A little under two months back, Rohit Sharma slipped into his 11th year in international cricket, the second active Indian to have completed a decade at the top level after Ishant Sharma. As if in celebration of that accomplishment, the national selectors named him vice-captain, for the first time, of the Indian side to do battle in five One-Day Internationals and a lone Twenty20 International over the next three weeks in Sri Lanka.
That the selectors felt the need to name a vice-captain at all for a bilateral series, even if overseas, when they did not have a designated deputy to Virat Kohli for even the Champions Trophy 2017 is a matter of great interest. Perhaps it is to make Rohit feel secure in the team environment because even though he is a member of the Test squad, team dynamics have often dictated that he be left to cool his heels on the sidelines. Perhaps it is to reward him for his run as captain in the Indian Premier League of Mumbai Indians, whom he has led to an unparalleled three titles, including earlier this year. Perhaps it is to ensure that there is continuity when Kohli sits out a few limited-overs games this home season. Perhaps it is because after Kohli, Rohit is the first guaranteed name on the selectors’ white-ball list, barring injury or illness.
Rohit’s has been an interesting journey of what is, and what could have been. As a fresh-faced and immensely gifted 20-year-old, he caught the eye in his very first year at the top level, both at the World T20 in South Africa in 2007 and in the triangular series in Australia the following February-March. Even at that early stage, it was obvious that Rohit was a Test star in the waiting, only the presence of the luminaries holding back his elevation.
“IPL, and when you come and play international cricket, it is completely different. But again, the excitement and the energy level is the same. So yes, nothing changes too much. I am the vice-captain here, there I was the captain, so I was more in front. Here I have to play a little behind-the-scene role. But I will be very excited to step on to the field as the vice-captain of the Indian team.”
His first shot at a Test debut offered itself in February 2010 against South Africa in Nagpur, with Rahul Dravid recovering from jaw surgery and VVS Laxman nursing a split webbing, both sustained on the preceding tour to Bangladesh. However, Rohit twisted his ankle on the morning of the Test, throwing Wriddhiman Saha an unexpected lifeline. The Mumbaikar had to wait a further three-and-a-half years before becoming India’s 280th Test cricketer, debuting at Eden Gardens in November 2013. He made a century in each of his first two innings, but in a career typically Rohit Sharma, those remain his only two tons in 21 Tests.
More out of than in the Test side, Rohit has found his calling in the white-ball version. The only man to have made two ODI double hundreds, Rohit also belongs to a very select club of batsmen who have made international centuries in all three formats. He holds the record for the highest ODI score, 264, and has grown by his own admission from a biffer and basher to a mature, majestic stroke-maker who has made it a habit of erecting giant monuments in blue clothing.
Successive captains and team managements have walked the extra mile to accommodate Rohit, the move to elevate him to the top of the batting tree in January 2013 opening up new vistas for Indian white-ball cricket. The runs have flowed in torrents since, with a consistency that is staggering. Between January 2013 and now, Rohit has amassed 3457 runs in 72 ODIs at 54.87; nine of his 11 tons, and 19 of his 31 fifties have come in this period. These numbers bear no resemblance to the modest returns between his debut in June 2007 and January 2013 – 1978 runs in 86 ODIs, average an anaemic 30.43.
Rohit’s ODI average of 42.46 (strike-rate 84.56) and T20I numbers of 31.72 (average) and 129.41 (strike-rate) far overshadow an average of 37 in 21 Tests. Three of his seven Test fifties came in successive games against New Zealand at the start of the last home season, but a thigh injury that necessitated surgery and kept him out of the game for nearly six months cut short his second Test coming. He warmed the bench during all three Tests in Sri Lanka as India went with the all-round skills of Hardik Pandya, employing the latter as the fifth bowler. Rohit doesn’t like talking Test cricket at this moment, and you can understand why.
However, he is more than happy to share his emotions at being elevated to the vice-captaincy. “It is a huge honour to be appointed as the vice-captain,” he said at Pallekele International Cricket Stadium on Wednesday (August 16), during an optional training session for the Indian boys. “Ten years ago, I was only thinking of playing for India. Being the vice-captain now feels really, really good. It’s a kind of honour; whenever the opportunity comes, at the first one-dayer which is on August 20, there will be some sort of role that I will need to play and I am looking forward to it. I am not thinking too much about it, I just want to enjoy the moment as of now. Yes, it will be a good opportunity for me to get on to the field. As we have seen, the last few years have been really good, we just need to continue that.”
Rohit has plenty of experience of leading sides out – both in domestic cricket and in the IPL, but he was quick to point out that the IPL experience wouldn’t really help too much, especially in a vice-captaincy scenario. “It’s a different ballgame completely,” he insisted. “IPL, and when you come and play international cricket, it is completely different. But again, the excitement and the energy level is the same. So yes, nothing changes too much. I am the vice-captain here, there I was the captain, so I was more in front. Here I have to play a little behind-the-scene role. But I will be very excited to step on to the field as the vice-captain of the Indian team.”
“It’s gone very fast, those ten years. Yes, it has been up and down but that’s how it is for any sportsman. And that’s how it should be. You get to learn a lot more when you have your ups and downs. It teaches you a lot many things. I always wait for an opportunity to play for India, whichever format it is. Before those ten years, I never thought I would play for India. I was just enjoying my cricket, playing for my school, for Mumbai and yes, once I realised that cricket is getting tougher and tougher…”
Still only 30, Rohit has several good years ahead of him if he can steer clear of injuries that have plagued him from time to time. While there might be an underlying sense of disappointment that his Test career hasn’t hit the high notes it should have, given how gifted he is as a batsman, Rohit is delighted at the successes he has courted over the decade. In many ways, he is thankful for the bad times which have helped him appreciate the good times even more; the ten-year landmark and the first-time vice-captaincy, coming immediately on the back of each other, have served to stoke his competitive juices every further.
“It’s gone very fast, those ten years,” he smiled, a little disbelievingly. “Yes, it has been up and down but that’s how it is for any sportsman. And that’s how it should be. You get to learn a lot more when you have your ups and downs. It teaches you a lot many things. I always wait for an opportunity to play for India, whichever format it is. Before those ten years, I never thought I would play for India. I was just enjoying my cricket, playing for my school, for Mumbai and yes, once I realised that cricket is getting tougher and tougher…
“When I started playing Ranji Trophy, I realised that I had that goal that I can look at. And once I was picked for the Indian team, there was no looking back from then. Even now when I stand here being the vice-captain, it feels pretty good. There’s a lot more to do and I look forward to it.”