Clarity of thought and role is cornerstone of Rohit Sharma's leadership

Sharma led Team India from ball one

PTI11_15_2023_000651A PTI

Rohit Sharma scored five centuries in the 2019 World Cup in England. If he wanted, he could arguably have scored as many this time, too.

But this was a different Rohit Sharma; this time, he was captain, and he had assigned himself a role. He would take down the bowlers in the opening passage of play, throwing them off the line and length, and set the stage for Virat Kohli to be the fulcrum of the innings with others playing around him.

In the first powerplay, he scored 401 runs in 297 balls, hitting 46 fours and 24 sixes at a strike rate of 135.01. The next best strike rate came from Australia’s Travis Head, who made 128 in the first powerplay at 121.90.

It was a fearless approach that took the pitch out of the equation and drove oppositions on to the back foot. It was like Sharma had moulded the team in his own image, a process that he and head coach Rahul Dravid had been working on for some time now, especially with fans and experts calling out India’s timidness with the bat on big occasions. Even in the final against Australia, Sharma made 47 off 31, striking at 151.61. It was almost as if India were starting with a cheat code every game.

“The way Rahul bhai played his cricket and how I am playing these days, it’s quite a contrast,” Sharma said in the news conference before the final, a slight smile on his face. “For him to agree and give me that freedom to let us play the way we want to play says a lot about him.”

But it was not all ‘see ball, hit ball’. In a low-scoring match against England, where India made 229, Sharma adapted to the situation and scored a 101-ball 87. He is used to this adaptability, having been India’s best Test batter in the past three years.

While Kohli won player of the tournament for his 765 runs―the most in any World Cup―Sharma had as much an impact on the team’s success, if not more. With Kohli, the story seemed to be that of a national hero who had slain past demons and had emerged refreshed and hungry to reclaim his throne as his generation’s best in the format. He was a figure to be celebrated, to be taken in as one would Sachin Tendulkar during his later days at the crease.

Not that Kohli was not putting team over self, but his legend had grown to such a degree that he was seen as competing with his idol, whose record of 49 ODI centuries he did break.

With Sharma, though, it was about doing whatever he could, as batter, as captain, to place India on top and finally, after a decade, lift a trophy to end India’s drought at ICC events. The last time India won an ODI World Cup, in 2011, Sharma was not in the squad. It was a tough time for him personally, and winning this time would have been a personal as much as a professional goal.

“I want to highlight three things about his captaincy,” Mumbai Ranji legend Amol Muzumdar said in a Star Sports show. “The first one is, Rohit Sharma gives a lot of weightage and importance to data and statistics. This includes one of the most important parts of his planning; he believes that it is very important to know each and every minute detail and statistic of all the opposition players. The second, he keeps things very simple and tries to make his team members think simple. He keeps everyone in the team in a very cool and calm atmosphere.”

Clarity of thought and role is a cornerstone of Sharma’s leadership. It was a hallmark of former captain M.S. Dhoni, too. While the Chennai Super Kings skipper made champions out of unheralded players, Sharma, as Mumbai Indians captain, nurtured youngsters like Hardik Pandya and Jasprit Bumrah into becoming national mainstays. No wonder they are the two most successful IPL captains. “[Sharma’s] style of captaincy is a bit different from others; he talks very politely and in a very lovable way with his players, thus keeping things easy and simple,” said Muzumdar. “And, third, which is the most important point, is that he has that magical touch in him.”

Sharma is particularly popular with the younger lot, going out for dinner with them and dancing with them on Reels. “On the field, he is instinctive and always open to ideas; off the field, it’s great to have him around―his sense of humour and one-liners are amazing,” Suryakumar Yadav, who has played under Sharma at Mumbai Indians for several years, said in a recent interview. Yadav’s own role in the team was to finish off the game like he is used to doing in T20s. Mohammed Siraj would attack with the new ball, Ravindra Jadeja would tighten the screws in the middle overs and so on with each player.

One of the more obvious interventions of the captain during play is when he decides whether to take a review or not. With this process, Sharma chose to rely on the pragmatic K.L. Rahul behind the stumps than his, at times, overenthusiastic bowlers.

He might have missed a trick in the final by not giving the new ball to Siraj, but he had been good with his bowler rotations throughout the tournament.

Talking about Sharma’s captaincy in the match against England, former English pacer Steve Harmison said, “Once they made the initial breakthrough, you could have got the spinners in early. He has only got five bowlers to go with. So, he is not thinking 40 to 50 overs. Rohit Sharma was thinking of bowling England out in 35 to 40 overs. So, he didn't go to his spin bowlers and went back to his seam bowlers.”

To be fair, though, Sharma had a lineup of bowlers in red-hot form who could be called upon whenever needed and would, on most days, deliver.

But what was perhaps one of the most impressive parts of his leadership was how the team kept its record clean even in the absence of Pandya. The all-rounder was in the side to provide flexibility with bat and ball, but an injury forced him out. The side’s balance was thrown off, and India had to reshuffle its plans.

The final against Australia, perhaps, was the one time the lack of Pandya was felt, but the former five-time champions played such a perfect match that maybe even Pandya or Ashwin would not have helped.

India’s journey to become champions continues, each heartbreak a building block. Perhaps Sharma would not be part of the 2027 edition, but he should hold his head high, for he will be remembered for captaining India’s best ODI team to never lift the trophy. A team he led from ball one.