Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Rohit Sharma: Intent, aggression and unfinished agenda

The skipper is only the second Indian cricket captain after MS Dhoni to win a T20 World Cup. His ploy to attack from the start, score briskly, and lead with purpose have played a key role in India winning its first ICC trophy in 13 years

Kunal Purandare
Published: Jul 1, 2024 02:21:57 PM IST
Updated: Jul 1, 2024 03:28:33 PM IST

Rohit Sharma of India celebrates after the final ball of the ICC Men's T20 Cricket World Cup West Indies & USA 2024 Final match between South Africa and India at Kensington Oval on June 29, 2024 in Bridgetown, Barbados.
Image: Darrian Traynor-ICC/ICC via Getty Images Rohit Sharma of India celebrates after the final ball of the ICC Men's T20 Cricket World Cup West Indies & USA 2024 Final match between South Africa and India at Kensington Oval on June 29, 2024 in Bridgetown, Barbados. Image: Darrian Traynor-ICC/ICC via Getty Images

After a humiliating 10-wicket drubbing against England in the semi-finals of the 2022 T20 World Cup, Rohit Sharma admitted that India’s approach would need to change if it had to win major titles. Batting first in that game in Australia, India scored a below-par 168 for six wickets. England chased the target with four overs to spare.

Dinesh Karthik, a member of that Indian team, describes the realisation as the turning point in Sharma’s captaincy. “He decided this is not the way to play… we need to play a lot more aggressively. And from then on, there has been a conscious effort to bat differently,” the former India wicketkeeper-batsman said in a video posted by the International Cricket Council (ICC) last week.

Sharma didn’t merely leave it at that, but led from the front, especially in the 50-over World Cup at home in 2023. The opening batsman gave India blistering starts throughout the tournament, deflating the morale of the opposition bowlers and taking them to the cleaners from the word go. He scored 597 runs in 11 innings at an average of 54 and strike rate of 126.

More importantly, his selfless approach—he hit 66 boundaries and 31 sixes (the most in the tournament)—ensured that the likes of his opening partner Shubman Gill and those who followed them—Virat Kohli, Shreyas Iyer, KL Rahul—could bide their time in the middle and build their innings. The skipper had five 40-plus scores to go with three half-centuries (including two knocks of 86 and 87) and a ton, indicating that his batting style remained the same irrespective of his individual score. “Rohit has cracked open games for us,” admitted Team India coach Rahul Dravid.

In the recently-concluded T20 World Cup that India won, the 37-year-old was the highest scorer for his team (and second-highest overall) with 257 runs at a strike rate of over 156. Of the three half-centuries against his name, the most defining one was against Australia where his fiery knock of 92 off 41 balls (eight sixes, seven fours) in the Super Eight game set the tone for India’s victory. His brutal assault of Australia’s premier bowler Mitchell Starc was breathtaking and a thumping statement of sorts.
The left-arm pacer had taken three wickets when Australia defeated India in the 2023 World Cup final. India was undefeated with 10 back-to-back wins going into the final and was the favourite to lift the trophy, but Australia spoilt the party.

Rohit Sharma of India celebrates after the final ball of the ICC Men's T20 Cricket World Cup West Indies & USA 2024 Final match between South Africa and India at Kensington Oval on June 29, 2024 in Bridgetown, Barbados.
Image: Darrian Traynor-ICC/ICC via Getty Images

Watching Sharma bat against Australia this time, in many ways, seemed like he was taking revenge for that heartbreaking loss in Ahmedabad. “I had no idea how to come back from this the first two days… it was tough, it was not easy to just move on,” he had said about the 2023 defeat in a video posted on social media later. In the T20 World Cup, the captain followed that knock with a match-winning 57 off 39 balls in the semi-finals against England—a much-needed consolation for the annihilation in 2022.

Also read: How Brand Rohit Sharma leads the pack

Being Rohit Sharma hasn’t been easy in the past few months. On Saturday, he became only the third Indian captain to win a World Cup, after Kapil Dev (1983) and MS Dhoni (2007 and 2011). It’s ironic that the player who led India to three ICC finals since last June was not the captain of any of the 10 Indian Premier League (IPL) teams this year. Mumbai Indians—that won five IPL titles under Sharma’s captaincy—replaced him with all-rounder Hardik Pandya, who had led Gujarat Titans to two IPL finals (and won one) in the last two years. The Mumbai Indians fans felt betrayed at the manner in which the most successful IPL skipper (along with Dhoni, who led Chennai Super Kings to five trophies) was ousted. Pandya bore the brunt of the decision—and his own poor form in the IPL—with the crowd unfailingly booing him at every venue, especially at the team's home ground, Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai.
 
Conjecture of a rift between them and talk of a split in the team with two factions (one each of Sharma and Pandya) made matters worse on the field too. Mumbai Indians finished at the bottom of the table with just four wins in 14 games. Sharma’s indifferent form going into the T20 World Cup led to many tongues wagging. Experts wondered whether the ‘seniors’—Kohli had come under scrutiny too because of his strike rate, but he made amends and emerged as the highest run-getter—needed to make way for youngsters, something that had happened in the 2007 T20 World Cup that India had won under Dhoni. Sharma, incidentally, was one of the young players in that victorious team.

And he was also being mocked for being ‘unfit’ in an era where a sportsperson’s fitness is defined by their beach bodies and abs that are flaunted via Instagram posts and reels.

Rohit Sharma of India celebrates after the final ball of the ICC Men's T20 Cricket World Cup West Indies & USA 2024 Final match between South Africa and India at Kensington Oval on June 29, 2024 in Bridgetown, Barbados.
Image: Darrian Traynor-ICC/ICC via Getty Images India captain Rohit Sharma celebrate with the ICC Men's T20 Cricket World Cup following the ICC Men's T20 Cricket World Cup West Indies & USA 2024 Final match between South Africa and India at Kensington Oval on June 29, 2024 in Bridgetown, Barbados. Image: Gareth Copley/Getty Images

Doubts, of many, were dispelled quickly once the T20 World Cup began in the US and West Indies where Sharma let his bat do the talking and led with purpose. India had an unbeaten run till the finals where they beat South Africa that hadn’t lost a single game in the tournament till then either. The Proteas were cruising to victory, when some fine bowling (Pandya bowled the last over) and catching in the last five overs turned the match in India’s favour.

The Indian captain was proactive from the start of the tournament—a case in point was defending 119 against Pakistan—without displaying in-your-face aggression or theatrics for the camera. That also came across after India won the finals by seven runs. No wild celebrations, or frantically running around the stadium—just thanking the heavens and silently lying on the ground alone for a few minutes, savouring the moment he had waited for. “This has to be the greatest time… I wanted this badly,” he said after the win—his 50th T20 international victory as captain, the first skipper to achieve the milestone.

He would later do the robot dance while going on stage to accept the coveted trophy that he had religiously manifested. And prior to that, as he passed Pandya, who was talking to the media, the skipper planted a kiss on his cheek and hugged him, upsetting any insinuation of a rivalry between the two, at least on the field. These and other acts—whether it’s passing funny remarks to scold teammates for their mistakes, often caught on the stump mic, that are bound to elicit laughter, or being humorous and candid at press conferences—add to Sharma’s relatability quotient. Many see him as one of their own… their friend, well-wisher and guide.

The T20 World Cup is the ultimate prize on Sharma’s CV so far—he’s only the second Indian skipper after Dhoni to bring home the trophy. The win comes 17 years after India won the inaugural tournament in 2007, 16 years after the IPL began in 2008, 13 years after winning the 2011 World Cup and 11 years after it last won an ICC tournament—the Champions Trophy in 2013. “Rohit has played two World Cup finals where he has gone into the final unbeaten. That speaks of his captaincy and leadership quality,” said former India captain Sourav Ganguly before the win against South Africa.

Sharma’s intent, positive mindset and the belief he has instilled in the team have played a key role in the brand of cricket India have played of late. Though he has bid adieu to T20s—he will continue playing the IPL though—he does have some unfinished agenda in the other formats. And given his track record, it’s unlikely he will settle for anything less.