The Talented Mr. Sharma
If you needed a symbol of the modern Indian cricketer, it would be the man called both Hitman and Nohit
On a Facebook page called Nohit Sharma, there is a cartoon of Robin trying to tell Batman that Rohit Sharma is talented. Batman cuts Robin off with an almighty slap. It is a sentiment shared by a sizeable section of Indian cricket viewers. For them, the much-talked-about natural ability Rohit displayed when he burst onto the scene as a teenager has been gestating so long that it has gone from being a cause of optimism to a subject of ridicule. “Where is this much-vaunted talent of his hiding?” they ask. Has he not been able to find it in seven years of international cricket?
Ironically, if Rohit saw the Batman-slaps-Robin cartoon his detractors used to mock him, he’d probably want to be Batman. He is as tired as anyone of the gifted-cricketer image that drew itself from the elegant strokes he played in the 2007-08 Commonwealth Bank Series in Australia, when he was 20. Rather than treating it as a compliment, he seems affronted by the suggestion that his abilities are a product of fortune rather than fortitude. “People have misread that I am a talented cricketer,” he says. “In fact, I never even started off as a batsman. In school, I was a bowler who batted in the lower order.” It was only when he was in the tenth standard that Rohit began to work as much on his batting as his offspin bowling. Dinesh Lad, then coach of the Swami Vivekanand School team that Rohit played for, asked Rohit to open the innings, and he responded with a century. A couple of years later, Rohit dislocated his middle finger in a practice match against a touring Sri Lankan side. “I was unable to bowl, as I could not grip the ball. I was worried because I was always considered a bowler who could bat. I had to remodel myself as a top-order batsman, and that took a lot of hard work,” he says.
One can understand why someone who faced such setbacks in their youth would resent the notion that he has been blessed by nature, because that assumption is inevitably accompanied by the suggestion that he owes nature something in return. That it is his duty to make of his talent not what he chooses to, but what the most demanding Indian cricket fan expects. “I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. I only want to prove things to myself.” Rohit’s defiance belies his frustration with this perceived debt.
It weighed heavily on him, particularly when initial promise did not turn into immediate success. By the beginning of 2011, Rohit had received praise for his timing and elegance from several former Indian players; some even went as far as to call him the next Tendulkar. But, in 61 one-day internationals, he averaged less than 30, a record that caused him to miss India’s 2011 World Cup campaign. Cricketer Abhishek Nayar, who has been one of Rohit’s closest friends since they played together in Mumbai’s Under-19 side, says there were too many people telling Rohit how talented he was and how he wasn’t doing it justice. “It put him off a bit. If you’re told something over and over again, there comes a saturation point. You say, forget it, I’m just going to be me.”
After missing the World Cup, he came back leaner, stronger and more determined. But, the undulations in results continued. The day we sat down to discuss putting Rohit on the cover of MW’s World Cup issue, we were nervous because he had been out of the side due to injury. The day we interviewed him, he had just made the highest-ever score in an ODI, a scarcely believable 264. A month or so later, he had played a few loose shots in the Test series in Australia, and his denigrators were back on Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, lamenting the unfulfillment of a promise he never made. Rohit is not an Indian cricketing hero. His is a layered character, both adored and despised, lauded and mocked, powerful and vulnerable. That is what makes him interesting.
Rohit Sharma does not have critics. He has haters. There is a distinction between the two. Critics make rational denunciations of people’s work that are usually detached. Haters flock to the internet to insult and vent their anger at people, as if they have been personally wronged.
On a Reddit thread discussing why Rohit divides opinion in India so drastically, the general grouse of his haters seems to be that they feel he has been unduly favoured. Rohit was not being dropped, according to some, because senior players in the Indian team harboured some personal affection for him. That he was dropped, several times at that, is conveniently ignored. Favouritism is a topic that incites fury in Indian fans, not just because they see it as compromising the team they support, but also because it evokes a sense of injustice that is an all-too- familiar feeling in a poor nation. To Rohit’s haters, he is the man who has been given too many chances in a country that offers most people none.
