Rohit produces long-overdue winner
"I think more than me you guys were getting frustrated that I wasn't getting a hundred," Rohit Sharma told journalists at the press conference after hitting an unbeaten 141 in India's highest successful chase, in Jaipur. Surely, Rohit had to be joking. The release of his own frustration had been telecast to the world a little while previously, when he'd reached his first ODI century in three-and-a-half years and 58 innings. His celebrations featured a couple of wild screams followed by plenty of aggressive bat-pointing topped up by a volley of swear words. While there are some who have wanted to see Rohit succeed, one can't imagine journalists having displayed such heightened emotions on seeing him get to three figures for only the third time in 104 matches.
Rohit followed that gem with this. "I can see a lot of smiles here [from journalists], which is really heartening." Implicit in this sentence was the acknowledgment of support. Of course, if you go through an entire year averaging 12.92, as he did in 2012, after being touted as the next great Indian batsman for years, you will have your place in the side questioned. But on the whole, Rohit can never say he hasn't had support from most quarters throughout his six-year career. Especially from the selectors, the captain and the team management.
At times, this support has gone to ridiculous lengths. Specialist spinners have been pushed out to play his replacement and keep him as well in the team. Team-mates have often come up with superlatives to voice their backing for the man considered by them to be the best of the current generation of Indian batsmen. "He is the best talent India's ever had." "He's the best among us in the nets." "He is the best of the young lot that we have." This final endorsement came in Jaipur from the man who blitzed the fastest hundred by an Indian in the same match.
One wonders what Rohit would have felt listening to this latest instance of reaffirmation from Virat Kohli, who has 16 ODI hundreds compared to Rohit's three, who averages 50-plus - Rohit barely tallied 30 before he was made to open. One wonders what he's felt over the years listening to such statements, reposing more and more faith in him while his international career failed to take off to the heights all those words alluded to. Did he feel he was letting everyone down? Did he feel weighed down by all this expectation? Did he have the same kind of belief in himself that others had in him? Did he feel he was his own biggest enemy?
It was not that he was not trying, at least in practice. As he said after the Jaipur match, he had always been training hard. The effort had always been there. He put himself through a strenuous fitness regime after missing out on the 2011 World Cup squad. And then came an utterly forgettable 2012. Did he, in some corner of his mind, start thinking that he might not really be all he was talked up to be?
For someone afforded so much leeway, he had started to have the look of a man perpetually playing for his place in the side each time he went out to bat. And then, he started to open. Slowly, the scores started coming. A watchful 40 here, a promising 60 there. When questioned about his falling strike-rate, he would repeatedly say that as an ODI opener, it is difficult to face two new balls. But there was Shikhar Dhawan at the other end, charging fast bowlers and smashing boundaries as if that was the easiest thing for an opener to do.
Rohit dearly needed this century. Fifties and forties would have kept him in the side, but they would also have needed periodic declarations from his team-mates of how the big innings that would lead to a flood was just around the corner. This 141 not out will help Rohit make peace with himself, quell the turmoil that surely must have been raging inside. Perhaps it was that turmoil that released itself during that celebration. Perhaps we will see a different Rohit from now on. The one his supporters feel has been hiding behind a façade all this while. If indeed the veil has been cast away, Rohit could do worse than allow himself to slip behind it again.
Abhishek Purohit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo