“I don’t have an answer for it. How can I say that now? All I can hope is that the team is in a good space. To play 11 ODIs in one-and-a-half months is not easy. It’s a long World Cup,” Rohit Sharma had told this newspaper before the tournament.
Now that the 11th game has tripped him and India, does the fact that they had a nation clasped in a hypnotic spell with their addictive style of play, even postponing the hand-wringing over the future of ODI cricket, ease the blow of this final loss?
Perhaps not. Regret is likely to sweep in after a while that his greatest chance at a career-defining triumph blew away in the Ahmedabad wind, but hopefully he will be able to see the big picture of the enchanting spell the team cast on a nation.
Until the moment he charged out to Glenn Maxwell, triggered by the consciously-cultivated over-aggressive urge that has transformed the Indian batting unit in this World Cup, it seemed he would have a lasting effect on the final.
“It would be nice to win the World Cup, but one has to be nice and balanced, not get excited,” he had said on match eve.
A boy who grew up with his grandparents, the kid who would need to touch the wall with his feet while sleeping in a cramped room with eight adults, the 20-year old who won the 2007 ICC World T20 and thought “international cricket is easy”, the youngster who couldn’t fathom why he wasn’t selected for the 2011 World Cup was now an adult dragging his team along towards what he perceived was his destiny.
The ODI World Cup was the pinnacle of his dreams when he was a kid, playing and fighting during tennis-ball games, and watching every live game and endless highlights with his uncles and grandfather. “It was always cricket.” Nothing else mattered; he was consumed by cricket.
He had just hit a six and a four off Maxwell in that over, and the decibel levels were deafening in the stands. But Rohit wanted more. He had decided and informed his teammates of his batting plan before the World Cup; sought their acceptance and was at it relentlessly.
“If I have to adapt to the situation, I would like how I did against England,” he would say on match eve, referring to his innings when India lost a few early wickets in Lucknow.
Risk doesn’t pay off
Now, there was no such game situation. Just one wicket had fallen. Rohit was in total control, and wanted to press the foot on the Aussies’ throat. It was just Maxwell, after all, and off he went down the pitch, charging again like the leader he wanted to be, to show the way to his teammates.
But where most part-timers would have fired the ball in, Maxwell, admirably, floated this one ever so slowly, and the thought must have hit Rohit during its downward bat-swing that he needed luck to jail-break this moment. He had committed too much to the shot to pull out, and went through with it. He would still have survived had it not been Travis Head running frantically back, eyes on the ball, and throwing himself not just to grab the ball but somehow ensure that it didn’t pop out when the hand hit the ground.
He led the talk in the team huddle just before the Australian chase. It was a very short chat this time, unlike during the semi-final which seemed to go on and on. He broke away from the huddle, smiled over something with Mohammed Shami and walked to mid-off. He would hop in hope and come down in angst as the first ball from Jasprit Bumrah had David Warner flashing between Virat Kohli and Shubman Gill in the slips. Neither moved. Surprisingly, Kohli too had frozen as the ball went pretty close past him.
But he would grab the next offering from Warner that came in the second over. A ball later, when Mitchell Marsh had a wild swing and a miss, Rohit would clap and a hint of a smile would appear. He would rush to his teammates with passion when Marsh fell and would erupt when Jasprit Bumrah probably bowled the ball of the World Cup – a wondrous slow off-cutter – to take down Steve Smith.
But Head would ram India with his counterattack, and Marnus Labuschagne would deepen India’s woes with his patience, and the fire-and-ice combo would slowly push Rohit into an impassive state. He still kept trying, kept talking to his bowlers, shining the ball furiously, but he must have known the match was gone.
The lowest point in his career was when he wasn’t considered good enough to play the 2011 World Cup. He couldn’t understand it, and it took him a while to get over it. Over the years, he has referenced it, a bone stuck in the throat forever. But the greater danger in that aftermath was slipping into self-pity-led self-destruction. But he course-corrected. On his own.
“I myself realised what I had to do. Honestly, not many individuals have played a part in my journey,” Rohit says, with an inverted gaze. “Whatever I have created today, it’s because of myself, of course there has been support from my family and friends, everybody. I realised I had to make all this talent etc count. Else, it’s a meaningless word. It’s not like someone has called me and said ‘boss, do this!’ And why will anyone do it? I didn’t expect anything from anyone,” he told this newspaper.
Growing up in the game
It was the beginning of the turnaround. He tweaked his batting, slowly began to grab his chances, but his salvation came in the unlikeliest of formats: T20 cricket. In 2013, he became the captain of Mumbai Indians, where he ran into the likes of Ricky Ponting and Mahela Jayawardene. Ponting, he says, taught him the importance of micro-planning and attitude-stamping. Jayawardene, a smart tactician who excelled in trusting his on-field instincts, too shaped him.
Runs came, IPL titles came, international white-ball reputation came in the 2015 World Cup and later, his long-awaited tryst with Test cricket began at the unlikeliest spot as an opener. He worked on his batting even more, again on his own, turned himself into a classical opener and has flourished since then.
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The only thing remaining was the Indian captaincy, and when Kohli left in a cloud, Rohit stepped in. He couldn’t snatch the WTC Test title, couldn’t work his magic in the T20 World Cup, and would decide that enough was enough – he will do the final lap at the ODI World Cup on his own terms. In his own way. Attacking, swaggering, stirring his pack of bowlers to unleash terror under lights, and bossing the world.
Until the Aussies came out to stop his juggernaut. Dilip Vengsarkar, the former India captain and selector, tells a lovely story about Rohit’s first tryst with the Australians. Impressed with the 17-year old’s talent, he had convinced the Cricket Club of India team’s coach Chandrakant Pandit to blood him in a match against Australia. But Rohit turned up for the big day without his kit bag, and couldn’t play. “He said I didn’t know I would be playing,” Vengsarkar recalled.
From there to leading India to a World Cup final against Australia has been one dreamy journey for the boy from suburban Mumbai, but he was to be tripped at the last hurdle.