India’s relationship with cricket is constantly evolving. After the 1983 World Cup, the sport became a source of great joy for Indians, and cricketers a symbol of hope: that simple, middle-class Indians could become internationally renowned sportsmen. Now, India is no longer the romantic underdog in the cricket world. A string of fixing controversies has made its fans cynical, its board is the richest by far, and its cricketers, thanks to the IPL and brand endorsements, earn money and fame at a young age. The sense of struggle attached to Indian cricketers who made it in the 1990s has dissipated. It is natural, then, that modern cricketers, while still a source of inspiration, are also the subject of envy. When they fail, they are not just ordinary men making a mistake. They are arrogant brats carrying lightly the dreams of millions, while they dream only of their next BMW.
“In India, some people are genuine cricket fans and admire your work, but some people are just jealous,” Rohit says. “They don’t want to see you succeed. They don’t want you to be where you are right now.” When we meet at the Novotel hotel in Mumbai, which overlooks the popular Juhu beach, I ask Rohit, then fresh off his world-record 264, what he thinks would happen if he stepped out and took a stroll on the beach. He begins to laugh. “I should try it, actually. People will come up and have a chat because this is a cricket-crazy country. But, there will still be a couple of people who will have to criticise me.” It is startling that a man should have to worry about being bad-mouthed the day after achieving something no one else in his field has. But, sure enough, a quick search on Reddit and Facebook reveals condemnations that Rohit’s achievement is just evidence that he is a flat-track bully, who performs only against weak opposition in favourable conditions.
As the attitude of the Indian cricket fan towards the Indian cricketer changes, expectation slowly giving way to demand, jeering swelling into mockery, so must the Indian cricketer’s attitude towards the fan. Rohit’s answers when asked about his haters are marked by an air of resignation. “People are going to say what they want to say, regardless of whether you score 0 or 100. If you get 100, people will say you should have got 150. Now, I got 264, people are saying you should get 300. That’s what the expectations of people in India are. It used to bother me. But, now, I don’t let it affect me.”
Tired, perhaps, of the fickleness of Indian cricket watchers, Rohit and several other modern Indian cricketers seem to have adopted an almost dismissive attitude towards them. In the past, when crowds became unacceptably violent, Indian cricketers would be seen walking around the stadium trying to pacifying them. As recently as the 2003 World Cup, Sachin Tendulkar delivered a statesman-like request for the public to be patient with the team, after some unruly elements had vandalised team members’ property following a loss to Australia.
When Rohit was heckled by some Indians during a net session on the 2011-12 tour of Australia, he used a slightly different tone from the polite one Tendulkar did. A Youtube video of the incident shows Rohit asking his hecklers “Who are you? Who do you think you are?” before calling them drunk and threatening to hit them with a bat, throwing in some choice expletives as he did so. “I had got a bit fried because I was not even playing our next match and was just trying to practise,” he explains. “People don’t seem to understand that we are trying our best and not messing up on purpose. It’s a game we are playing. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. Some people don’t get that.” For a brief second, he seems mildly passionate about this dissonance between fans and players, but soon drifts back into indifferent acceptance. “It’s fine. There’s nothing you can do about it. People will talk and they are entitled to talk. You have to learn how to handle these things. It’s best to just ignore everything.”
In general, Indian cricketers have become far more stand-offish when dealing with the public. Virat Kohli gave some fans a taste of his trademark cuss words at an IPL match, after they said something incendiary to him as he walked towards his dressing-room. Bowler Praveen Kumar, in the same incident Rohit was involved in, threatened to find a new place to bury one of the stumps. Even MS Dhoni could not hide a hint of derision when he reminded fans before the 2011 World Cup that when they attacked cricketers’ homes, the cricketers were not in them, their families were.
Whether the perceived arrogance and sense of entitlement that modern Indian cricketers seem to have is the cause or result of the Indian cricket fan’s newfound ruthlessness is a chicken-or-egg question. Sociologist Shiv Viswanathan says cricketers today chase short-term success and are hence not bothered about building a long-term relationship with fans. “People like Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman had to go through the struggle and built a fan following over years. Hence, they are so revered,” he says. “You can’t build a loyal fan following quickly. Fans acquired fast will end up being fickle ones. I don’t think the modern bunch of cricketers have the vintage quality that cricketers of the previous generation did. Look at how much they talk. Do you remember Laxman ever saying anything at all?”
But, to blame cricketers for speaking their mind is to impose on them exactly the kind of presumptuous expectation Rohit’s generation is rebelling against. They resent the notion that a cricketer should be a meek public servant.
One also must consider that the barrier between cricketers and fans has been broken in the digital age. In the 1980s, cricketers who fans turned into villains, such as Ravi Shastri, were only exposed to jeers when they played matches or appeared at public events. Today, fans, emboldened by the anonymity the virtual world allows, can aim their assaults directly at cricketers. The increasing lack of privacy that is a feature of this age means cricketers are no longer protected by the distance they used to maintain from fans. Everything about them – their girlfriends, their habits, their purchases – is public information.
Rohit Sharma owns an apartment in Bandra, Mumbai’s most-expensive suburb, and several cars, including a BMW, that he likes driving in the tony neighbourhood of Cuffe Parade and to his friend’s house in Lonavala. He has 1.7 million followers on Twitter and regularly posts selfies of himself in the many caps, pairs of sunglasses and other accessories he owns. When he has time off, he takes vacations with his friends to locations such as New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. He knows what flights go from India to the Maldives, what hairstyle suits him and understands what a fashion photographer means when he says “soft look”.
There are thousands of fans who find all this alluring, as the many replies of “Looking cool, bro” and “I want to meet you” he receives on Twitter testify to. However, it is also easy to paint from this the picture of a pampered millionaire living a luxurious lifestyle, without doing as well at his job as his haters believe he should, still living off the so-called talent he showed as a teenager.
Rohit’s image was not helped by a newspaper story in which his coach, Lad, said a young Rohit looked at a fancy car and said he would one day buy it. “My dream was always to play for India,” Rohit insists when asked about that story. “Buying an expensive car or a hot property in Mumbai was never a thought. All that comes only as a result of focussing on cricket. But, there’s nothing wrong with having nice things if they do come. Why shouldn’t you enjoy your life? You put a lot of hard work in and you deserve to get what you get.”
Rohit says he does not go clubbing anymore, but used to enjoy it when he first started playing for India. “People say cricketers shouldn’t party and all. But what’s wrong with it? Why shouldn’t you have fun if you are giving 100 per cent on the field? It’s all right even if you party till late at night, just as long as you make it in time for practice the next morning.”
The theory would work, except the nature of sport, and cricket in particular, does not exhibit the effort you have put in. It only displays the results. Score plenty of runs for India — like Kohli, for example — and all will be forgiven. But, have a few failures, and every aspect of your lifestyle is under a red-tinged microscope. Somehow, critics will find a way to link your wealth to you having a bad attitude on the field. The slightest sign of aggression, such as Rohit confronting Mitchell Johnson, the Australia fast bowler, during India’s tour down under, is construed as arrogance.
To Rohit’s friends, the spoilt-brat portrait his haters sketch would appear ludicrous. To them, he is a simple boy from a middle-class family from Borivali, a suburb of Mumbai, who needs only his friends and family around him to have a good time. “People mistake him for being arrogant because he does not talk a lot,” says Nayar. “But, if you get to know him, he is actually a very warm person who always makes time for the people he cares about.”
With his friends, Rohit spends a lot of time playing video games, watching football — he is a Real Madrid fan — discussing football fantasy leagues, watching movies and just hanging out and talking. Tanmay Mishra, the Kenya batsman, met Rohit when he toured there with an India A side in 2007. The two became close friends when Mishra moved to Mumbai in 2011. “Rohit has a great sense of humour,” Mishra says. “He’s always coming up with great one-liners.”
Mishra says he has watched Rohit mature from someone who splurged on things to someone who thinks about investing his money. “Recently, I was telling Rohit about a particular car he should buy. He said, ‘No, maybe five or six years ago I would have bought it. Now, I have to think about my future,’” Mishra says. On cue, Rohit tweets about the stock markets going crazy. “When he was young, Rohit liked to go out and party. He’s not the same person now. He’d rather sit at home and have a good meal with his friends. He’s matured that way.”
When Rohit travels to Borivali to meet his family, he makes it a point to meet his old school friends and play cricket with them in his backyard. “I go to Borivali every other day when I am in Mumbai,” he says. “I discuss childhood stories with my old friends. I really cherish the moments I have with them. Back in Borivali, I am treated like any other kid from the neighbourhood. People see me on television, but they are also used to seeing me playing tennis-ball cricket in the garden.”
