Rohit Sharma lit up a Test that was destined to be Sachin Tendulkar’s @ IANS
Rohit Sharma lit up a Test that was destined to be Sachin Tendulkar’s @ IANS

November 7, 2013. India started Sachin Tendulkar’s final series on a high, with debutant Mohammed Shami skittling out West Indies for 234 on Day One. The second day — all set to be ruled by the little man — was instead dominated by another Mumbai player. Eden Gardens, despite their disappointment, could not help but applaud the arrival of what promised to be a rare talent. A grudging Abhishek Mukherjee narrates how Rohit Sharma had managed to silence him with a sparkling hundred on Test debut.

No, I was never a Rohit Sharma fan. I watched with curious wonder as the world around me went gaga over his incredible strokeplay. I smirked when they called him the greatest talent after Sachin Tendulkar. I was taken aback every time they complained about Rohit Sharma being ignored for Test cricket.

Make no mistake, Rohit was always an attractive batsman. Even I had agreed to that. I had accepted his brilliance when he scored that dazzling 50 not out against South Africa at Kingsmead in World T20, 2007. Forty of those runs came in boundaries, I remembered.

But he was just a strokemaker, one of many of his kind. He knew his shots; he looked attractive till he was there; unfortunately, he was seldom out there for a span long enough for anyone to celebrate his shots.

There was a reason they overused the word ‘talent’ in Rohit Sharma jokes.

Those attractive twenties were there, but that was about it. Twenties were never a parameter of outstanding batsmen. They told me to consider the example of Virender Sehwag. I got back, mentioning that Rohit was never in the same league, that Sehwag was a once-in-a-generation cricketer, and, most importantly, Rohit was yet to take field in whites.

I secretly hoped he never did, but there was a gaping hole in the Indian middle-order with Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman retiring in quick succession. While Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli had sort of settled down as replacements, there were two more spots up for grabs.

Ajinkya Rahane had failed on debut. His time would come when Tendulkar would retire, but for now they needed another man. MS Dhoni had tried five bowlers against Australia, using Ravindra Jadeja at No. 7. While his bowling was a revelation, it was obvious Jadeja was not a batsman; three First-Class triple centuries notwithstanding.

So Rohit turned up in whites at my city, and was duly awarded a Test cap along with local boy Mohammed Shami.

To be fair, Rohit should have got that Test cap five years prior to that, at Nagpur against South Africa. With Dravid and Laxman both out of action, India drafted in Murali Vijay at No. 3, while Subramaniam Badrinath batted at 5; but there was one more slot to be taken.

However, Rohit — flown in as a last-minute (second-last-minute, perhaps?) replacement for Laxman — injured himself at the last minute during fielding practice; with no other specialist batsman in the squad, reserve wicketkeeper Wriddhiman Saha made his Test debut instead as a middle-order batsman.

This time there was no injury; and I had to grudgingly accept that Rohit would, after all, play a Test. My only consolation was the fact that this was a series arranged hastily to make sure Tendulkar retired in front of his home crowd, and was an opportunity for India to test their reserve bench before they would tour South Africa, New Zealand, England, and Australia in the same year.

But then, a Test cap was a Test cap…

Shami arrives

Over the years, Bengal has produced quality swing bowlers, but seldom one who could move it away at great pace. Shami was carted by Chris Gayle in his first spell, but came back fiercely in his second: a bouncer took Kieran Powell’s top edge.

West Indies reached 138 for 2, Marlon Samuels dominating proceedings with 65. Then Shami unleashed a peach that pitched on a length and jagged back to hit middle-stump. Three balls later he hit middle-stump again, this time to send Denesh Ramdin back. And just before Dhoni claimed the second new ball, his reverse-swing got the off-stump of fellow debutant Sheldon Cottrell.

Eden Gardens cheered for their son, but they left their biggest applause for the little man who was playing his last Test on the ground. It took Tendulkar four balls to trap Shane Shillingford leg-before.

West Indies were bowled out for 234. India finished on 37 without loss.

Sa-chiiiiin, Sa-chin!

Eden Gardens cheered Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan. There was a moment’s silence when Dhawan was bowled by Shillingford. Then Vijay fell.

Was the Eden Gardens crowd too harsh on Vijay that day? No one seemed to care. No one seems to care even now. As Tendulkar walked out to bat, a packed ground stood up, clapping him all the way to the middle, stopping only to zoom their cell-phones to capture the historical moment.

Twenty-four balls, ten runs, and two boundaries later, a ball from the towering Shillingford jumped off a length, beat Tendulkar’s outside edge, and stuck what seemed a tad too high. And the historic ground was left in stunned silence.

It was amidst this impregnable silence that Rohit walked out to join Kohli, for Pujara had become Cottrell’s maiden Test wicket in the previous over. Shillingford claimed Kohli eleven balls after Tendulkar fell. The score read 83 for 5 as Dhoni walked out.

The talent comes good

It took Rohit a dozen deliveries to get off mark. He looked compact and comfortable (much to my annoyance); then he tried to flick Cottrell, and the ball hit his pad. The appeal was stifled, at best.

Rohit got his first runs with a well-timed pull off Cottrell. It was short, I told myself. Everyone could have put that away; it proves nothing.

Rohit tried to sweep Shillingford. The top-edge landed short of the man at backward square-leg. I nodded, smiling: how long would Rohit last? Another ten runs, maybe? Coloured-clothing cricket is where he belongs.

