In this smooth ride of World Cup ascendancy, where India look poised to humble everyone, time is ripe for all types of conjectures to tiptoe into conversations. Pacers have not allowed Hardik Pandya’s absence to be felt, so this must be a sign. Virat Kohli’s stars have finally aligned with a World Cup, so it can’t go wrong. Rohit Sharma has won five IPL titles—more than MS Dhoni, for the record—which means thus must lead to something. All are fair, but nothing has happened overnight.
Not until July 31 did India know if Jasprit Bumrah was ready to bowl again. Till last September, Kohli hadn’t hit a hundred in nearly three years. Sharma was the captain then as he is now with an unprecedented eight wins in a row. And lest we forget, Sharma was also in charge of the Mumbai Indians side that had lost eight games in a row in 2022.
What we are witnessing right now is a rambunctious convergence of India’s greatest skills, with the rub of the green going their way too. Luck is of paramount importance, as Richie Benaud had famously said: “Captaincy is 90% luck and 10% skill.” Benaud had also added a rider to it: “But don’t try it without that 10%.”
If captaincy is a skill, cricket hasn’t yet found a way to quantify it. Test win percentages and World Cup wins are numerical conclusions that shed no light on what exactly makes a cricketer primarily skilled in batting or bowling a great leader too. Conviction, confidence, personality and presence of mind have often been touted as important behavourial qualities but those again get projected in different ways.
Mohammad Azharuddin barely spoke but Sourav Ganguly wanted to be at the centre of every discussion. Dhoni was often stoic, letting his eyes do most of the talking but Kohli was more animated with an unmissable sense of self-righteousness. But with Sharma India is finally getting to see a different captain. He is more genial, more democratic but also argumentative when it comes to thrashing out a point with his boys.
That intent, however, makes you sit up. Kohli’s exceptional game awareness is one of the reasons India have earned a reputation of being chase masters. South Africa were comfortable batting first, with five out of seven wins coming that way. So, when the two most evenly matched teams of the World Cup met at Eden Gardens, Sharma wanted to haul his side out of their comfort zone. Further walking the talk, he then put on a show to remember. Ten overs gone, four since Sharma’s dismissal, and India had already reached 91—more than South Africa could muster in their entire innings.
At a ground where Sharma has perfected his legend right since his Ranji Trophy days, he masterminded an assault so savage that South Africa could never really regroup after that. The assault wasn’t premeditated, Sharma said later. “We let our instincts do the talking for us, we let it take over in the middle and not pre-plan everything,” he said. “If the wicket is good, we want to go out there and play the kind of cricket we are playing and everything falls in place.”
Watch the first six overs and decide for yourself. Drives and pulls are fine but how often have you watched Sharma slash a rank wide ball over point in the third over? It was feisty but risky. But with the other batters looking solid as ever, Sharma knew he could afford to go in a blaze of glory, as long as it dazed South Africa.
First impressions are so lasting that the world refuses to look beyond the laidback image associated with Sharma. Yes, he is easygoing but when South Africa were still reeling from Quinton de Kock’s dismissal, Sharma was relentless in attacking. The earliest Ravindra Jadeja had bowled before Sunday’s match was in the 12th over, against New Zealand. Aware of Temba Bavuma’s weakness against spin though, Sharma gave Jadeja the ball in the ninth over instead of Shami. Three balls in, and the job was done.
Next over, usual business resumed with Shami taking over. He has been another massive success story, partly because he is so good with the older ball and partly because Sharma had never lost faith in him. Shreyas Iyer’s story had a similar curve—scoring one fifty in the first innings till he finally came good against Sri Lanka and South Africa.
“Honestly, even if they wouldn’t have repaid, I would have still kept that faith,” said Sharma. “It’s important to let guys have freedom in the middle. It is important to make them understand what is expected of them. And I also understand it’s not going to happen every game. You have to keep the trust in the guys who have done the job for the team. It cannot be done every day but when it happens, everything looks good.”
Not every leader has patience as one of his virtues, but Sharma has been different. Not only does it put to rest any doubts or misgivings of how the team is dealing with the constant pressure of winning the World Cup at home, it actually shows Sharma has the emotional intelligence to create a new environment.
He admonishes his fielders for conceding overthrows in the excitement of an appeal while adding to it. He looks around for heads nodding in favour of a review, and then some more because he wants to be absolutely sure. For someone with five hundreds in the 2019 World Cup, Sharma has come across as a giant of a character to have changed his approach for the benefit of the team.
And now, with their bowling having a headlining impact almost to a distracting degree, Rohit Sharma is proving to be more than what meets the eye. Extraordinary batter, yes. A more thoughtful leader, perhaps?