Second ball of the Indian innings in the second ODI at Pallekele: Lasith Malinga bowled it outside off, short of length with enough width on offer. The batsman stood in his crease, tall and just hung out his bat, creaming it through cover for four. Almost like a hot knife cutting through butter.
It was a significant moment for Rohit Sharma. A shot that would have provided him much-needed confidence. He was rested for the limited-overs’ tour to West Indies and then benched throughout the three-Test series against Sri Lanka. The rust had shown up in Dambulla. There, in the first ODI, he struggled his way through 13 balls, scoring 4 runs. On a perfect batting strip, the ball was not coming onto his bat and his timing was wrong, even as Shikhar Dhawan sleepwalked his way to another hundred.
The difference was obvious, of course. One had been playing throughout the summer, building on his Champions Trophy success. The other, well, he was like the rusted chain of a bicycle. A lot of oil and grease was needed to get it running smoothly again. This is the crux of Rohit’s existence in the Indian dressing room today. You can throw in the adage of ‘talent’ whenever you want, but that alone doesn’t win him favours anymore. He is not expendable, but he has to wait his time.
“Nobody likes to sit out, but it depends on the team dynamics, what the captain and the coach want. And you have to accept the fact and move forward. That’s what I have been doing. You cannot sit here and waste time,” Rohit said, when asked about missing out yet another Test series. A day prior, he had been announced as the new ODI vice-captain.
It is an odd thing really. Rohit burst onto the international scene in 2007, a full year before Virat Kohli did. The rest – Dhawan, Ajinkya Rahane, Cheteshwar Pujara and KL Rahul – arrived even later. When it comes to the longer format, they are all ahead of him today in the pecking order. Wait, that is an understatement, they are all way ahead – if it were a race, it would have been long over now. In this world, Rohit may be the proverbial tortoise, but he doesn’t win the race against the rabbit. Slow and steady doesn’t get you anything in a competitive team environment that is bursting with talent.
It is akin to what Cheteshwar Pujara experiences, with regards to limited-overs. In another universe, he could still have the chance to make a go for it. Well, he might even succeed for he is a consistent run-scorer. But ask Pujara about it now, and he will only tell you that he is trying. Reflected behind his answer, there is an odd smile and acceptance that he isn’t part of the ODI or T20I team, and not likely to be either for the remainder of his career.
“I don’t want to talk about Test cricket, the series is over,” Rohit said, when asked about sitting out, yet again. Unlike Pujara, the thought rankles him obviously, probably because there is an added difference. Pujara is completely out of the picture in limited-overs, while Rohit has to sit twiddling his thumbs, waiting for that odd chance to come up. It can be frustrating, like watching a perfectly talented batsman throw it all away, chance after chance, and there is nothing you can do about it.
Yes, strange as it may sound, Rohit has become his own analogy. His peculiar case was the biggest question mark Kohli faced when starting with the captaincy reign. Like MS Dhoni, he tried but gave up. Like Gary Kirsten and Duncan Fletcher, Ravi Shastri tried and then moved on to more pressing topics. Like Kris Srikkanth and Sandeep Patil, MSK Prasad is trying too. Rohit is the question nobody has an answer to, apart from himself that is.
‘Shot!’ you wanted to cry out, when he repeated that same stroke – a creamy cover-drive – in the first over of India’s innings in the third ODI, again off Malinga. It was a near-replay from the previous game, the only difference being the mindset of the batsman. Previously, he had been looking to find his touch, wherein he makes batting look ridiculously easy. Now, he had found it, and he was doing precisely so – make it look easy even as India faltered again, to 61/4.
Yet, there was stability about the batsman at the crease this time around, and one isn’t talking about Dhoni here. The former Indian skipper did his thing for two games running, holding one end up. But unlike the second ODI, wherein Bhuvneshwar Kumar had to scrap his way towards the finishing line, Rohit just pummelled the Sri Lankan bowling attack instead.
He was the perfect batsman to counter the unpredictability of Akila Dananjay – someone who uses the depth of the crease perfectly, and has that extra second to blast balls over the boundary line. As much as he would have liked to do that though, Rohit curbed his instincts and played out Dananjay, preventing him from causing the Indian batting line-up any further grief. This patient approach brought Rohit his 12th ODI hundred.
As you watched him salute the dressing room, and soak in the moment, it made for some wonder. This is a cricketer pulling at the physical seams of his own existence. In one dimension, he is confused, unable to fathom what has gone wrong or what needs to be done to rectify it. In another dimension, he is composed, almost as if the gears are perfectly meshed, grinding without any wear and tear.
Rohit has found his niche – a comfort zone – in ODI (and T20I) cricket, and is now one of the more dependable batsmen in the shorter formats. There is a sense of calm, even assurance, when Rohit is batting in blue. His limited overs batting has taken a long time to evolve, but more importantly, it is finally here to stay.