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  • Abhijato Sensarma

The Eternal Promise of Rohit Sharma


During the closing stages of Afghanistan’s innings against India, a friend from Ashoka sent me a video. It's shaky footage from the stands of the Arun Jaitley Stadium. Naveen-ul-Haq is on strike and Siraj is bowling, but the crowd chants: "Kohli, Kohli, Kohli." My friend says his uncle sent him the video and was asking about the meaning behind this sledge.


The world feels cruel at this moment. The mango lassi feud has been as ridiculous as it is fitting in being a talking point during the build-up to the India-Afghanistan match. To not know about it and still be seated in the stadium – during an ODI World Cup already infamous for its lack of tickets on sale – feels like one of life’s missed opportunities.

I could have been at the stadium too. My friends and I had been making grand plans in the months leading up to the tournament. This included going to Chennai for the India-Australia match, or to Dharamshala for the India-New Zealand one. But the tickets took forever to come out. By the time they were here along with a final schedule, the only match we could realistically watch was this match in Delhi during the midterms.


We passed on the option to buy tickets for the match. The waiting lines were running too long, and besides, India-Afghanistan was most likely going to be a one-sided affair. As it turned out to be, we were right, but I was still left wishing I had been there.


You see, I’ve always wanted to watch Rohit Sharma score a century live. I went to watch him play against Australia during the Border-Gavaskar Test series in Delhi earlier this year, where he hit a few sublime boundaries. But there, he had gotten out before he could even reach his half-century. And I was now watching him from the small screen of my mobile phone back at my parents' place in Meerut. By the time the Powerplay had come to an end and Naveen-ul-Haq was bowling again, no one was chanting "Kohli, Kohli" any longer.


It was Rohit Sharma's day now.

***

I remember following the final of the 2011 World Cup from a small screen too. There was no digital streaming back then, but this was compensated for by the size of my satellite television. My mother and I were a few weeks away from moving to Kolkata from Mumbai. I was in the second grade, and I was seated in front of the television set with a packet of chips and a big bottle of Coke. The tournament was the first time I had sat through an entire one-day international, when India took on Australia in the quarter-final. Two matches later, I was a seasoned expert already, listening to the commentators and wondering about the wisdom of Dhoni in coming out to bat ahead of Yuvraj Singh.

He would prove me – and most of the experts in the commentary box – wrong by finishing off the match with an iconic image lodged in my brain. But as I spent the next few years deepening my affinity for Mumbai Indians even as I settled down in my new city, I often wondered why Rohit Sharma had not played for India in the tournament. He went on to win an IPL for us in 2013, and at some point during this period, I had Googled him to find out that his lack of runs cost him his place in the final fifteen for the 2011 World Cup, played at home.


I suddenly wondered where he would have been while watching the final. And what must have been going on in his mind. The next decade or so passed in a blur for my cricket-watching self, with my affinity deepening for Rohit’s languid strokeplay as well as his witty temperament.



By the time the 2023 World Cup finally came around however, set to be hosted in India once again, my affection for the game had lost some of its edge. An abundance of cricket mixed in with less time to watch most of it meant a format on the edge of extinction no longer excited me as much as it might have to my second-grader-self in 2011.


Now is a different world. This played some part in my not wanting to buy World Cup tickets, but since my midterm break had started, I was still watching when India's chase of 273 began. Just a few days ago, Rohit Sharma had gotten out for a duck in the first match of the tournament when India were reduced to 2 for 3 in a potentially calamitous chase against Australia. A few weeks before that, he had opted to rest from most of the one-day internationals leading up to the tournament and both the team's warm-ups had been rained off. A few months before that, he had been in and out of the side owing to a spate of injuries. If for nothing else, I wanted to keep an eye on the match for the first few overs just to see Rohit Sharma bat.


And soon enough, I couldn't take my eyes off him.

***

Ever since he has been given the white-ball captaincy, he has batted in a different gear with initially mixed results. He acknowledges going too hard in the first few months of his captaincy to set an example for his team. But in the lead-up to the World Cup, he has tempered his game to last longer while still accelerating in the powerplay with more urgency than he used to in the format. In 23 innings since the beginning of 2022, he has scored at a strike rate of 108.80, much higher than his overall 75.79.


