Sometimes you see class and you know it. Ian Chappell, one of the most formidable and successful captains the game has known, sees plenty in Rohit Sharma. Chappell has been voluble in his praise for the 20-year-old, who he thinks has huge potential.
Watch Sharma play his trademark fluent cover-drives or square-drives off the back foot and you get the impression of a top-quality cricketer. Much of it has to do with the effortlessness with which he can get his wrists and body into a position from where he can direct the ball to where he wants, and do it with time to spare - a quality only the great or the very good possess. Sharma does not bat with the flourish of a Mark Waugh or a Mahela Jayawardene, but he brings beauty to the craft all the same.
He brings, too, sparkling fielding - catching, stopping, and run-out-inducing throwing - at short cover and point. Sharma has played only 11 one-day internationals, but possesses the aura of a superstar-in-waiting - much like Michael Clarke, who signed a million-dollar endorsement contract before he had played a Test.
Sharma made his mark on the international arena in the must-win game against South Africa in the league phase of the World Twenty20. India were gasping at 33 for 3 when he walked in. It was the first time he was batting in the tournament, but he produced a sumptuous innings, built on patience and common sense, and along with his captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni, loosened South Africa's grip on the game. By the time he returned to the dressing room with an unbeaten 50, he had made sure of his place in the side.
Recently, in a clash of nerves with Australia at the MCG, chasing a tricky 160, India wobbled at 102 for 5. Once again Dhoni and his young lieutenant teamed up to help the side to an important victory. For a while the two looked like rabbits in the middle of a highway in the face of a sustained assault from Australia's battery of fast bowlers, led by Brett Lee. But they held their nerve and their vigil paid off.
Sharma proved again that he thrives in difficult situations in the crucial game against Sri Lanka in Adelaide, when he and Yuvraj Singh counterattacked in the face of Sri Lankan dominance. Sharma may have made only 24 in the pair's 64-run fourth-wicket partnership, but it helped India recover from a precarious 35 for 3.
It is this ability to understand the requirements of a match situation that sets Sharma apart from other players his age. At 20, life is full of responsibility for the young man.
Sharma grew up in the care of his grandparents in the western Mumbai suburb of Borivli. His father, the caretaker of a storehouse for a transport firm in the north-central suburb of Bhandup, was the family's lone bread-winner, and it was difficult for the four of them - Sharma has a younger brother - to survive on his wages alone. So the young Sharma was sent to live with relatives across the city; he would travel to his parents every weekend.
"It was difficult at the beginning to be away from my folks," he said, "but my uncles and grandparents took care of my needs as far as possible."
It was October 2007. Sharma was winding down after practice a day before the Ranji Trophy game against Delhi at the Wankhede Stadium. Indian cricket hadn't yet recovered from the fever of the World Twenty20 win. Sharma himself was just starting to flirt with his new-found stardom. He had bought an 800 cc Honda motorbike - though he wasn't sure about how much of its power he'd be able to use on the chaotic streets of Mumbai.
Sharma recollected how his dad, despite being asked to leave his job, continued to work at the warehouse out of loyalty. "The transport firm went through troubles but he continued to go there." The hard years provided plenty of lessons, and Sharma inherited something of his father's resilience. At age eight arrived the first turning point.
|Having to shoulder the responsibilities that come with playing for the country has never seemed daunting to Sharma. That probably has to do with the lessons of his upbringing. "In my family I always thought I was the person who needed to take the responsibility to do something for everyone. In my cricket, when I go in to bat, I feel I'm responsible for the team|
"When I started watching cricket, I had this strong gut feeling about wanting to make a mark in the game. So I asked my uncle for Rs 800 (US$20 approximately) to join a summer camp." Sharma's uncle thought he'd be better off sticking to his studies, but budged eventually and gave the boy Rs 200. "That was the beginning of my cricketing career."
The coach at that camp, who was also the coach at the Vivekanand High School, one with better cricket facilities than the school Sharma was studying at, asked him to move schools. "I told him I couldn't afford it, but he got me a scholarship. So for four years I didn't pay a penny, and did well in my cricket."
Back then Sharma was primarily an offspinner who batted a bit. He was successful in the Harris and Giles Shield tournaments, the traditional paths to recognition in Mumbai cricket, and traversed the usual routes of age-group cricket. At the Under-19 World Cup in Sri Lanka in 2006, he proved his batting pedigree, finishing just outside the top ten on the list of run-scorers. He then played in the Deodhar Trophy, for India A, and in the Challenger and Duleep trophies before making his Ranji Trophy debut late in 2006. He finished the season with a round 600 first-class runs at 40 before earning a call-up to join the India squad on their tour of England last summer.
For Sharma the learning curve got underway in earnest when he made his debut for Mumbai. When he first entered the Mumbai dressing room, he was unaware of the side's legendary Ranji history - not that he didn't care, he just didn't know. "When I was playing for Under-17 and Under-14 state teams, I used to hear a lot about the history of Mumbai cricket and how proud the players were," he said. "I never knew that Mumbai had won more than 30 times. Later, I realised how serious the Mumbai cricketers of the past were and how much pride they took in giving their best." Sharma learned all about the famous khadoos (literal translation: mean) Mumbai attitude from watching senior players such as Vinod Kambli, Sairaj Bahutule and Wasim Jaffer.
When he took to cricket, he was clear about what he was in the game for. "The belief was very strong. I just didn't watch cricket for fun," he said. "Right from the beginning, I wanted to play for the country whenever I saw the players on TV."
Having arrived at the doorstep of his dream, of playing for India, Sharma understood what was required of him. Being called on to shoulder the responsibilities that come with playing for the country has never seemed daunting to him. That probably has to do with the lessons of his upbringing. "In my family I always thought I was the person who needed to take the responsibility to do something for everyone. In my cricket, when I go in to bat, I feel I'm responsible for the team," he said.
And there has been a fair amount of responsibility on Sharma's shoulders during the CB Series. "Yuvraj was injured in the first game, so I had to bat at No. 4," he pointed out. "Also, the absence of senior players made me think about the responsibility more. But when I go in to bat, I don't think about all this and stress myself. I just bat normally."
That ability to approach situations with a cool head has been his strength. In the Twenty20 game against South Africa, as he sat padded-up, watching the Indian innings, his captain gave him a word of advice. "I was sitting next to Dhoni, and he told me 'Bindaas khel, yaar' (Play freely)," Sharma said. "I didn't think about the green top, that the ball was moving nicely, three wickets had been lost. I just played the ball as it came. My aim was simple: I should middle the ball, and if it's a bad ball, hit it. I didn't think of whether [Makhaya] Ntini would bowl one that comes in or take it away - nothing of that sort." That's when he bats at his best: when he doesn't think at all.
Sharma has, though, shown a tendency to throw it away when well set. In the Adelaide game against Australia, he got out wafting at a James Hopes length delivery and edging it behind. Two days later he played his part in securing a victory for India against Sri Lanka, but got out with an ill-considered sweep to deep midwicket just when his partnership with Yuvraj had established itself.
Jaffer, the India Test opener, and a fixture in the Mumbai set-up, thinks Sharma needs to respect the bowler first. "There are times when the batsman forgets that. I had the same streak as Rohit has now," Jaffer said.
For Sharma, it is the "first 15 minutes" that he needs to get past. After that, it's about adaptation. "If you want to be known as a good player, adaptation is key," he said.
It is still early days for him and he knows it. He has learned to bring a certain balance to bear. "Cricket can take you up and bring you down equally at the same time."
In the final one-dayer of the home series against Pakistan, Sharma scored his maiden ODI half-century. The first person to congratulate him was Sachin Tendulkar. "Sachin had observed some points about my technique. After that half-century he said I was finally coming round well."
Sharma is not blind to the expectations his teams have of him. He has been tipped as Tendulkar's successor at No. 4 in the Test line-up. And he knows he needs to carry forward the legacy of Sunil Gavaskar, Dilip Vengsarkar, Ravi Shastri, Sanjay Manjrekar and Tendulkar for Mumbai. A daunting task, but he's up for it.
"I can do more than I've done so far," he said. "I haven't shown the batting class inside me yet. You can't say that with one innings I've arrived."
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo