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The fall and rise of Rohit Sharma

Prolific and stylish, Rohit Sharma has rewritten records in ODIs and T20s, and is one of India's hottest properties in the shorter formats. Can he replicate this success in Test cricket too?

Kathakali Chanda
Published: Oct 8, 2016 09:01:50 AM IST
Updated: Oct 24, 2016 04:13:47 PM IST
The fall and rise of Rohit Sharma
Image: Colston Julian / represented by salt

In November 2013, when Rohit Sharma took guard in his first-ever home ground Test match at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai, he wasn’t playing against just 11 West Indians but also 30,000-odd people who were egging on the opposition to get India out cheaply. Sharma might have added a debut Test hundred to his CV in the previous match at Eden Gardens, the first of the two-Test series against the Caribbeans, but the fans who packed the stadium to the brim couldn’t care less for the stocky local boy. Because this was no ordinary game—this game in Mumbai was meant to be the celebration of a man who had held the country together for decades, through currency crises, unstable political coalitions, terror attacks, and every other conceivable national emergency. This was Sachin Tendulkar’s farewell match and the crowd wouldn’t have a blustery 26-year-old ruin the party.

Being put in to bat on Day 1, the West Indies had put up a paltry 182. In reply, India was looking good for a big score. This was fine as long as Tendulkar was at the crease and sent the opposition’s bowlers on a leather hunt. Then, at 74, the master blaster attempted a cut off offie Narsingh Deonarine and was caught at first slip. But the crowd wanted more of him. Have the Indian innings fold up in a jiffy, let the Windies come back to bat again and post a big total, they clamoured, so that Tendulkar could take the crease in the fourth innings one last time.

Instead, in walked Sharma at No. 6 and started toying with the bowlers as if he was playing in the bylanes of Borivali, the Mumbai suburb where he grew up. Over the next couple of hours, the mournful silence at Tendulkar’s departure turned into unstinting applause as Sharma cut and drove with exquisite timing, invoking VVS Laxman with his wristy elegance. By the time he ran out of partners, he had notched up 111, scoring not only his second Test century on the trot, but also a standing ovation from the Wankhede crowd.  

 In a way, this innings, in which he went from pariah to hero, is symptomatic of Sharma’s greater cricketing journey where the lines between the two have blurred often. In his nearly decade-long career in international cricket, he is the only player to have ratcheted up two double centuries in ODIs (one of which, at 264, is the highest ever individual score in the format), achieved a rare century in T20 Internationals (106 against South Africa), and is among the few to score back-to-back Test centuries on debut (Md Azharuddin and Sourav Ganguly are the only other Indian members of the club that includes legends like Bill Ponsford and Alvin Kallicharan).

But every time he has been on the cusp of stamping his greatness on the game with his prolific display in the shorter formats, Sharma has faltered in the last mile, inevitably with Tests. Perhaps no other member of the current team has polarised the cricketing fraternity as much as this stylish right-hander. Reams have been written on whether Sharma’s cricket is all about flamboyance and no substance, on his vulnerability against the moving ball, and the yawning gap between his performances in the longer and shorter formats.

The fall and rise of Rohit Sharma
Image: Bill Hatto / Reuters
Sharma celebrates his century against Australia during an ODI in Perth in January 2016

Despite scoring two 100s in as many matches on his Test debut, he’s had a century drought since, managing to cross the half-century mark only four times in the next 29 innings (during this spell, his highest score of 79 has come on the subcontinent, against Sri Lanka in Colombo in 2015, giving critics enough fodder to dub him a flat-pitch bully). His exclusion from the first two Tests in the West Indies series this July-August, and his not-so-convincing performance in the one thereafter, hammer home the point.

Sharma might have settled the debate over his talent and his ability to hit sixes on order—a modern-day Salim Durani of sorts—but the jury is still out on whether he has delivered
to his potential.

Clearly, being Rohit Sharma hasn’t been easy. But the last year-and-a-half has been particularly good for him. It has seen him earn five of his 10 ODI centuries, the T20 century and two impressive IPL seasons in which he led Mumbai Indians (owned by Reliance Industries, which also owns Network 18, the publishers of ForbesLife India) to a title. And the struggle to prove himself doesn’t get to him anymore. For one, he has mastered the art of letting go, be it of the video games console to wife Ritika or the resentment against criticism. “Earlier, I would get upset very easily. Now, I accept that people will talk about you, and just shut it out,” says Sharma, as he settles down to chat with ForbesLife India, hours before flying out for an overseas tour.

He also seems to have learnt to trust his ability to fight back. Every time the chips have been down—the exclusion from the 2011 world cup squad, a lean patch during the tour of Sri Lanka in 2012, when he would lock himself up in the washroom and break down—he’s displayed exemplary resilience. “Remember what [Novak] Djokovic said after his Wimbledon loss to Sam Querrey? That he will move on from the loss stronger. That is my motto too, to emerge stronger from every setback,” says the 29-year old, whose rise—from a family house in Borivali to a Rs 30-crore penthouse with a view of the coastline in Mumbai’s tony Worli area—has been forged through hardships.    

The story of Sharma would’ve been very different had it not been for some fortuitous interventions. Born in Nagpur in 1987, he moved to Dombivali in Mumbai’s suburbs with his parents when he was a year-and-a-half old. But his father’s job in a transport firm wasn’t enough to provide for Rohit and his brother, so he was sent to live with his grandparents in Borivali where he took to galli cricket, like almost every other Indian kid. Also, like most kids, in Class 6, when he was a student at Our Lady of Vailankanni, he joined a local club during his summer vacation, not as a batsman but as an off-spin bowler “since the queue for batters was long and crowded”. The first intervention was a year later, when he was playing a 10-over match in the finals of an under-12 tournament in 1999 and he was spotted as someone with potential. “He took two crucial wickets in the match and impressed me most with his bowling action and attitude,” says Dinesh Lad, then the coach of Swami Vivekanand International School, the team Sharma was playing against.

Lad met his family and convinced them to transfer him to his school. But they rescinded their decision when told that the fees were Rs 275 a month. “His uncle told me that he paid Rs 30 a month currently and wouldn’t be able to afford such a steep jump. I went up to the school director Yogesh Patil and requested him to grant Rohit a full fee waiver,” says Lad. The request was unprecedented, but Patil sensed the earnestness in Lad, so he gave the go-ahead immediately. “If that hadn’t been sanctioned, Indian cricket wouldn’t have any Rohit Sharma today,” adds Lad.

The fall and rise of Rohit Sharma
Image: Getty Images
Rohit Sharma (right), as the Mumbai Indians captain, plays a shot against Kolkata Knight Riders during the 2016 IPL tournament

With his reputation as a wily tweaker preceding him, Sharma didn’t have any opportunity to bat any higher than No. 8 or 9, if at all. His batting prowess too came to the fore purely as a stroke of luck the day Lad was a little late for practice and Sharma was casually knocking around with the bat. “I liked the way he was hitting without any training. He continued to impress me when I asked him to open in the nets. And the first time he opened in a match in Giles Shield [an inter-school tournament], he scored 120-odd. Rohit Sharma the batsman never looked back from there,” says Lad.  

 Many years later, memories of the sudden elevation in his youth rushed back to Sharma when he was asked to open the innings in the Champions Trophy in the UK in 2013. Skipper MS Dhoni walked up to the middle-order batsman the previous night and asked him if he would like to open in conditions that were known to favour the bowlers. Sharma didn’t flinch. “I said yes right away. For me, opening the innings was an opportunity to play more. I was always that kind of player, wanting to bowl the first over, field the first ball,” he says.

His penchant to stay in the thick of things has served him well right from his junior days. Mumbai isn’t an easy place to be a batsman, given the number of formidable players the city produces every year. Its Ranji team is the mightiest in the domestic circuit (winning 41 titles; Karnataka comes a distant second with eight) and provides a steady supply of players to the national side. Being a young batsman in the city is a double-edged sword: If you don’t score heavily, there’s a swarm waiting to take your place; if you do, you’d be constantly compared to even higher benchmarks, like the Gavaskars and the Tendulkars. Bottomline: You could be good, yet never good enough. Remember Amol Muzumdar, the guy who could have been the  next Sachin Tendulkar but wasn’t? In such a milieu, Sharma made an entry, and managed to make an impression quite early.  

Pravin Amre, another of India’s debutant Test centurions, says: “I saw Rohit for the first time when he was playing in the under-15 Vinoo Mankad Trophy in 2002-03 and I was the chairman of India’s junior selection committee. He was practising at the Wankhede nets and I watched him hit two balls. The sound that it produced told me this guy was a class act. Such a sweet sound comes out only when you middle the ball perfectly.” Later, in his role as the Mumbai Ranji coach, Amre was looking to draft into his team young players who could match the illustrious line-up as well as have a long shelf-life. “Rohit was on my list,” says Amre.   

Another hallmark of Sharma’s batting, even at the junior level, was his wide repertoire of shots and an aggressive game, an attribute he shares with his favourite soccer team Real Madrid. Typically, a rookie batsman comes with only so many shots in his kitty, having been coached to play copybook. Sharma’s range of strokes displayed a willingness to experiment that was much beyond his teenage years. Besides, he was blessed with the ability to watch the ball for an extra half a second, reminiscent of former English opener Geoffrey Boycott’s perfect world in which a batsman would see the ball early and play it late. Ayaz Memon, veteran journalist and cricket expert, says, “What we now call his ‘lazy’ elegance is his ability to play the ball at the very last minute. He had it from a young age and it makes him a very stylish player.”

 Yet, it is this poetic versatility that has often been Sharma’s Achilles heel. Much unlike his personal life—where he is cautious with money (he won’t make investments unless he’s convinced they are safe bets) and doesn’t prefer to splurge (unless it’s fancy watches—“I’ve too many of them,” he shakes his head in mock disapproval)—his penchant to play expansive shots without moving to the pitch of the ball has made him vulnerable in the proverbial corridor of uncertainty, a sliver outside the off stump that leaves a batsman in two minds. He doesn’t get the front foot down the pitch in line of the ball as much as Virat Kohli or Ajinkya Rahane, allowing top-notch bowlers to ask searching questions of his technique.

The flaw was exposed in his early years, soon after his one-day debut against Ireland in 2007. Sharma joined the team with the tag of a prolific scorer, with multiple Ranji centuries behind him. But his best ODI average, which came about in 2010, stood at an unimpressive 38.76. His Test debut was delayed as he injured himself minutes before the toss against South Africa in Nagpur. That his next opportunity would come after another three years is a pointer to his lacklustre performance in the intervening period.

 “The years of slump after my debut were very disappointing. It happened because I was an immature cricketer. I didn’t give myself enough time to settle down in international cricket. Certain things are best when done organically. Playing international cricket is one of them. I didn’t see it then. I was trying to do too many things in too short a time. I would play shots without reading the situation of the game and think that my flamboyance would win it for me. I was wrong,” says Sharma. “To be excited is a good thing, but I was overexcited.”

The days of international cricket were heady and Sharma wanted to make an impression even before his time came. And immature as he was, he didn’t know how to deal with failure. As his performance went into a downward spiral, his mind was pulled into a vortex of negativity and self-doubt. With each disappointment on the field, he piled more pressure on himself, alternating between cycles of failure and self-flagellation. Neither helped.

The Indian team for the world cup in 2011 was announced in the middle of India’s tour of South Africa that year. Sharma, who squirmed through the ODI series against the fiery pace of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel and struggled to get into double figures in most of the matches, was excluded from the 15-member squad. “It was the biggest jolt I received in my life. It’s a pain I cannot explain. My teammates would be playing cricket’s biggest tournament on home soil and all I’d be doing was watch them on TV,” says Sharma.

That night, Yuvraj Singh, one of Sharma’s closest friends in the Indian team and the man who bagged the last spot in the world cup squad thanks to his all-round abilities, took him out for dinner. “I had a talk with him and realised that the way I was playing my game wasn’t working. I had to change. The time had come to flip a switch as a cricketer.”

Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, had delineated an experiment to see how children coped with challenge and difficulty. There was one group, she concluded, that found a challenge onerous, while the other gleaned from it quick takeaways for future. When it came to dealing with his failures, Sharma clearly belonged to the second group. The 2011 debacle was a watershed moment for him that changed the way he approached his game. So far, he had oodles of talent to bank on. It wasn’t enough to reclaim his game, he figured.

With his back against the wall, Sharma turned to good friend and former international cricketer Abhishek Nayar to break down his inadequacies into small units, beat them into shape and put them back together into a formidable unit. Nayar admits Sharma isn’t a man of many emotions, even among his friends, but says that, at that time, anybody could have read the disappointment in him.  

Nayar and Sharma got together for a month and designed a programme that incorporated elements that Sharma hated earlier: Going to the gym, training outdoors, and waking up early. “We designed the workout in a way that makes him push really hard. So when he felt like giving up, and not doing the last five repetitions, he actually had to push himself to finish a circuit. It gave him a mental edge and an ‘I can do it’ belief that he needed going into a game. He knew that he’s gone through the grind and could overcome anything he faced,” says Nayar.

The regimen, which Sharma no longer needs a prod to follow, made him fitter, and mentally stronger to take on the high stakes of modern-day cricket. While on the field, he became a much more confident cricketer, off it he learnt to live with intense scrutiny and not let it ruffle him. “I’ve mellowed with age and her,” he says, pointing at long-time friend and now wife Ritika Sajdeh (whom he married in 2015). The run-ins with fans, like the one he and bowler Praveen Kumar had in 2012 during a practice session in Australia, will perhaps now be a thing of the past.

It’s no mere coincidence that his personal stability—and a happy domesticity in which Ritika plays the video games and Sharma shops online—coincides with a period of his cricketing life where his career graph has been on the upswing. Except 2012, his annual ODI batting average since 2011 has been upwards of 50. He also recorded his highest T20 average (64) last year. He has captained Mumbai Indians in the IPL and steered the franchise to two IPL titles (in 2013 and 2015), equalling the record of his Team India colleagues Dhoni (for Chennai Super Kings) and Gautam Gambhir (for Kolkata Knight Riders).     

His ODI world record of 264 against Sri Lanka at the Eden Gardens (his favourite cricket ground) would bear testimony to the transformation of the cricketer in him. Coming from an injury break, he spent the first half of the innings getting himself in before starting to tonk the bowling. Even his trenchant critics have toned down their hostility with a grudging admiration for his exploits in ODIs and T20.

But his Test record, in comparison, remains pretty dismal and Sharma is the first to admit there is room for improvement. No, he isn’t going to alter his natural attacking game for that (“Look at the success Virender Sehwag had in Tests with his aggressive game”). The formats are different, he says, and while a slash with the bat can end with a boundary in limited-overs matches, in a Test that will most likely be caught by the slip cordon, an attacking fielding formation that becomes a luxury in ODIs and T20s, where the primary target for the fielding side is to defend. But he is going to be a little more careful about shot selection, learn to hunker down a bit more and wait for the right time to unleash his explosive game.

Ricky Ponting, Sharma’s coach in Mumbai Indians, also feels there is nothing wrong with his technique. “If you put Rohit and Virat [Kohli] side by side in the nets, you would see the significant similarities in their techniques. Clearly, there is nothing wrong with him. In fact, I haven’t seen too many more talented players in the game,” says Ponting, the former Aussie skipper, adding that it’s the temperament that needs to be tweaked. “The next step for Rohit will come from his mental approach to Test cricket and building the confidence that he has the technique to achieve in the longer form of the game.”
But that’s a clock ticking away fast. There are limited slots for batsmen in the Indian Test team and bowling-all-rounder Ravichandran Ashwin has chipped away one more by hitting two centuries against the Caribbeans. “Which means there are just five spots for a long list of players who are roughly around the same age. Rohit can’t even buy his time in the hope that some of them will hang up their boots and vacate a slot. He will get limited opportunities and when he gets them, he has to make the most of it,” says Memon.    

 If the last few years are anything to go by, Sharma is already padding up for it.

Correction: The print and the earlier web version of the story mentioned Praveen Kumar as Praveen Sharma. The error is regretted.

(This story appears in the Sep-Oct 2016 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)