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The Hitman cometh, even if belatedly

Wisden India logo Wisden India 14-02-2018
© AP Photo

Off the first 15 balls Rohit Sharma faced at St George’s Park on Tuesday (February 13), he had only one run. You would think a batsman walking into this match with only 40 runs in four preceding One-Day Internationals, and 118 runs in eight innings on tour overall, would start to feel the pressure. In his next three balls, Rohit languidly cut Morne Morkel to the point fence, and then stepped down the track to Kagiso Rabada to make one of the signature ‘clean Rohit connections’, the one where you know the ball will be sailing over the boundary – any boundary in the world – as soon as it has left his bat.

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When it comes to Rohit, the pressure might be felt more by those watching and over-thinking on his behalf. For the man himself, what has happened in the past is in the past. After that, it’s the next match, the next over, the next ball. And in the fifth ODI of the series against South Africa, Rohit broke a mini-hoodoo with 115 off 126 balls, starring in India’s 274 for 7 and eventual 73-run win. It put India up 4-1 and sealed a historic first-ever bilateral triumph against South Africa away.

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(Slideshow provided by Sportskeeda)

At the end of it all, the centurion could share a joke, or several, with the assembled press corps. “I got out in three [four] matches only mere bhai, how can you say form is bad after three matches? You guys put people in good form after one match, and if somebody doesn’t have three good matches, you say he is in bad form,” laughed Rohit.

When it was clarified that the questioner meant Rohit had broken a hoodoo specific to South Africa – a Test average of 15.37 stretching back to 2013-14 and an ODI average of 11.45 since 2007 – Rohit countered with a smile again. “Nahin yaar, 2013 was different. I had just turned into an opener from a middle-order batsman. The way I am batting now, it has evolved a lot. Whatever happened before 2013 and in 2013, forget about that. Ask me about what has happened since then,” he said, drawing a fresh round of laughter. “I admit the first four matches weren’t great but that happens. It happens with everybody. But I was in a good frame of mind, I was batting well in the nets, there was no pattern to my dismissals. That happens in every cricketer’s career. I knew I had to stay in a good frame of mind. And we won the series after today’s knock, so there is nothing better than that for me.”

That Rohit hadn’t looked out of sorts is a fact. And though he fell thrice to Rabada in the four ODIs (and thrice in the Tests too), he was right in there being no pattern to his dismissals. In Durban, he was looking good but top-edged an intended pull off Morkel with the ball getting slightly big on him. In Centurion, he had already hit a six and two fours when he hooked Rabada to fine-leg. In Cape Town, he faced down a terrific first over from Rabada in which the last ball took his inside edge even as he tried to withdraw his bat. And in Johannesburg, he jammed one back for Rabada to time a dive to perfection.

What Rohit knew was that he wasn’t far away from a big score. How he knew it is perhaps part confidence, part athletic sixth sense, part conviction that if he was feeling good and batting well in practice, it had to translate into runs on the field sooner than later.

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“In our dressing room, we are always talking how we are batting and how we are playing the ball. Scores sometimes don’t reflect that at times, sometimes they do, but that doesn’t mean that suddenly you have become a bad player,” he reflected. “Because you have achieved so much, scored so many runs, two or three bad innings doesn’t change that. This is not just for me, but for all batsmen in the team, because such a situation does come that you are trying your hardest but things don’t come off. So at that point it is important that you relax and take a step back and think about what you need to do in the next game.

“Every day is a new day and what you have done in the past will really not matter. It is the same thing I am thinking right now. My hundred has gone now and the next game I play, the hundred I scored isn’t going to matter much. So it is important to stay in the present. Our staff and experienced players are always talking about this and what our mindset is. Sometimes you see a player and think his mindset is not good, but you have to follow your routines and if you trust your routines, you won’t have to wait too long for results. Like I did, and I knew that a big score is coming and I just have to be in that zone, not get completely bogged down and start worrying about my batting.”

Rohit may want to get in his zone, but all things Rohit are newsworthy. He made headlines when he was picked for the first two Tests above Ajinkya Rahane. He made news when he was subsequently dropped. He regularly grabs space for his limited-overs feats, and equally when he doesn’t score.

“I feel privileged if people are talking about me,” Rohit cheekily said, inducing a fresh round of titters. “People want to talk about me, they can talk about me!

“But to be honest, what goes in my head is completely opposite,” he added. “I am here to do something special for the team. Whenever I get an opportunity to play, I always see it as a chance to do something special for my country today. As a youngster you worry about all those things, but I have passed that age now to keep worrying about what’s going on outside the field, or what people want to talk, or what people don’t want to talk. As long as you are playing the sport, good things and bad things will happen. When you are doing good things, people will talk. When you are doing bad things, people will still talk. I have managed that really well in the past few years because when you are having a good time, you should be aware that there will be a bad time as well. That’s how sportsmen’s careers go. I am pretty much in that space right now.”

The space and bubble that he creates is what perhaps allows Rohit to shrug off past failures more quickly than others could. It might have also helped him during his century, over the course of which both Virat Kohli and Rahane were run out. It wasn’t entirely Rohit’s fault in either dismissal, but he could have shown more alacrity in refusing risky singles earlier too. But with both men run out, the responsibility on Rohit to make a big score increased. When he did reach his hundred, the celebrations were subdued.

With the match and series won, there was nothing subdued in Rohit’s explanation. “Celebration… yaar two guys got run out before me earlier, so I couldn’t celebrate,” he said, leading a fresh round of laughter. “I was not in a mood to celebrate. But I knew that if we could get 270-280, it will be difficult for them because we knew the pitch is very slow and anything could happen as our wrist-spinners are bowling very well and they have troubled their batsmen a lot.

“Celebration, it depends on what kind of mood you are in. Two of our main batsmen got run out, so I wanted to carry on and the celebration was not in my mind at all. I just wanted to keep batting as long as possible and get the team to a decent target. We realised at one point after 20-25 overs that it’s not a 300 track because it was getting slower and slower and shot-making wasn’t easy. I knew when I was batting at 100 that I have to carry on but unfortunately got out at the wrong time. At the end I still felt 270-odd was a par score, definitely not a winning score but a par score.”

The celebrations that were held back in reserve were given full expression once the series was sealed. The vice-captain’s bonhomie post-match was evidence enough of that.

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