By Jamie Alter
About 40 minutes after Mumbai Indians’ eight-run win over Chennai Super Kings at the Wankhede Stadium on Friday night, once the post-match presentation had concluded and all but a handful of fans had left the stadium, as the ground staff and TV crew went about their work, Rohit Sharma sat down in the middle of the centre pitch. He did so as comfortably as he would flop into a reclining chair and looked around the stadium, knees raised and palms flat on the turf. He looked at ease with himself and the surroundings, and it didn’t appear like he was bothered at having to wait a couple moments for Harbhajan Singh, the Man of the Match, to join him before the pair made their way into the conference hall for the obligatory press conference.
Moments later, seated next to Harbhajan before a sizeable media contingent, Rohit’s face betrayed a faint smile as he fielded a question on being back in the city of where he grew up, for whom he plays first-class cricket, and in which he honed his craft. “Yes, it feels really good to be back in Mumbai, and to be playing at the Wankhede in front of such a passionate crowd. I’m enjoying being back here and playing for Mumbai Indians. My job is to go out and perform and that’s what I did.”
Rohit’s adjustment into his new IPL team, after three years with Deccan Chargers, has, on the face of it, been smooth. He appears at home here, especially when batting at the Wankhede. It was here that he sealed a win over Pune Warriors last Wednesday with a fluent back-foot six over extra cover off the final ball, and on Friday he was in the thick of things while leading Mumbai Indian’s recovery with a 46-ball 87.
While it is tempting to suggest Rohit is looking like a million bucks when batting these days, anyone who has followed his career knows that that is the problem. He rarely looks anything less than spectacular when he drives and cuts and flicks, but the outrageous talent just hasn’t translated into success at international level. Sixty-one One-Day Internationals and 20 Twenty20 Internationals across nearly four years isn’t justification of what Rohit is capable of. “Yes, it has been disappointing. I know I have not reached my potential. I am working hard,” he says.
Criticism is not a new aspect of Rohit’s life. He has had to face the brickbats after repeated failures at the highest level, and understands that it is natural considering the high expectancy from him and the way the media functions. “The media has a job to do. We cannot stop them from doing their job. It’s understandable that they will criticise, but people should understand that cricket is just a game.”
If he continues batting the way he has in the IPL, Rohit will curb some of that criticism. He has worked hard – “I trained for one month and just focused on fitness so that I could bat better” – and there is fluidity to his movements in the IPL. In back-to-back matches, he has bailed Mumbai Indians out of trouble in contrasting manner. Against Chennai Super Kings at the Wankhede on Friday afternoon, Rohit began by counter-attacking against Doug Bollinger who had just removed Sachin Tendulkar during a testing opening spell full of clever short-pitched deliveries.
Rohit’s first two scoring shots were elegant square-drives for four, and he repeated the dosage against Joginder Sharma, who was effortlessly lofted from outside the off stump to over deep midwicket for six. There was also room for two scooped sixes, shots that require precision only nurtured through hard work in the nets.
Against Deccan Chargers, Rohit bided his team and with Andrew Symonds took Mumbai Indians out of a hole at 70 for four. It wasn’t flashy and the run-rate dipped, but importantly Rohit and Symonds didn’t play any rash strokes as they set themselves up for a late surge. That surge came spectacularly, as the pair took 40 from the final two overs. The 20th over, bowled by Daniel Christian, cost 24 as Rohit launched three sixes and a four to turn an attainable total into an imposing one.
Rohit was also keen to stress on the presence of former Deecan Chargers’ team-mate Symonds at the other end against Chennai Super Kings and Chargers. "Symmo and I have played three years for Deccan and in the last few matches we finished a game together, so I think we understand each other's game very well. We both are natural stroke-makers, so wherever he gets going, I need to be patient and whenever I play strokes, he waits.”
What is most striking about Rohit these days is how he has trimmed down a waistline that led many to say was frighteningly poor for someone of his young age. In the prime of his youth, Rohit appears to have understood that maintaining a proper physique is critical to surviving at the top.
“I’ve gotten a lot of questions about my weight loss,” says Rohit, “with many people commenting that I now look like I did when I played for India back in 2007. It feels really good. It is something I should have taken more seriously earlier.”
Abhishek Nayar, Rohit’s Mumbai Ranji Trophy team-mate and close friend, has been instrumental in helping in getting him on the right patch, fitness wise. Together, the two constructed a diet chart to make Rohit fit and the results have been rather revealing. “Abhishek helmed me a lot, as he is a fitness buff,” says Rohit. “I followed his diet chart and workout plan and that has made a big difference. Still, there is some ways to go.”
Rohit has also taken steps to shed his party-boy image, one cultivated largely during the second season of the IPL in South Africa, where Deccan Charges surged to the title triumph. Those close to Rohit say that he has not partied for three months, and that his Sunday evenings out have also come to a stop.“Not making the World Cup squad was a harsh wake-up call. It made me think about what I was doing wrong and I decided to work hard on my fitness. I’m happy with where I’ve got and the way I’ve been batting in the IPL. But I don’t want to get carried away.
I want to score more runs. The IPL is a great platform to impress the selectors and get back into the limited-overs team, though of course scoring runs in domestic cricket is also important. That’s my goal right now, to score lots of runs and be consistent.”
(Jamie Alter is a freelance cricket writer, having worked at ESPNcricinfo and All Sports Magazine. He is the author of two books, The History of World Cup Cricket and Field of Dreams: The Story of the Dr. DY Patil Sports Stadium. His twitter feed is @jamie_alter)
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