It’s not easy to be a person backing Rohit Sharma. He may have more than repaid the faith of selectors and captain in the shorter formats of the game, but test cricket has been a different – a relentless – animal for him. In his 15 tests before Kolkata this week, he averaged less than 35, about as much as R. Ashwin – who is now the designated bowling all-rounder in the side. His first, and only, two test centuries came in his first two tests against a Tendulkar-invited West Indies side back in 2013. He batted in the middle-order and looked the perfect successor to VVS Laxman. Ever since his debut test century at Eden Gardens three years ago, Rohit has never quite looked at ease in the whites of test cricket. It hasn’t helped that India has played a lot of tests abroad in this period, but for a batsman of his caliber and talent, there have been no excuses.
His career, however, has taken a turn for the sitcom-macabre, with new test captain Virat Kohli taking the bromance levels to an uncomfortable level. It has been no secret that Kohli has always been an admirer of Rohit’s batting. Along with Anil Kumble, Kohli has now made sure that Rohit stays in the test side at number 6, and seems to be pulling all the stops to make sure he succeeds. When Rohit reaches a small milestone – 1000 runs, a half-century – look to the dressing room and you’ll see the captain on his feet, clapping purposefully, as if to tell the world and selectors, “I told you so.” You sense Kohli’s belief in every shot Rohit hits, and Kohli’s disappointment in every wicket Rohit throws away. It always helps to have your captain be your biggest fan – ask the likes of R. Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja in their early days, and they can tell you it helps.
So when Rohit walked in to bat at 43/4 on Sunday against New Zealand at Eden Gardens, one couldn’t help but think this could just be a full-circle moment. He was caught bat-pad in the first innings cheaply, and once again seemed to be playing for his place in the side. For Kohli’s words to weigh any kind of merit – despite a nice little 68* in the first test when the team was out of danger. This time, India were on the verge of collapsing to a determined bunch of Kiwi bowlers, as well as a pitch playing tricks on the third day. Rohit swatted Jiten Patel’s off-spin into the stands early on, and Kohli was at the other end. Kohli punched gloves with him, and through the helmet, you could see him laughing, half in awe, half in hope – half as a fan, half as a protector. Kohli can hit these shots, too, but for some reason, he behaves like only Rohit can when Rohit does. And that’s the enigma of being a Rohit fan – that’s also the beauty of it. You hoped he would go on from there and not give up in the 30s. You hoped he would score more than Kohli’s 46, as if to punctuate his position by being the top-scorer in the side in an important innings. Rohit batted very well, and he showed the kind of temperament and patience everyone thinks he sorely misses. Fleming noted early on in the commentary box that Rohit often gets bored in his test innings and goes for shots that aren’t there when he isn’t settled. This time, he was settled, and he broke free after reaching around 40. He didn’t do it in Rohit style. He milked the bowling, dispatched loose balls from tired bowlers, and kept the scoreboard ticking without really going wild.
By the end, he had scored 82 runs, and heartbreakingly nicked a Santner delivery to the keeper. He could have scored the first century of the series on his favourite ground. He is the King of Eden – always has been – but this 82, probably his lowest score of all his big scores here, will probably be his most important in the longer run. It looked methodical and surgical, and it looked planned. These are not terms you associate with a Rohit test innings – he does it a lot in ODI cricket, accelerates after a certain point and sucks the life out of the bowlers when they have no more lengths to hit. He finally put that to practice here, and seemed to be heading for a miraculous century. Perhaps he wasn’t meant to be such a standout. He has to work harder to get that century when nobody else crosses 50. He isn’t that kind of player yet. But the situation in which he scored these precious runs will make Kohli a very happy – and relieved – man. Kohli looked stunned when Rohit got out against the run of play; you could sense that he wanted Rohit’s century more than he wanted his team out of the woods. That both these scenarios somehow became one on this day will gladden a lot of selectors today, too.
This 82, like his 83 at the beginning of 2013 against England as an opener in an ODI match, could change everything. At least for the next few weeks.