By the time the first 100 runs came up against Afghanistan – in just 11.5 overs – Rohit had scored 79 of them. This was a World Cup batting record. The speakers of my phone failed to do justice to the impact of the ball on his willow, but at no point did he look like he was hurrying the game along as much as he was just settling into it. The pitch was a flat one and he was in the zone. I could tell this even from afar.


While playing just a few deliveries that kept low on the relaid Kotla pitch, Sharma was settled enough to pat them away with the bottom of his bat. At one point, he tickled a ball down fine leg and began running the single; he was as surprised as the commentators when the ball evaded the fielder’s grasp and reached the boundary ropes with him halfway down the pitch. More often than not, he held the pose after hitting his boundaries, as if he was just lofting and nudging the ball with no expectations from it. The ball spoke to him more than any other batter on the relaid Delhi pitch anyway, especially under the floodlights.


His front foot pulls and sweeps were effective in equal measure, with each boundary of his a potential ICC Instagram reel on its own. How great it must have been to stumble into the Arun Jaitley Stadium and watch this innings, forgetting the context of the match or how one-sided his blitz had turned it into. That's the power of grace on the sports field. You don't remember much of anything else in its presence.


He said after the match, "I know when I'm batting at the top of the order, it's my duty and my job to get that start that we want - especially in the chase - and then put the team into a comfortable position as much as possible.” This attitude is where the sense of routine came from even as he made his runs at a strike rate of 155.95 - easily his fastest knock at a World Cup, beating his previous best rate of 123.89 when made 140 against Pakistan. “When you get days like this,” he said, “you've got to make it count and make it big."


By the time Naveen-ul-Haq bowled to Rohit Sharma again, the crowd had forgotten the feud it had been waiting to see blow up in the middle of the pitch for so long. They now chanted: "Rohit, Rohit, Rohit." Even through the speaker of my phone, the atmosphere was undeniably electric.




He would eventually be dismissed only after scoring a rapid 131 of the 274 runs they needed. I would remain glued to the screen throughout, wanting to climb into it and join the audience when they stood up to applaud him off the field.

His reaction to the dismissal was one of disappointment – as bizarre as it might sound, he probably left a few runs out there. On the other hand, his reaction to the crowd's reception was nonchalant. This just harks back to who he is as a cricketer and a person. He couldn't be bothered enough to take this knock any more seriously than he needs to. He's worked hard to be at this stage, and he knows he's just reaping the rewards of his effort now. He’s finally playing a World Cup at home more than a decade after the 2011 edition, and he’s also the captain of an India team the likeliest to win the tournament in its long history.


His good form is almost expected when things matter the most. During this innings, he went past Chris Gayle's record for the most sixes hit in international cricket (he now has 556 of them), broke Kapil Dev’s record for the fastest World Cup century by an Indian (his was off 63 balls), as well as Sachin Tendulkar's record for the most centuries scored in the tournament (he has an unprecedented seven). But that doesn't mean we should take Rohit for granted. Perhaps, his stoic reaction to the crowd was an acknowledgement of the fact that the job had barely begun in his mind.


Despite being one of India’s most accomplished batters and the leader of the team, he’s not grabbed the headlines as often as he might have deserved to in the lead-up to the tournament. That’s the trade off you make with a more aggressive approach – you serve the team better but don’t reach the big scores as consistently as the rest of your peers. But Rohit might feel hard done by that judgement all the same.


His career’s been one full of narratives about ‘talent’, a word he has come to hate, and how he has balanced it with results. His career has witnessed highs unscalable for most, be it his three double centuries in ODI cricket, his recent spate of Test knocks, or the legendary campaign in 2019 when he hit five World Cup tons. But he’s always been let down, either by the burden of his own expectations or the circumstances he has had no control over once he’s been dismissed in a crucial game. The memories of the top order collapse in the 2019 semi-final against New Zealand must still bring up “What ifs” in his mind, whether he likes to admit doubt publicly or not. But he’s a cricketer who plays in the moment, even if it means putting aside the fact that this World Cup might be his last ever white-ball tournament for India.


Whether he is there leading his side to the podium to lift the World Cup in a few weeks or not, I'll regret not being there in Delhi to see him score a century. But the eternal promise of Rohit Sharma is this: for as long as he is playing the sport, you will always believe he has something just as good waiting in the wings for you to witness it. This is the grace of his batting's beauty, and you can do nothing but applaud him when it takes centrestage like it did in Delhi.


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