Block, block, block: 8 from 23. You could sense something was on the cards.

Then Darren Sammy bowled one outside off. It was a tad short, and kept low. Rohit flashed at it. The ball took the bottom edge. He could — should — have been bowled; instead, the ball shot past Ramdin and made its way to the ropes.

Sammy pitched up. Rohit pushed through the vacant mid-wicket area, but once again, he hit it uppishly. The ball reached the fence, but the shot was far from convincing.

He had overstayed his visit.

Rohit went into a shell after lunch. The first 27 balls fetched him a mere 7. The innings was going nowhere. He was yet to master Shillingford or Veerasammy Permaul.

He cannot play spin on a turner.

I thought of Rohit fans. I knew I would get one-up on them the day after.

Then Shillingford bowled a slightly over-pitched one, outside off; it did not turn; the extra-cover drive that followed was, even I had to admit (albeit reluctantly), gorgeous. I even applauded without anyone noticing.

Damn.

Runs came in a trickle. Tino Best had Dhoni caught-behind. It was a terrible stroke. India were 156 for 6. Ravichandran Ashwin could bat, but then, West Indies had made their way to the bowlers.

Now he will get out, going for the big shots.

A leg-bye gave Rohit the strike. Two balls later Best bowled one marginally short of a length. Rohit rocked back and punched it off the back-foot; the timing was, well, fine. Oh well, it was outrageously good.

Damn.

Rohit reached 49 in 94 balls. Then Permaul gifted him a full-toss. It was almost too easy for Rohit, that cover-drive for four.

It is an ordinary attack. It was a chancy innings. Nothing great; he will not get that hundred.

Just after tea, Rohit inside-edged one off Permaul. The ball rolled to the fine-leg fence. India drew level with West Indies.

He will get out now, any moment. Ashwin is looking more convincing.

Then came a cover-driven four off Shillingford, as gorgeous as anything he had hit before. The next over, he stepped out, one step, two steps, he played with the turn, over mid-wicket, into the Eden Gardens stands.

For once Eden forgot that Tendulkar had not come off. They had found a new hero. It would not be the last time he would make the Eden Gardens crowd value for money.

He has started lofting the ball. It is merely a matter of time now.

Round the wicket came Shillingford. It was not wide enough to cut, but Rohit leaned back and executed the shot. He made it look too easy for comfort, especially for the comfort of the likes of me, who had always predicted he was a misfit at this level in whites.

The new ball was taken. Once again he flicked Best. Once again it was in the air. Once again it went safely past mid-wicket. This time they ran two.

It had to be singles from there. Rohit was not going to throw it away from there. He played out an over from Best. He reached 94.

The ‘Sa-chiiiiin, Sa-chin’ chant changed to ‘Ro-hiiiiit, Ro-hit’: I hated it. At the same time, I could not take my eyes off.

Will he? Won’t he? Hang on, why am I getting anxious?

Cottrell dished out one on the legs. As commentators would often say, you cannot do that to batsmen from the subcontinent. An easy leg-glance took Rohit to 98. He was one shot away.

The next ball was pitched up, outside off. Rohit was sucked into it. Was it predetermined? Why did he risk it? Alas, we will perhaps never know.

The ball flew between slip and gully. He jogged a few steps, but he already knew he need not have. As he punched the air with characteristic fervour, Kolkatans — having turned up for a Tendulkar show — congratulated him in unison.

Little did they know that the new hero would make the ground his own. They were used to Hyderabadis doing that; with time they would learn to hail a Mumbaikar.

Rohit marched on, slash-driving the ball after to the point fence. On came Sammy. Two cuts and a cover-drive fetched Rohit twelve.

India finished the day on 354 for 6. The pair had added 198. India led by 120. Rohit returned, unvanquished, on 127; Ashwin, matching him stroke for stroke, on 92.

Good-humoured taunts from Rohit fans awaited me, but it did not matter. It is not always that you get to see debut hundreds live, especially at your home ground.

The third fifty came up on the third morning, with a leg-glance off Cottrell. Then, just when it seemed he would get to a double-hundred on Test debut, he shouldered arms to one from Permaul that might or might not have missed off.

The finger went up. There was no DRS. Rohit walked back for a 301-ball 177 on Test debut. He would play better innings on the same ground in the coming years, but none of them would be a Test ton on debut.

Some things are indeed more special than the rest. There was, as far as I remember, no resentment from my side when he walked back.

What followed?

Ashwin followed soon, for 124. India lost their last 4 wickets for 17, and were bowled out for 453. Shillingford was rewarded for his perseverance, and finished with 6 for 167.

Trailing by 219, no West Indies batsman reached forty. They reached 101 for 1, but once Shami unleashed his repertoire of reverse-swing, they were bundled out for 168. Shami had 5 for 47 (his match figures read 9 for 118).

Tendulkar left Eden Gardens with his teammates. The next time he would return to the ground, it would not be as a player.

Brief scores:

West Indies 234 (Marlon Samuels 65; Mohammed Shami 4 for 71) and 168 (Mohammed Shami 5 for 47, Ravichandran Ashwin 3 for 46) lost to India 453 (Rohit Sharma 177, MS Dhoni 42, Ravichandran Ashwin 124; Shane Shillingford 6 for 167) by an innings and 51 runs.

Man of the Match: Rohit Sharma.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor at CricketCountry and CricLife. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)