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Let’s talk about Rohit Sharma

Oct 24, 2008

Now that you have mentioned it (and I guess it was only a matter of time), might as well discuss the “proper Mumbai khadoos batsman” that Prithvi Shaw refers to. I know that you have followed Rohit Sharma’s career from his first-class days and have invested a lot of your time and mind-space on his batting. In fact, I was quite amused to learn that you have been hunting (in vain) for his Test batting videos online in the hope that you can show them to your two-year-old boy. I was amused only because I have rarely found Rohit’s Test batting to achieve the sublime heights that his one-day batting touches. I would rather watch clips of some of his mighty ODI knocks than to be reminded of the opportunities he squandered in the Test arena. 

To be fair to him, I think Rohit suffers from a huge perception-problem. He is one of those batsmen who doesn’t “seem” to work for his runs the way a Pujara appears to do. Neither does he sport the intensity of a Kohli or Tendulkar – their focus coming through in their preparation for each ball and the studied routines they bring forth before taking strike. Rohit seems to fall into that classic viewer trap of appearing to be a batsman who is “too casual”. And like pre-2001 VVS, he always seems to be one lazy stroke away from getting out. 

Rohit also suffers from an expectations problem. He was hyped to an unreal degree before his debut. And, after a pretty ordinary start, he turned into a monster batsman in ODIs. Now both the hype and the ODI form certainly helped him get a longish rope in Tests but I think it also meant that he was up against ridiculously unreasonable expectations. The guy began with two hundreds in his first two Tests – but oh, it was against a weakened West Indies at home. He got a 72 against New Zealand in Auckland – in an innings where no one else scored a fifty – but it was in a losing cause. He made a 79 in a game India won in Colombo – but it was only against Sri Lanka after all. You get the drift. Coming to think of it, Rohit has been judged on his one chance in England in 2014 (when he scored 28 and 6), the three chances in Australia in 2014 (when he passed 50 just once, that too in the dead rubber), and – most significantly – the two Tests in South Africa this year when he couldn’t cross 50 even once. I liked the 47 he made in Centurion but hey, who is going to give the guy any consolation points when India lost that game by 135 runs?

At the end of the day, I still think Rohit didn’t make the most of his chances. He was maybe lucky to get 25 Tests (which is eight more than what Kambli got by the way) but one cannot discount how he was up against such lofty expectations at a time when it wasn’t that easy to pile on runs in SENA countries. I mean, barring Kohli I don’t think any Indian batsman has done significantly better than Rohit in conditions that are deemed the real deal. Has Rohit played his final Test? I would hope not. But he is 31 and India will play a lot of Tests at home in the next two years, which will give many younger, middle-order batsmen a chance to cement themselves. I wish I am wrong, but I can’t help but think that we have come to the end of this saga. 

(ODIs, of course, are a different story. And relieved of his Test burdens he could well go on to become one of the all-time greats of the format. He is already well on his way.)

Sidvee

Oct 26, 2008

Hah! I didn’t expect you to take the bait on the first attempt. I know the Rohit narrative has taken so many twists and turns over the last decade that it is easy to forget how it all began. I don’t remember following his U-19 career much except for a few newspaper articles. I watched him in the T20 World Cup in SA and the subsequent ODI tournament in Australia, nodding my head in approval at all the Mumbai insiders’ hype about him. But I think I really became a fan only after watching him bat in Australia’s tour match against Board President’s XI in 2008. Thankfully you can still find clips of that innings on youtube. He looked like a guy born to play Test cricket, so tight, so organised, but also a free-flowing stroke player. This was followed by the twin hundreds in the final of 2008-09 Ranji Trophy to seal the match against UP. That he did it against the team that ousted Tamil Nadu by taking a heartbreaking narrow first-innings lead in the semi-final elevated him as a greater hero in my eyes. Somewhere in the corner of the internet there must be an old blogpost of mine celebrating Rohit as the rightful inheritor of the No. 4 slot a good three years before he even made his Test debut. I have stayed the same with my assessment of Rohit. Unfortunately the world around me has changed, especially that Kohli guy… 

I was looking for old tweets on Rohit’s rather prolonged phase of finding his feet in ODI cricket and how the whole expectations-problem that you talk about gained ground then. Amusingly I landed on this one from Manjrekar – not to mention, I had RTed it approvingly at the time. I think it’s that phase that hurts me the most about Rohit’s Test career. More than the recent failures to make the most of his chances. I know MSK Prasad is not the most admired of chairman of selectors in the Indian cricket circles, but I absolutely detested the tenures of Srikanth and Patil. They institutionalized a culture of handing out Test spots as a reward for ODI success (and vice versa in the case of Rohit). As a fan, it was particularly acute for me because it was the period (between 2010 to 2013) when I lived in Bombay and got to watch a lot of Rohit hundreds at the ground in the Ranji Trophy. To watch him bat for Bombay was so revealing. All the lazy narratives around him during that time did little justice to this giant of a Bombay batsman who was as khadoos as they come – flamboyant in appearance, but boy, did he put a price on his wicket. So, I was really glad to see Prithvi Shaw highlighting that aspect of Rohit, which very few outside Bombay would appreciate.

While I am happy about his extraordinary rise as an ODI batsman, it does come with some sense of regret. Rohit had the big shots in his repertoire even in his U-19 days, but they were more Tendulkarine, a very organic part of his batting. Somewhere along the line, when he was taking his big leaps in IPL and ODIs, he became a prolific six-hitter, which has come about with many minor tweaks in his technique, starting from the exaggerated back-lift all the way to the follow-through. And that seeped through into his Test batting too when he made a comeback after his initial run of six tests and the solitary Test in England. For instance, the 79 you mentioned in Colombo is a very impressive innings, but it was during that phase when he backed himself to hit a six as a release shot even in Tests. To be fair, he didn’t get out much trying to do that, but that initiative and urge to be able to hit a six as a release shot did make him a less balanced batsman than he used to be at the beginning. I keep going back to this clip of his 72 in Auckland, where he played some gorgeous classical square cuts – I don’t think he can play like that now. As an aside, I wish Ian Smith had commentated right through Rohit’s Test career – a lot of the perception problem wouldn’t have come about in the first place.

Having said that, I must add that he was quite impressive in the home series against NZ in 2016 when Kumble was the coach. His 82 in Kolkata was as fine a Test innings as any he has played (ya, I know what you are thinking). And just then he got injured paving the way for Karun Nair and the triple-hundred, which still haunts Indian cricket. Even in South Africa, I don’t think he played all that badly and outside of Kohli and AB at their absolute best, no one else really did much in a series played in such tough batting conditions. The problem for Rohit since missing the bus in his first stint is that he could only fit into the XI as the sixth batsman. In both his attempts to replace Pujara in ’15 and later Rahane in South Africa this year, Kohli put him in a spot where he had very little leeway for failure and that has in fact harmed his Test career more than helped – so much so that he won’t be considered for the sixth batsman slot either now.

To be honest, I wouldn’t call him lucky to have got 25 Tests but he has had his fair chances. Of course comparing with Kambli (poor Amre) might make it appear so, but in this era, especially in Indian cricket, the selectors do give a long rope to most batsmen. And no, I don’t think he has played his last Test. Give me hope, man. I need something to hold on to. 

Of course, there is Shai Hope too. I think it’s just me. I seem to be attracted to these batsmen who will initially tease you with overflowing promise and mess with your mind and soul for the rest of the journey. I wouldn’t have it any other way. What a glorious 36 that was at Uppal – the backfoot punch through the covers will resonate with me for a long time to come.

Talking of Rohit and Hope, who are the cricketers you thought were the next big thing but whose careers never really took off? And what about vice versa? For instance, after watching Sehwag play just one ball against Shoaib in Chandigarh, I was absolutely convinced that he wouldn’t play for India again. I think that’s my worst call of all time.

Mahesh

Oct 27, 2018

Well, what can I say? The selectors have given him another chance on the Australia tour. 

Here’s what I had written about him in my column a few weeks ago:

As for Test cricket, Rohit may go down the same path traversed by Vinod Kambli or Ajay Jadeja: batsmen who had towering first-class records only to flounder in the five-day game. Or maybe, with a lucky break here and a big innings there, he could go the way of Mike Hussey and Misbah-ul-Haq: batsmen who blossomed in the longer format in their mid- and late-thirties.

Looks like the break may arrive soon. And as for big innings? He might not get a better chance in SENA countries than against an Australian side trying to do their best without Smith and Warner.

Do I agree with the selection? No. Especially when you see that Karun Nair – who would have batted at No.6 – was left out without getting a chance in six Tests. And also: it is likely that Rohit would play only if the team management decides to drop Hanuma Vihari – which is another harsh decision for a player who made a half-century in his last Test. But I guess all this will be forgotten if Rohit goes on to have a splendid series and cements his spot in the Test team. 

I remember you had said that you saw Rohit as an heir to VVS Laxman. What better chance to make a comeback than in a series against Australia? 

Sidvee

Oct 27, 2018

My sense is he is more of a backup for Rahane if his prolonged one-step-forward-two-steps-back run continues. Now that Pandya is injured, and Kohli is unlikely to play both Ashwin and Jadeja, the 6th batsman slot also opens up in the XI. 

Stylistically yes, I always saw him as the cultural continuation of the Azhar-Lax lineage. The love affair with Eden Gardens is no mere coincidence, is it? No, inspite of all the extensive wristwork involved in his batting,  Kohli is clearly not in the same mould– you could tie a slightly flexible stick to Kohli’s back, and it wouldn’t come in the way of his batting at all.

Let me push my luck a bit more now that merely hoping he hadn’t played his last Test was good enough to get him back in the squad. If Rohit could produce a hundred like Lax did at the SCG in ’04 in the second Test at Perth…

Mahesh

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