Before India’s tri-series tournament against Australia and England got underway Andrew Miller spoke to Rohit Sharma, one of the hottest ODI batsmen on the planet.
Patience is an under-utilised virtue in the crash-bang-wallop world of modern international cricket but Rohit Sharma’s recent feats are a potent reminder that, in 50-over cricket at least, gratification doesn’t always have to be instant.
If Sharma’s career was a Manhattan chart it would share the same characteristics as the two innings with which he has snaffled a slice of immortality. A languid initial tempo, frustratingly scratchy in places, giving way to an explosive and extrapolated climax. It’s an old-school method offering new-age opportunities. Sharma shows that, if you play yourself in as the purists have always insisted, even the sky is no longer the limit.
Purity is the one trait that Sharma has always had going for him. Even in his long years of underachievement at the start of his international career, his upright stance and fluid strokeplay demanded the sort of patience that other, less aesthetic batsmen might never have been afforded in the first place. Nevertheless there’s a certain impertinence about his sudden assault on cricket’s record-books.
Twice in the space of 12 months, Sharma has passed 200 runs in a one-day international, a feat that no man managed even once in the format’s first 30 years and 2,961 matches. What’s more, in the course of his scarcely credible 264 against Sri Lanka in November, he surpassed in a mere 163 deliveries Sunil Gavaskar’s Test best of 236 not out against West Indies at Madras in 1983, a score that remained for 18 years the highest international innings ever recorded by an Indian batsman.
Sharma’s record shows what can be achieved when hunger and fluency collide in mid-innings. Seventy-one and 72 balls respectively were how long it took Sharma to reach his first fifty in each of his ODI double-centuries, decidedly pedestrian by current standards. Yet, having built himself the platform he dived in headfirst on both occasions. The fifth fifty of his world record was monstered from a mere 17 balls.
It’s a far cry from the frenetic approach that one-day with two new balls making such gung-ho batsmanship more haphazard than in the heyday of the pinch-hitter, Sharma’s look-before-you-leap attitude is reframing the debate. “I want to perform every time I go onto the field but I understand my game better now,” he tells AOC. “You need to be really careful and mindful about what you do when you open the batting in one-day cricket. That sort of stuff is really important.”
An imperturbable mindset is vital for such a role, especially when you are taking guard for India, where the pressures to succeed are amplified a billion times over and where every false move is scrutinised to a degree that few professionals in any walk of life can hope to understand.
“It’s such a big deal to play for India,” Sharma says. “It would be easy to get distracted because people follow your fortunes so much that you could get carried away in the atmosphere. But you have to keep your head down at all times. There are so many cricketers who want to be in the Indian team and with so much competition in this part of the world you cannot ever take your place for granted. Results might fall into place, sometimes they won’t, so my only focus is to stay motivated and keep working hard on my game.”
At the age of 27, Sharma is entering his pomp but he knows from bitter experience how quickly opportunities can come and go. This summer’s tour of England was the second he has had to leave early after suffering a finger injury – at Chester-le-Street in 2011, he succumbed to the only ball he received in anger – while his anticipated Test debut in 2010 ended up being delayed by three years when he twisted his ankle on the morning of the Nagpur Test against South Africa.
Nothing, however, matched the heartbreak Sharma felt in January 2011 when he was omitted from India’s 15-man World Cup squad. “It was such a wonderful opportunity, to play a World Cup on home soil,” he says. “I was really disappointed to miss out on that campaign but, from the day the team was announced and I saw my name wasn’t there, it inspired me to work harder.
“I was upset but it made me focus on what I needed to do, rather than put too much pressure on myself. I actually enjoyed those two months while the World Cup was on and I could work on my fitness and technique. It’s been a wonderful journey since then.”
Arguably the key factor in the transformation of Sharma from a bit-part makeweight, gathering dust in India’s galactico-packed middle-order, into the man most likely to kickstart their defence of the trophy in February is the utter faith he has received from his captain MS Dhoni, a man who knows a matchwinner when he sees one.
“When you bat up the order you get a lot of opportunity to score big runs,” says Sharma. “That was the turning point for me, the day MS came to me and said you have to open the innings and, trust me, it’s going to be for a long, long time. I was really happy that someone like him could come to me and talk to me about my role in the team. I felt really confident about my role and it took me to a new level.”
That trust enabled Sharma to rationalise the challenge to his place posed by Ajinkya Rahane, who scored two hundreds while deputising at the top of the order during Sharma’s recent injury layoff. And that rational attitude, in turn, has stemmed from a heightened maturity, helped no doubt by his experience in the 2013 IPL season, when his mid-campaign appointment as captain helped transform Mumbai Indians into title-winners.
It was no ordinary team that Sharma inherited either. With Sachin Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting opening the innings but struggling for form, Mumbai were in danger of buckling beneath the reputation of their iconic players before the new skipper heralded a new beginning.
“Tendulkar and Ponting have done wonders in their careers and being with them was a privilege,” he says. “These two gentlemen are, I would say, the biggest cricketers ever in the history of cricket, so it was great fun and a great learning experience. But when I heard I was taking over I was very happy that the franchise had showed a lot of faith in me. Mumbai Indians is a team with big names and a big reputation but the way we played in that season was really fantastic.
“The final, at Eden Gardens in Kolkata, was incredible,” he says. “But the crowd was a bit disappointed that Sachin was injured. I remember going to the toss and I said he was not playing, you could suddenly hear a pin drop. No shouts, no cheers, nothing.”
In common with every Indian cricketer of his generation, Sharma has occasionally had to pinch himself to believe he’s sharing a dressing room with a bona fide living legend. But he was far from overawed when he made his long-overdue Test debut, in Tendulkar’s farewell series against West Indies in November 2013. A century in each of the matches included the honour of sharing in the final partnership of the great man’s 200-Test career.
“Ever since I was growing up as a child I was always looking up to Sachin and always wanting to play with him, so I was really glad and privileged to be part of two such important matches in his life,” says Sharma. “His 200th Test was amazing, in front of his home crowd who came out in large numbers and his family were there to support him too. It was really speciaI and I have learnt so much from him.”
That learning experience, Sharma claims, includes a deep respect for the format in which Tendulkar made his name. “Test cricket is something we all want to have a lot of success in,” he says. “When it comes to succeeding Sachin, [Rahul] Dravid and [VVS] Laxman, they left their legacy wherever they went so it’s time for us to step up and do what they did. It won’t be easy for us, we are still learning but, if you really want to be known as a good cricketer, you want to be known as a good Test cricketer.”
With their Test tour of Australia over, however, there’s only one format that counts for the foreseeable. The confirmation that India is entering a new era came in December with the announcement of their 30-man list of probables ahead of the World Cup. With Tendulkar already retired, Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Yuvraj Singh, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh were all omitted from the long-list, with only Dhoni, Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina remaining of the XI that beat Sri Lanka in the 2011 final.
“We are really excited,” says Sharma. “These are big shoes to fill, these guys really took Indian cricket to another level and all the youngsters who are playing now have a huge responsibility on our shoulders to carry that legacy and keep doing it for India. They were world-class players and replacing them won’t be easy, but we will keep trying.”
The key, one suspects, will be patience. For, as Sharma has emphatically demonstrated, if India’s foundations are properly laid, there will always be fireworks at the end.