Rohit has eight or nine uncles that he meets every time he goes to his parents’ house, his manager, Ritika Sajdeh, who has known Rohit since 2008, informs me. “He has almost 50 people in his immediate family. When he is with them, he switches off from the world. He does not even check his phone,” she says. When the constant buzz of opinions and criticism gets too much for him, he finds solace in the place he grew up. “He goes there and cuts himself off from the newspapers, television and social media. In Borivali, he has friends that knew him before he was famous.”
When asked how Rohit deals with his haters, Rohit’s friends give examples of his positivity and cool-headedness that could easily form a verse of Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake it Off’. “His mood doesn’t change depending on his performances,” Mishra says. “In fact, he is my go-to person when I am down. He always reassures me that it is just a phase and finds a way to cheer me up.” Nayar says Rohit will never consider going off social media, because the criticism he receives there motivates him.
When Rohit’s friends talk about the low phases in his career, they do so with empathy, with the understanding of the personal trials the man has been through that the public lacks. Perhaps, this is where the discord between fans and modern cricketers lies. The fans expect not men but gods on the cricket field. Sport is their new source of mythological stories. Rohit’s story is not an epic. It is a human story.
“Paisa bahut aa gaya tha na.” Dinesh Lad, the man who groomed Rohit, has a simple explanation for why his student lost his way for a few years after a bright beginning in international cricket: he got rich and got distracted. Rohit admits it was hard for a boy from a middle-class family to deal with the glamorous life of an India cricketer. “When you come from a simple background and are suddenly travelling around the world, staying at fancy hotels and eating at expensive restaurants, you feel a bit special. As a kid, I never dreamed of experiencing these things, so when I did, I felt a bit proud and got a bit excited.”
What sobered him down was missing out on the 2011 World Cup squad. “That was really disappointing. It was a World Cup in India, and I felt prepared and ready for it.” Those close to him talk about the World Cup snub as some sort of titanic wind that spun Rohit’s head the right way around. “He did a 180 in terms of maturity and mental strength,” says Sajdeh. “He realised that letting things get you down and getting pissed off about small things was not the way to go. If he wanted something, he was going to have to work hard.”
A dejected Rohit called Lad when he heard he would not be playing the World Cup. “I told him just one thing,” says Lad. “Cricket has made Rohit Sharma who he is. You have to focus on cricket. He got quite emotional and told me he was going to make a comeback.”
In the months leading up to the World Cup, Rohit’s ever-reliable haters had found something new to find fault with: his weight. The few extra kilos Rohit had been carrying onto the field were just what they needed to complete their picture of a privileged young man who couldn’t even bother to look like an athlete, never mind perform like one. “Rohit wanted to prove to people he was better than what they were portraying him as,” says Nayar, who acted as Rohit’s trainer on a radical weight-loss programme.
While India went about winning the World Cup without him, Rohit was running up and down the stairs of his building and going for long runs during hours of the morning he had never seen before. “We used to do two or three sessions a day, which was really hard, considering he was not used to that kind of exertion,” says Nayar. “To be honest, he never liked working on his fitness when he was younger. It took a change in focus: from getting runs to working hard on training. Once he made that change, everyone who knew him felt there was something different about him. The discipline he was maintaining was making him tougher physically and mentally.”
When Rohit appeared in the 2011 IPL, visibly slimmer and more energetic, he began receiving text messages and calls complimenting his new look. Soon, he was back in the Indian one-day team and enjoying one of his best phases. He averaged 94 in the 11 ODIs he played in 2011 post the World Cup. “There was a lot of positive feedback on my fitness, my batting and my attitude when I began playing after the World Cup, and it felt good,” Rohit says. “I had wanted to make a statement when I came back and I wanted people to see a different side of me.”
This was clearly back when Rohit still gave credence to the public’s opinion of him. Now, he says he tries to stay away from reading anything about himself. He has realised that when you get into the habit of reading good things about yourself, you are curious about what people are saying when you are failing too. “It’s better to avoid both praise and criticism. When you succeed, you feel like your hard work is paying off and that makes you more happy than reading an article that says so and so about you. I would rather just revel in having done something to help my team win than watch or read the news.”
What followed his 2011 comeback may have been what caused Rohit to give up on trying to please the world, because his story was not to be a simple tale of a young boy going astray, then getting his head straight and becoming the man everyone thought he could. In 2012, Rohit had an awful year. He averaged 13 in ODIs, following up a poor tour of Australia with a run of scores that read like a telephone number (5,0,0,4,4) in Sri Lanka. His impressive performance in the IPL did not translate into success at the World Twenty20, in which India crashed out before the semi-finals.
This was the period in which frustration with Rohit reached its peak. There was no longer the excuse of youth; no longer the hope that a slight change in mindset would conjure a dramatic turnaround in his fortunes. That was already supposed to have happened. Now, all that was left was a disquieting bewilderment as to why someone who looked a world-class batsman one day would look a walking wicket the next.
The seeds of discontent with Rohit had already been planted in the minds of his haters. Now, the roots grew firm. At the same time, Rohit’s disillusionment with his critics, whom he now saw as placing unrealistic expectations of perfection on him, also became complete. The two parties entered into an unspoken pact with each other. No matter what Rohit did from now on, his haters would simply wait for the failure they were sure would come. No matter what his haters said, Rohit would be his own man.
On an ESPN Cricinfo show analysing teams’ chances at the World Cup, Graeme Smith, the former South Africa captain, had this to say about Rohit Sharma: “Looking at him from the outside, you just want to grab him, give him a shake and say ‘let’s go’. He’s such a natural timer and has so much ability, you just wonder when it’s all going to kick in.” That sums up what a lot of people think of Rohit. In the past two years, every time he has threatened to cement his place as part of the spine of India’s new batting line-up, a new question has arisen.
In late 2013, he went through a purple patch, hitting two centuries in an ODI series against Australia — one a double — before making consecutive hundreds in his first two Tests, against the West Indies. But, on the following tours of South Africa, New Zealand and England, he struggled.
Now, the general classification of Rohit as a ‘wasted talent’ could no longer be justified. He was getting big scores, just not all the time. His disparagers had to become more nuanced in their vilification. They pulled out the dramatic difference in his home and away averages (66 versus 30 in ODIs); when his one-day average edged towards a respectable 40, they pointed out that his strike-rate was just above 80 — it is just 73 in away games — slightly slow for the Twenty20 age; when he began to look composed and in control during limited-over games, they joked that Test cricket gave him the jitters.
There is some truth in all of the above observations, but none provides the definitive reason to call Rohit a failed experiment. None is an unambiguous explanation to optimists and neutrals why, despite Rohit having played some remarkable innings, they still cannot say for certain that he will be the modern batting great they hoped he would be. Rahul Dravid says there are flaws in Rohit’s technique that cause him to struggle with the away-going ball overseas, adding legitimacy to the lion-at-home-lamb-away theory. But, to be fair to Rohit, the low scores he was berated for on India’s travels in 2014 came in series that almost all of India’s top-order batsmen struggled in. The 138 he scored in the recent tri-series against Australia proved he can still get big scores away from home.
Those who slam him for his strike-rate need to consider that Rohit seems to have been given a clear role as an anchor in the top order. He has been told to take his time early in his innings, and that sometimes results in him getting set and going on to amass massive scores. But, this will also occasionally lead to scores such as 18 off 42 balls (against South Africa in 2014).
The preceding paragraphs may seem like a defence of Rohit’s record, but they are simply an insight into why analysing his career can be so frustrating. Trends don’t continue, phases end abruptly and clear weaknesses one day turn into vivid strengths the next. You decide his mindset is the problem. He is rash and plays loose strokes. The next day, he calmly holds together an innings while wickets fall around him. You decide he has a problem outside his off stump, and he comes out and scores a half-century in swinging conditions. He does all this and then goes and finds a new problem, almost as if he would miss his haters if he didn’t give them just enough opportunities to whip out their laptops.
The end result of all this is that Indian fans will go into the 2015 World Cup excited that they have a potential matchwinner at the top of the batting order, but with an uncomfortable uncertainty if that potential, that infamous talent, will surface when they need it to.
Somewhere, Rohit Sharma will know all this, but he will try not to think about it. He will go to the World Cup knowing he has a massive opportunity to do what he had hoped to do in 2011. When it is done, whether he succeeds or fails, he will probably come back from Australia, play a video game with his friends, visit his parents in Borivali and play tennis-ball cricket in his backyard, as the noise swells around him.