Rohit Sharma: A prodigious (waste of a) talent

Just like Sachin Tendulkar had been labelled the next Sunil Gavaskar in his formative years, Rohit Sharma (above) had to carry the burden of being branded the next Sachin Tendulkar © Getty Images

Rohit Sharma, born April 30, 1987, is Mr Talent of Indian cricket. Unfortunately for the 26-year-old, the moniker has become more of a taunt, than a compliment. Jaideep Vaidya goes through the fledgling career of a man who was once touted the ‘next Sachin Tendulkar’.

If pure talent could take you places, Rohit Sharma would be further than the moon by now. Not since a teenaged Sachin Tendulkar playing in Bombay’s maidans first caused people to rub their eyes in disbelief in the eighties had someone caused such uproar with his strokeplay. And just like Tendulkar had been labelled the next Sunil Gavaskar in his formative years, Rohit Sharma had to carry the burden of being branded the next Sachin Tendulkar.

Growing up in Mumbai’s suburb of Borivali, Rohit stunned one and all playing in the Giles and Harris Shields and various age-group tournaments, before eventually graduating to India Under-17 and Under-19 teams. Here was a man who could probably see where the ball was going to pitch before it came out of the bowler’s hands. Watching him execute a swift drive/cut/lash would give the illusion that he had all the time in the world to pick and choose what he was going to do with it.

It was his knock of 142 for West Zone against North Zone in the 2006 Deodhar Trophy that first carried Rohit’s tales across the country. According to his own admission, that innings changed his life. “Selector Bhupinder Singh was watching the match and that innings changed things for me,” Rohit told the Times of India. “Soon, I was named in the Board President’s XI against England and then for India A for the Eurasia Cup in Abu Dhabi. It was exciting to be among the big players.”

After impressing in the 2006 Under-19 World Cup, Rohit was picked in the Indian national squad for the inaugural Twenty20 World Cup in South Africa in 2007. He made his mark in a match against the hosts — a must-win for both teams to enter the semifinals — and scored an unbeaten half-century to help India on to a competitive total.

It was a perfectly timed innings: Rohit came in when India were at a precarious position, having lost three early wickets; To add to the occasion, the ball was seaming around quite a bit at Durban. Rohit consumed 14 balls to score his first four runs as he studied the bounce and movement off the pitch. Soon enough, the immaculate strokes were on display as Rohit shifted gears. He started to give himself room to free his arms and slashed at stuff within range. He shared an 85-run stand with skipper MS Dhoni and helped India to 153 for five, signing off with a last-ball six over deep square-leg that also got him to his half-century. Rohit Sharma had arrived on the international stage.

Next up was the Commonwealth Bank Series in Australia 2007-08, where Rohit gave the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) more than a glimpse of his flair, as he combined with the man he was touted to replace eventually — Tendulkar (117) — to help India chase down 240. Rohit scored 66 off 87 balls and, more importantly, shared a 123-run fourth-wicket stand with the Little Master that helped lead India home.

Rohit followed that up with a century in either innings of the Ranji Trophy final in 2008-09 for Mumbai — a feat managed by only five players before him, including Tendulkar. Later, he was purchased by Indian Premier League (IPL) franchisee Deccan Chargers — now defunct —  for a sum of USD 750,000, and went on to be one of the leading scorers in the 2008 edition. Apart from former Indian cricketers, even foreign legends had begun singing his praise. Adam Gilchrist, Rohit’s esteemed colleague in Deccan Chargers, told him: “You are one of the big talents, not only for India but in world cricket. You are going to be one of the brightest stars in the future.”

Perhaps it was the tremendous amount of expectations from the young lad (“Yeah, sometimes those expectations does play in your mind.”), or what people who interacted with him termed as an attitude problem (“People have their opinions and I am not bothered about it. It’s fine.”), but something put a lid on Rohit’s growth in the years to come. Banking on his wealth of talent, he was given a lot of opportunities over the years in the limited-overs setup to convert his potential into performances, but something went amiss.

Rohit continued to do well in the domestic circuit, scoring ton after ton for Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy and then, over the last two years, playing well for the city’s IPL franchise, Mumbai Indians. In the ongoing season of the cash-rich domestic tournament, Rohit was even given the captaincy armband after Ricky Ponting‘s poor showing. Rohit has responded with three half-centuries, including a scintillating 39-ball 79 a day before his 26th birthday. As the Mumbai fans rejoice and contemplate whether it is the captaincy that has made him more responsible, the rest of young India begin generating internet memes on the social media, asking him ‘Y U NO play like this for India??’

It’s an utter shame, to put it bluntly, that at 26, Rohit Sharma still hasn’t donned the white flannels for India, while players who entered the national setup much later than him — like Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara and Suresh Raina — have overtaken him in the pecking order. Rohit is still young, and still on the right side of 30 for a few more years. It’s up to him how he wants to take his international career forward from here. Watching a young Tendulkar bat, Gavaskar had warned him that ‘If you don’t score more than 10,000 Test runs, I will kill you’. Given Rohit’s abundant talent, it really should sadden the Indian cricket lover that former players, who played him up earlier, have now begun to do this:

(Jaideep Vaidya is a multiple sports buff and a writer at CricketCountry. He has a B.E. in Electronics Engineering, but that isn’t fooling anybody. He started writing on sports during his engineering course and fell in love with it. The best day of his life came on April 24, 1998, when he witnessed birthday boy Sachin Tendulkar pummel a Shane Warne-speared Aussie attack from the stands during the Sharjah Cup Final. A diehard Manchester United fan, you can follow him on Twitter @jaideepvaidya. He also writes a sports blog – The Mullygrubber )