Rohit's moment of reckoning
It is hard to believe that Rohit Sharma made his international debut as many as six years ago. When he flies with India's Champions Trophy squad to England on May 29, he'll still be doing so as a batsman with enormous potential, the best of which the world is supposedly yet to see. When Rohit made his India debut, there was no IPL. There is one now, and Rohit led his franchise Mumbai Indians to their maiden title on May 26.
When Gautam Gambhir captained Kolkata Knight Riders to their first IPL trophy in 2012, there were suggestions he was a possible replacement for the struggling MS Dhoni, under whom India had suffered eight successive defeats in overseas Tests. No such outlandish claim can conceivably be made about Rohit's India captaincy abilities at the moment, given that even his place in the side is constantly under scrutiny. What one can talk about however, is the effect of Rohit, the successful IPL captain, on Rohit, the underachieving India batsman.
Talent often does not realise its own worth until it is too late. Virat Kohli, after a few hiccups, has started coaxing consistent performances out of his gifts. Some realisation has dawned on Rohit, too. It was missing a spot in the 2011 World Cup squad that stirred him into a punishing fitness regime. He was so gutted he did not go to the Wankhede Stadium in his hometown Mumbai to watch India play the final. Series-winning performances followed against West Indies, but he slipped into a rut again on tours to Australia and Sri Lanka. Every failure weighed him down further and further, till he seemed to stop enjoying even a casual game of football during practice.
As special as a player might be, he cannot excel until he accepts and starts believing how good he actually is, to the point that the rest of the world, and self-doubt, cease to matter. Virender Sehwag became Virender Sehwag because he batted like only Virender Sehwag could, the world be damned. With Kohli, you can see he's developed a staunch faith in batting like only he can. For all the elegance, you sense Rohit is still too vulnerable to doubt at the international level. He may bat like a dream, but a few failures and the shoulders will slouch even more, and the hangdog expression will reappear.
This IPL, he was in charge of a side comprising almost entirely of internationals, and men such as Sachin Tendulkar. Admittedly, he had an army of legends for a think-tank. While that means he would have never been short of ideas and suggestions, it could also have been detrimental, if he were overawed and hesitant to take his own decisions. Rohit is understood to have listened to everyone, and then gone by his gut feeling.
"I like to keep things simple and trust my instinct," Rohit has said. "We have so many guys who have led their teams in international cricket and they're always there for me with advice and support. I get inputs from all of them but the final decisions are left to me."
'I batted as Rohit Sharma can. I heard Ponting and Tendulkar and Kumble and Wright, and I, Rohit Sharma, took the calls on the field,' he may have thought. Holding your own among such institutions, and having a trophy to show for it, has to be a significant confidence booster for a young man.
He was the face of the team, in the middle and in media interactions. This wasn't just him and his batting he had to talk about, he was responsible for an entire squad. And while doing all that, he also had his best IPL season with the bat. Ideally, Rohit should be full of confidence going into the Champions Trophy. He's succeeded as leader of some of the best men to ever play international cricket.
"His preparation is of a different level," Rohit said of Ponting. "He told me once that until he faces 100-200 balls in the nets and takes 100-200 catches, he doesn't get proper sleep in the night. Though I'm inspired, I can never be a Ponting." Hopefully, while understanding he can never be someone else, he's also developed enough belief in being Rohit Sharma, and can finally start batting like Rohit Sharma can, without the fear of failure. It took six seasons for Mumbai Indians to drop the tag of underachievers. Maybe Rohit can do the same in his sixth year in international cricket.
Abhishek Purohit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo