Rohit Sharma loves being among friends. But the Covid-19 enforced quarantine meant that he could not meet them in person. That certainly did not stop him staying in touch with them. Technology came in handy and every ten days or so, half-a-dozen or so of them would sit on their couches and interact on FaceTime.

This routine took place when Sharma was locked-down at his home in Mumbai, when he was in the United Arab Emirates to play in the Indian Premier League, when he was in hard quarantine in Sydney, and now, when he is in the middle of a sustained masterclass on how to play on spin-friendly pitches during the ongoing Test series against England.

One would expect that when friends, who also happen to have played cricket for India or for the state, come together, the discussion would be about cricket. But, not so here. Rohit and Co talk about cars, music, movies, games and indulge in some friendly banter. This FaceTime time is an exercise of just catching up with life.

Cricket would make an appearance in these chats only when absolutely necessary, like when Sharma was in hard quarantine and the friends were concerned about how he would cope with that confinement. His friends had no concern about cricketing skills as such, but had a few doubts about how he will deal with this fifteen-day isolation period mentally and physically. They were happy when told that Sharma had basic fitness equipment at his apartment and was able to follow a fitness schedule given by the team management. He was in a good mental space too and was looking forward to putting the bat on the ball. There were no apprehensions or confusions about wanting to succeed.

Rohit Sharma's recent scores as Test opener

Score Innings No. Opposition Ground Match date
66 2 v England Ahmedabad 24 Feb 2021
25* 4 v England Ahmedabad 24 Feb 2021
161 1 v England Chennai 13 Feb 2021
26 3 v England Chennai 13 Feb 2021
6 2 v England Chennai 5 Feb 2021
12 4 v England Chennai 5 Feb 2021
44 2 v Australia Brisbane 15 Jan 2021
7 4 v Australia Brisbane 15 Jan 2021
26 2 v Australia Sydney 7 Jan 2021
52 4 v Australia Sydney 7 Jan 2021
Via ESPNCricinfo

Calm amid storms

Sharma’s mind, according to his friends, was calm and clear then and it is now. But how can it be so simple when so much has transpired both on and off the field for him in recent times?

Sharma pulled a hamstring during the IPL, but instead of going to the National Cricket Academy for rehab, he chose to stay back for the knock-out rounds of the league. With this call he ignited the country vs club debate.

There was more negativity when the selectors chose not to pick him in the initial Test squad for the Australia tour and that was followed by a communication debacle when captain Virat Kohli told the media that he had no idea of why he was not on the plane to Sydney. It was an embarrassing episode for Indian cricket. And then further mental stress awaited in quarantine.

But, when he came out of it, this stress had to be overcome quickly and it was indeed. As Sharma’s friends say, he wanted to prove a point by contributing to the team’s cause. Sharma scored a 52 in the second innings of the third Test in Sydney, but copped criticism for pulling one from Pat Cummins to Mitchell Starc just before stumps., when the team was chasing 407 for a win. How can such a senior batsman be so reckless? In the first innings at Brisbane too he was looking set for a big one before he ballooned one from Nathan Lyon in the deep to Starc. And that made Sunil Gavaskar go “why, why, why?”

But in Sharma’s own mind he was just doing what he does and what his team wants him to do. No regrets, as he said, “”I was actually trying to pierce the long-on and that deep square-leg fielder, but it didn’t connect the way I would have loved to,” Sharma explained later.

“Pretty simple. It was something I won’t regret. It is something I like to do. I like to put the pressure on the bowler once I am in, and that is my role in the team. To make sure I keep putting that pressure on the bowlers because we have seen throughout the series how run-scoring has been difficult for both the teams.”

In Australia, Sharma could have done better. This was the first time that he was opening in overseas conditions having been handed over that role in October 2019 at home against South Africa. He notched up scores of 212 and 176 then. Stats tell us that there is a massive gap between his home and away averages. At home he averages 81.50 while away from home the average drops to just 27.

But there is another stat where he is second only to Sir Don Bradman. According to CricViz, as of February 2021, only Bradman’s average of 102.84 in England and 98.22 in Australia were better than Sharma’s in India (currently 81.05).

So does that make him a home/flat track bully? The current series is being played at home but not exactly on flat tracks. Sharma has arguably been the best batsman on display across both teams under tough conditions.

During the first innings of the second Test at Chennai, there was no doubt that the pitch will start turning sooner than later. The top surface was exploding in the first half an hour. But Rohit raced to a 70-ball 80 even before lunch.

He ended with 161 and explained his plan of action while speaking to the broadcasters, “The game plan was simple. Once I got in, I knew what shots I could play and what shots I couldn’t. I knew the pitch was going to turn, so the preparation started at training and that’s where I tried to do what I wanted to do in the game. We created rough and I played the sweep, though not the reverse-sweep, at training. The idea was to stand on middle and off and sweep anything that was outside off. You take the lbw out of the equation and you can top-edge it, but the short fine wasn’t there,” he said.

It was a moment when his clarity of thought shone through again.

As was the case with his white-ball career, it seemed that Sharma’s career had stalled in Tests too in the middle-order. But just like the white-ball career where he was offered the role of an opener in the lead-up to the Champions Trophy in 2013, in Tests too has looked at home in the role. Just like it happened in the white-ball game, in Test cricket too he has loved to set the agenda at the top of the order.

He was able to do that in the pink-ball Test in Ahmedabad where rest of the batsmen were struggling to come to terms with the skiddiness of the ball on an interesting pitch. He scored 66 out of India’s 145 in the first innings and was unbeaten at 25 in the second dig. His tally of 91 runs in the Test was more than England’s 81 in their second innings.

Making talent count

As one of his friends says, Sharma likes to be in the middle when the ball is coming on to the bat and opening gives him that chance. This aspect will be tested when playing in seaming conditions in England or New Zealand. Sharma would want to ace those conditions. Critics and fans would too. Should that matter?

One thing that Sharma has never lacked is talent. Although he doesn’t like this word too much. Almost a decade back during a conversation with this writer, Sharma had said, “Talent is nothing.” At that time he was a living example of that.

Having made his debut in 2007 and being part of India’s ICC World Twenty20 winning and CB Series winning team’s, Sharma was struggling in the international arena. Some felt that he had fallen to bad habits and in bad company. Former South African batsman Herschelle Gibbs in his book To The Point wrote about Sharma’s party-boy image which the then 24-year-old dismissed out of hand. But to his luck he found a captain, MS Dhoni, who believed that Sharma has to succeed if India has to do well. And now, a decade later, Sharma is a great of the limited-overs formats.

With the weight of his runs in white-ball cricket, he has been able to convince the current captain Virat Kohli that he can be an equally impactful player in Test cricket as an opener. The South Africa series earlier and this one now has felt this impact. Not many middle-order batsmen have successfully shifted to the opener’s slot in Test cricket.

So many times it happens that we see a player who is good in one format and in certain conditions and the fans want them to do well irrespective of format or the conditions. A good example was Yuvraj Singh in the last two decades. He remained one of the best white-ball players in the world, but couldn’t crack the Test code.

Sharma has played 37 Tests thus far and 10 as an opener. He has shown the mental fortitude to adjust to conditions. Can he be India’s all-weather opener in Tests? Maybe, maybe not. But if we can have condition specific bowlers, why not a condition specific opener?

Sharma knows how to channelise the hurt. As someone close to him says, “He was hurt for not being picked for the Indian team for the 2011 World Cup. He was determined to well in the future editions and he did exactly that. That is a proof of his mental strength. He wants to be part of a winning team.”

And if he keeps doing what he has in the last two Tests in incredibly challenging conditions, there is no stopping him.