In every sportsman's career, there comes a phase where resurrection becomes priority over simply going out there and performing or the clichéd “trying my best”, for it comes after a steep fall. This is a phase where there is an abundance of introspection, primarily about "what went wrong", and almost as a solution, he undertakes the journey of self-discovery and evolution.
There is a sense of purpose in everything he means to do, an unflinching focus that drives him towards where he wants to be and as a process, you see qualities that you wouldn’t associate with the player coming to the surface, as by-products of this phase. This process for Rohit Sharma began soon after he got dropped for the World Cup. Today, he’s all set to make his Test debut against the West Indies at the Wankhede Stadium. Yet, for Rohit, this very process of resurrection is, ongoing.
It is as much about scoring as many runs as he possibly could as it is about changing and overcoming perceptions. The venue for this interaction with one of India’s or world cricket’s most talented batsmen was the Karnail Singh Stadium in New Delhi where Mumbai opened their Ranji Trophy campaign with a win over the hosts, Railways. It was also an important stop in this process of resurrection, where Rohit's 175 played a big role in Mumbai winning the game.
A DIFFERENT PLAYER
But this knock wasn't about the numbers, or was it? A closer dissection of the innings, mentioned below, revealed a lot more about how differently Rohit looked at his game today than say three years earlier, with a firm sense of maturity and understanding and importantly, a great deal of responsibility, which Rohit says he's enjoying immensely.
"I love playing for Mumbai," Rohit says. "For us youngsters, when we came through the age-group levels, it was almost a dream to wear the Mumbai cap and we knew we had to work hard to earn it. The dressing room atmosphere is something entirely different, with vibes that make you want to perform everytime you take the field."
His exploits in First Class cricket hardly make the same amount of headlines as, say, his "problems in the head". Responsibility is something that Rohit wants and enjoys. The thrill of first assessing and then retrieving situations and yet display the class he possesses is something that excites Rohit today.
"I am enjoying the responsibility given to me (by Mumbai). The team management wants me to play my game according to the situation and I don’t want to let them down," he adds. By his own admission, Rohit feels he is today a much better reader of the game than he used to, three years ago (a constant reference point in this interaction) and importantly, adapt his game to the given situation. There always used to be a streak of restlessness about Rohit, which often let not just him, but his team down through simply injudicious strokeplay or sheer lethargy, but those terms in his own words, are passé.
"I am a more relaxed player today. The first thing I do when I walk out is assess situations and try and adjust my game according to these situations and the way my team wants me to play. Reading game situations is something I have become much better at and I can definitely improve further," he says.
Take this very 175 as an example, an inning played in two or three different gears, each feeding off a particular match situation and a subsequent objective. The first half of this knock was all stroke-play, a brilliantly mounted counter-attack to blunt whatever little advantage the Railways bowlers could garner upfront.
As he himself dissects it, "In this innings, my fifty came off 47 balls where I played my natural game because I felt the bowlers were on top and had to keep the scoreboard ticking."
Then cashing-in on this wonderful start quite seamlessly took over as a team objective, a partnership with young Surya Kumar Yadav followed, whereby Rohit displayed immense maturity by guiding the player through interesting phases of his knock and once Surya got out, it was more about seeing the day through for Rohit. The hunger was well and truly back.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BATTING LONG
Rohit says, "Two or three years ago, I would have scored those 50s and 60s and played a reckless shot and thrown my wicket away. Today, I've realized the importance of batting long, putting a price tag on my wicket and sometimes batting through." And here’s where the metamorphosis has happened. The transformation from a merely talented player to someone who knows his game well enough and someone with demonstrable maturity keen to keep it going and as he says, win matches.
There was a Ranji match last year, played between Mumbai and Railways at the Bandra Kurla Complex where Mumbai, chasing 252, from a comfortable position almost collapsed to staring a rather shameful defeat. It was Rohit who came in at No. 5 to rescue the side single-handedly in that match with an unbeaten 31. He, rather interestingly reflects, "It is innings like these that you want to remember for a long time and learn from. These are situations when your team expects you to stand up and when you fulfil the faith they’ve put in you, and importantly, win matches for your team, it’s a great feeling altogether."
The reason why the game deserves a mention was to know if Rohit was happy playing those types of knocks — scrappy, ugly, putting team first, getting past the line. His reply, in its own way, sums up his maturity. "I want to be known as a match-winner. Make no mistake, everyone wants to score a hundred, and even I do, but if those 30s and 40s can help your team win cricket matches, I'll take that," says Rohit.
'I'M A MUCH RELAXED PERSON'
The second part of this conversation was where he opened up, admitting to his brush with youth, not handling pressure properly and how he’s emerged not just as a better player, but a better person through this patch.
"I've learnt a lot in these last three-four years I've been playing for India. When you are new to international cricket, you are an unknown quantity, keen to impress and play every game and sometimes you don’t quite realise the pressure and responsibility when you play for India. This is not to say you take things lightly, I have never done it, but when you are young, you don’t know what goes around you," says Rohit.
Today, he says, "I am a much relaxed person. I am thinking about my game differently. I have spent a lot of time thinking and analyzing my game just to see where I have gone wrong in these four years and I am working harder to rectify them, so that I become a better player. Equally, when I play for Mumbai today, I am not thinking too ahead of myself. I believe in taking it step by step and hopefully, that will help me achieve what I eventually want to."
He credits former India coach Gary Kirsten for initializing this resurrection process and says that Kirsten’s pat-on-the-back approach really helped him think about his game differently. “Kirsten’s role in my development was immense. I think he figured my game out really well and helped me tremendously in improving my mental approach. I feel mentally tougher at the same time relaxed about my cricket now,” he explains.
Also, during the Indian Premier League, as part of the franchise he played for, Rohit found his perfect mentor — none other than Sachin Tendulkar, under whom his emphasis has been on discipline. This, apart from the trove of technical expertise that Tendulkar himself must have helped Rohit with. Discipline, Rohit believes will drive him through this transformation process. And almost immediately after the IPL, the results were there to see when Rohit won the man of the series award in the ODI leg of the West Indies tour.
The final part of this conversation was about his ill-fated injury at Nagpur, on the eve of the Test match against South Africa last year which he says was “disappointing” and also, missing out on being a part of the World Cup squad has only increased his determination to excel for whoever he plays.
"It was a big setback for me personally because the World Cup final happened on my home ground and India won it. Yes, I regret missing out on it, but that’s past now. My focus here is to do well, use this platform to score runs and then we’ll see what happens.”
THE BIG TRANSITION
Asked how he sees the transition process that Indian cricket might be forced to undertake soon, and with an average of 63+ in domestic cricket, he must be a participant in the process, he says, “There are three stalwarts of the game playing in that team. And only one spot (the No. 6) is up for grabs, and there are three players vying for it. Actually speaking, I am not thinking about all that. My job is to keep performing in the Ranji Trophy and whenever I get a chance, take that opportunity with both hands. I try to think on the lines of ‘every innings I play is my last, so make the most of it’ and that’s how simple I plan to keep it.”
Today, on the eve of the third and final Test against the West Indies in Mumbai, Rohit Sharma stands on the verge of a Test debut. A resurrection process which promptly began a few months earlier is about to enter its most important pit-stop. If all goes well, form and vision considered, the boy with a triple hundred in first-class cricket, two hundreds in a Ranji final, that thirty-one and an average of no less than 63.52 should well be the 273rd player to represent India in Test cricket.
Even if that doesn’t happen on Tuesday, as reassuring as it sounds, Rohit Sharma 2.0 — the mature, responsible version — is by far the best news for Indian cricket fans to look forward to.