enough to prove that he was over 2011. That he would be over 2012. And that he would never look back.
More than three years, on the eve of his 29th birthday, Rohit Sharma is India’s only limited-overs opener.
Dhawan has come, gone and come again. Rahane has been in and out and never quite in. But Rohit has settled – a term previously never attached to his being. He may be married, and even a successful T20 franchise captain, but more than anything, Rohit Sharma has made peace with the fact that he will not be a legend. He will be a work of fleeting greatness and brilliant mistakes. He will be all he can be. And he will be what the team has built him to be. Pages of literature will be written about his eye-popping and easy stroke play, about the way he unfurls and accelerates just when he wants to, about how he seems to have all the time in the world to play any shot he wants to, about how no ground in the world can be too small or too big (on bad days) for him, about how he is ‘talented’ and a hungry big-scorer, and about how his stuttering Test career will put him on the path to become the next Yuvraj Singh.
Incidentally, it was Singh who had once promised – almost hopefully and romantically – that it would be a disaster and abomination if Rohit Sharma didn’t go on to score 10,000 test runs. There’s irony in there somewhere; one of India’s most extravagant could-have-beens talking up his spiritual successor to the levels he could have once scaled on a canter. Yuvraj sees himself in Rohit, and Rohit doesn’t want to see himself in Yuvraj.
Not yet, at least.
For now though, that’s all he can – and should – ask for.
And he will have that cruel day at Centurion to thank, and that cold night in Mohali to thank.