The law of averages has been busy catching up with a couple of old friends this week.
After another season replete with outstanding moments, LeBron James, this year’s star purchase for the Miami Heat, made a hash of it in the NBA finals against the Mavericks. They’re talking about setting him up with a sports psychologist; with luck and a little help James will see better days. Meanwhile another prodigy – Indian batsman Rohit Sharma – finds himself, for the moment, riding the updraft.
The 24-year-old has done well for himself in the West Indies and has carried the side, not for the first time in his career, in the absence of some of the more established players. Not that there is an explicit comparison to be made between Sharma and James, but the question must be asked: what is it that compels underachievement among talented sportsmen at the highest levels?
James’s problem is likely ephemeral. On the other hand Sharma leaves sports writers and fans regularly baffled. Whenever I’ve watched him, he’s either scored a quick fifty or shepherded his side to a tough victory – as he did last week with his unbeaten 86 in Antigua. Everything about him is beautiful: his aggressiveness (which is conducted with an otherworldly calm), his bat-speed, his timing, the position he gets into before striking the ball. Even his ugliest heaves possess charm. He seemed to have the rare gift of match sense, of knowing exactly when to apply pressure on an opponent.
After he first burst upon the scene with fifties against the classy bowling lineup of Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Australia, like many others, I had Sharma pegged as Tendulkar’s eventual replacement in the Test side – a future captain even. Instead I find he has been supplanted by the likes of Suresh Raina and Virat Kohli. The scorecards from a majority of the matches that Sharma has featured in – ones I haven’t watched – seem unfathomable to me. It’s as if I’ve been reading reports about an entirely different cricketer.
A cursory glance at Sharma’s innings-by-innings score list shows he has suffered his share of early dismissals. He has struggled on bouncy pitches; the desperate attempts to convince himself of his ability have induced false strokes. In the middle of all that he seemed to have lost his confidence a bit. But, as some have pointed out, Sharma’s biggest problem appears to be of the rush-of-blood variety. He apparently possesses a lethal habit of losing it when attempting to settle into his rhythm.
Now every batsman has his ups and downs. It is the nature of sport that not even the best are immune to a dip in form. Funnily enough, when watching old Vengsarkar or Azharuddin videos online, I have noticed Sunil Gavaskar – one of the great run-getters in Test history with an average over 51 – invariably got out early in those matches. But star turns usually compensate for someone else’s failure; nothing odd there. (Those other batsmen probably didn’t do very well when our man Gavaskar was nudging his way to another of his 34 centuries.)
Sometimes a batsman gets an unplayable delivery first up or attempts an ambitious stroke before his feet are moving; at other times some fielder holds on to a ripper he might have dropped on another occasion. Luck often seems to go against a player when he’s experiencing a rough patch. Then there are times when the pressure gets to you. As commentators are so fond of saying, you’ve got to make the most of a good day.
Sharma's performances in the West Indies must be viewed as a fresh start. An appallingly poor tour of South Africa saw him struck off the team roster ahead of India’s victorious World Cup campaign; something that he is bound to regret for many years. It’s too early to tell if that disappointment will keep him hungry for several years to come, whether Kohli’s recent rise (out of remarkably similar circumstances) can inspire him to achieve all that his talent promises.
It’s entirely possible that Sharma is optimally suited to international T20 cricket, where he averages a touch under 35. But certainly, in theory he is potentially a brilliant find for all forms even if his record indicates otherwise. From 64 one-day internationals, the Mumbai batsman has just seven fifties and two hundreds against his name; contrast this against a Ranji average of over 60, including centuries in both innings of the 2009 final.
Allowances ought to be made for the fact that gifted underachievers are often frustratingly steeped in drama. They must fight themselves first, before anything else. We are accustomed to indulgently applauding the effort of talent that is limited, praising the heart and guts on display; but from the Laxmans and the Yuvrajs and now the Sharmas we expect the world, only to be confronted by inconsistency. They are like a favourite child who must bear the force of a well-meaning parent’s expectations.
Sharma is too precious a resource even for this powerful Indian batting line-up to waste. Nobody wants another Yuvraj Singh on their hands. Following this recent display of maturity, a long overdue Test debut – scuttled once before by injury – must surely be around the corner. But whether Sharma can keep his head and score a bunch of runs then is probably a question not even he can answer.