World Cup 2019: Rohit Sharma’s eight-year project – cricket
England’s World Cup triumph was hailed as the fruition of a four-year project under skipper Eoin Morgan, born from the wreckage of the 2015 edition. India’s semi-final heartbreak against New Zealand that doused the hopes of a third title, though, didn’t do justice to another project, also a roaring success: Rohit Sharma’s eight-year long programme to reinvent himself as a run machine.
When Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s team were rejoicing with the trophy and carrying Sachin Tendulkar around the Wankhede Stadium after the 2011 title triumph, Sharma was still recovering from the shock dealt weeks earlier after the selectors had kept him out of the Cup squad. The verdict was clear: His talennt was unquestionable, his commitment to fitness was not.
This World Cup was redemption time. Sharma made it all look easy; new ball, old ball, swing, seam, spin, all were dealt with effortlessly.
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Deft touch and pure timing saw the ball caressed to the fence. Big innings followed one after another in his sensational run of five centuries in nine games. In a team that fretted over a few stop-gap solutions, Sharma was the absolute permanent—an artistic batsman making a statement at the biggest stage.
It took the 2011 jolt for Sharma to decide he would work to become the best cricketer he could be. Till then, he offered glimpses of his special talent when in mood, and then hit a lull.
His former Mumbai teammate and friend, Abhishek Nayar, recalls the moment that shook Sharma awake.
“There comes a time when a cricketer is desperate to fulfill his potential. We were the best of friends and I kept telling Rohit, ‘training karte hai yaar, thoda mehnat karenge’ (Let’s train, put in some effort). But Rohit was always ‘nahin, batting karte hain’ (no, let us just bat). When in the West Indies (2011), the media wrote about how he has put on weight, those things really hurt him,” says Nayar.
For Virat Kohli, a push from then coach Duncan Fletcher was the trigger to become arguably the fittest player in the side. For Sharma, who had made his India debut before his current skipper, it sank in during a quiet moment.
“I remember sitting in his house watching a match. He told me ‘joh bhi karna hai, apne ko fit hona hai, aur cricket alag tarike se khelna hai’ (whatever I have to do, I want to get fit, play cricket differently). I look at him and asked, ‘tu seriously bol raha hain ya har baar jaise bolta hai’ (are you serious or saying like you always do). He said, ‘nahin, tu joh bolega woh sahi’ (No, whatever you say I’ll do).”
The mission had begun. Sharma, until then carefree and happy to go where talent took him, suddenly had a new tagline on his social media account: ‘burn it to earn it’.
Nayar saw the transformation from close. “From there on, I stayed with him for about a month-and-a-half; we went on this crazy routine of practising all day—three to four sessions, taking him out of the comfort zone, doing different things. That is where it started between me and him and it has continued since. It has been great, working out together as friends and benefitting.
“That was in the build up to the 2011 IPL. It was the first time we got to see a bit of Rohit’s four-pack. We still joke ‘four-pack lana hai’,” Nayar says. “I am very happy to see Rohit fulfill his potential.”
The World Cup opportunity first came in 2015. A century and two fifties in a total of 330 at an average of 47.14 before India’s campaign halted at the semi-finals. This time he not just dug deep into his batting potential, his leadership (he was vice-captain) also shone through in his responsible approach.
In 2019, the numbers tell the tale: 122* vs South Africa, 57 versus Australia, 140 versus Pakistan, 102 vs England, 104 vs Bangladesh and 103 vs Sri Lanka.
In nine games, he tallied 648 runs (SR 98.33) at an average of 81. India won every group game, barring the England clash.
Finishing as the highest run-getter of this edition proved that Sharma’s journey was a resounding success, though the failure in the semis will rankle.
“He is a big match player, he has evolved as a cricketer. I am not surprised, he kept getting these hundreds, in difficult conditions, different conditions. I always expected that from Rohit,” says Nayar.
His template was pretty much failsafe through the group games. He showed patience at the start to acknowledge the tricky English conditions, before unveiling his clean hitting.
Sachin Tendulkar was among his admirers as a TV pundit at the World Cup. “His success at the World Cup was due to his mindset and shot selection. In the first match against South Africa, he was not able to find the middle of the bat, but he said to himself, ‘this is my first match and I will settle down’. He spent time in the middle and found it (rhythm).
“He has a superb bat swing, clean like a pendulum. He was picking the ball from the bowlers’ hand, and picking the deliveries early.”
Nayar attributes Sharma’s success to priorities—wife Ritika and daughter Samaira, and the lessons learnt as Mumbai Indians skipper.
“You feel calm, you feel your life is settled and that is the best feeling for any sportsmen. The MI captaincy has given him an understanding of a different dimension. He started looking at the game more as captain. Rohit is his own man now,” Nayar says.
“Even in his press conferences, I see the same Rohit (talking like he does in private). That shows how comfortable he is with himself, and it reflects in his cricket.”
Sharma’s maturity showed in how he adapted to situations, assessing the bowling, conditions and the match situation. In the opener against South Africa, with India chasing a modest total, he buckled down to focus on seeing the team home, cutting down on flamboyance. But when he wanted to put pressure on the Pakistan bowlers, he attacked early with flowing strokes.
Sharma though wasn’t in great form in the IPL. There wasn’t time for elaborate preparation though India were allowed to start their World Cup five days into it, giving a 22-day break after the T20 tournament. The English conditions demanded a different approach, and Sharma was ready.
“In IPL, you go out and hit, don’t get to spend time on the wicket. At the World Cup, he looked to stay at the wicket, playing his strokes after getting set,” says childhood coach Dinesh Lad. “He batted with great maturity; this is the best I’ve seen him play.”
For Nayar, being in a great mental space was the key. “That’s why family is so important because sometimes you can go back and think ‘I am not doing well with the bat’, but you didn’t see that with Rohit.
“He didn’t have a good IPL, but even then as a captain to win it and make those tough calls in pressure situations—those things put you in a good space.”
Even when some of his teammates began training to get into shape for the World Cup, he was on holiday in Maldives with his family. He started preparing only when he reached London with the team.
Thinking for the team was next. “He left a lot of balls outside the off-stump; he scored a lot of runs square of the wicket, with cuts and pulls. He used the crease very well, as in where to stand for which bowler,” Nayar says.
He was also smart in planning. “In the first match against South Africa, he wasn’t pulling (due to extra pace), but playing the swivel pull, using the pace. When he got better pitches, he started playing the normal pull. He also played along the carpet.”
In IPL, Sharma had some issues against a couple of wrist-spinners, but in England he smothered turn with wristy play.
“In T20 sometimes, you have to play the big shots and you look like a player who doesn’t play spin very well,” says coach Lad.
“Rohit dominates spin as well as fast bowling. Even when others struggle, he is easily able to take singles. Sometimes, a certain type of bowler will trouble you. But when in good mental space, it lets you react instinctively and make the right decision,” says Nayar.
Sharma attributed his stellar World Cup run to staying focused, one match at a time, and practising a kind of selective amnesia after each match.
“What has happened has happened, every day is a new day in cricket. I want to start every day as a fresh day,” Sharma said.
“I come out thinking I have not played any ODIs or scored any hundreds in the tournament. That is the mindset I want to get in and I keep telling myself that.”
The semifinal defeat to New Zealand, being eliminated after topping the points table, will hurt for a long time.
“Knowing Rohit, he will feel that despite being in such good form, he couldn’t get his team through. But he will be raring to make amends,” says Nayar. “For him it is about India. It will be about having a good West Indies series and showing that India are still a powerhouse.”