“When the opportunity comes (to captain India), it comes. I will grab it with both hands,” Rohit Sharma, India’s stand-in T20 skipper, had commented soon after he had led Mumbai Indians to the 2017 IPL title. The swashbuckling, talented Mumbaikar had been a revelation right through the tournament. Not just with his batting, which showed sparks of brilliance every now and then, but with his tactical nous as skipper.
It wasn't Rohit’s first tryst as a title-winning skipper though. He had led Mumbai Indians to their maiden title in 2013 and added one more in 2015 before capping it off with a third this year. Surely, there is something about Rohit Sharma the leader. How else could he have taken the team to three titles in five seasons?
Rohit then stood up and gave an exhibition of aggressive, intelligent, flamboyant captaincy in his short stint as India's T20I skipper during the ongoing series against Sri Lanka.
The Mumbai fans, who had seen his outrageous double-hundred and fastest T20I hundred on TV, flocked to the Wankhede Stadium for the final T20I, despite it being a dead rubber, to witness another Hitman special on his home ground. Instead, they got to witness Rohit Sharma, the skipper in full bloom.
He had already set the template in the first two T20Is by promoting MS Dhoni to No 4 in the batting line-up and freeing him from his usual responsibilities, a move that brought instant and rich rewards.
In the final T20I, with the series won 2-0, Rohit wasn't hesitant to take more radical decisions. He not only handed a debut to young Washington Sundar, but also thrust him with the responsibility of bowling with the new ball. At first glance, it might seem like the youngster was thrown in the deep end. But Sundar, all of 18, is a master in bowling during the powerplay overs in this format of the game. He has done it with aplomb for Rising Pune Supergiant in the IPL and in the Tamil Nadu Premier League as well.
In the 2017 edition of IPL, he had put a leash on David Warner and Shikhar Dhawan while opening the bowling for Pune and restricting both the free-scoring batsmen with his skidding off-breaks. With Sri Lanka boasting of two left-handers at the top and Sundar specialising in bowling within the powerplays, the move to open the attack with him was a masterstroke from Rohit.
At the other end, he persisted with Jaydev Unadkat, who had been immensely successful with his fearless variations while opening the attack in the first two matches. While most of Unadkat's success in the IPL came in the death overs, Rohit realised that it could be as handy when taking the new ball, another move that puts the Mumbaikar's tactical brilliance in good light.
In the powerplay overs, with Lanka boasting of a reckless trio at the top — Niroshan Dickwella, Upul Tharanga and Kusal Perera — Unadkat's slower varieties would be a change the visitors weren't expecting and that was exactly how it turned out to be. The execution was perfect as Unadkat finished with four wickets in three games at a stunning economy of 4.88 and rightly won the Man of the Series award (He also won the Man of the Match award in the third T20I).
The manner in which Rohit gave the youngster the freedom to express himself with the ball was evident in Unadkat's instant success. That he is already a favourite for India’s third seamer slot in T20s alongside Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar speaks volumes about the massive stride he has made since his not-so-celebrated Test debut way back in 2010. Rohit's management of the left-arm seamer was top notch and it showed in the results.
Another striking aspect of Rohit’s leadership on Sunday was how he tactically switched Dhoni from No 4. Ideally it would have made sense to give Dhoni a continuous streak of games at that position. But being a dead rubber and on a challenging pitch Rohit presumably wanted to see how the youngsters would fare under pressure.
He thrust Shreyas Iyer and Manish Pandey with the responsibility of finishing off a rather below-par target. The duo made 30 in 32 and 32 in 29 and couldn't really seal things off for the hosts. In fact, it required a booming six from Dinesh Karthik and a typical Dhoni finish at the end to win the game for India.
But that isn't the point.
It is how Rohit trusted his younger troops to handle the pressure and guide India home that deserves a round of applause. It may not quite have clicked, but the experience will only toughen up Iyer and Pandey and make them more mature cricketers.
It's been a short stint at the helm for Rohit, but the best things in cricket have unfolded over the shortest of stints. This has been a short and sweet assignment as Indian skipper for the marauding Hitman.
Once Virat Kohli returns, he would, by default, take back the honour of leading India but it wouldn't hurt to take a lesson or two from a refreshing spell of captaincy by Rohit.