Sage-like Rohit Sharma can cement his Test legacy at The Oval

Rohit Sharma attends a press conference
June 07, 2023

It was about an hour after Ross Taylor had scored the winning runs to help New Zealand win the inaugural World Test Championship final in 2021. Virat Kohli, India's vanquished captain, had finished his media briefings and was on his way back to the hotel, ensconced in the Ageas Bowl. But before going there, he stopped briefly to have a quick word with the pair of Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane.

From a distance, you wouldn't have known what was said, but a vivid image remains even two Junes later. Rohit was lying on the turf, sideways, with his head resting on his crooked elbow. There was an air of ease about him. Nothing about the scene suggested he might have been brooding about his pair of 30s, in what was only his second Test in England after the first in 2014.

As Kohli retreated indoors, Rohit returned to resume what he was doing prior to the Indian captain stopping by: playing with Samaira, his daughter, and Aarya, Rahane's daughter. Two friends with their wives and children milling around on a quiet afternoon.

Compartmentalising has been among Rohit's big strengths. No doubt, the WTC final loss was painful, but in that moment, maybe he realised switching off and enjoying time with family and friends was healthier than being consumed by the defeat. Rohit would continue to spend ample family time over the following weeks as India moved around England for the Pataudi Trophy.

That England trip was transformational for Rohit in many ways: he ended as India's best batter, and only behind Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow overall. More than the runs, it was the respect he accorded to the conditions. During training, he focused on leaving balls, scolding regular India bowlers in case they fed him hit-me deliveries. Rohit understood India needed to have a good first-innings total to have a shot at victory. He was willing to show the discipline: he was the only Indian batter to face more than 1000 deliveries across the five Tests that summer, including the WTC final. It all came to fruition in that fourth Test, at The Oval, where Rohit scored 127, a match-winning masterpiece as India took the crucial 2-1 series lead.

It was Rohit's first Test century overseas, and remains one of his finest.

On Wednesday, Rohit will walk out at The Oval, this time as India's captain, in another WTC final, against a most familiar foe in Australia. The significance of the moment will not be lost on Rohit - not that he will show it or showboat.

The final will also be his 50th Test. A combination of injuries, form, and an impenetrable Indian middle order have all played a role in Rohit not being closer to 100 Tests, alongside his contemporaries Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara. It is a landmark many might have thought inevitable when he first arrived, but the beauty of Rohit is the absence of insecurity. His belief - and he had to teach himself this - in focusing on the moment, and his tactical smarts, allowed Rohit to become a natural leader.

Mumbai Indians recognised that in 2013 and appointed him their captain. It was a decision made with the long term in mind. Rohit has since more than proved his worth with five IPL titles, despite often not being the best batter in his teams. But he has also played a role in the development of young players who swarm to him like he is a sage, offering them both calmness and the feeling of lightness. In the pressure of the IPL, both are essential.

Being true to yourself has always been Rohit's mantra, and he wants youngsters to be able to do likewise. Allowing space to a player to grow is another way he leads. At the media briefing on Tuesday, Rohit was asked what his advice to Shubman Gill would be. His answer: just keep batting the way he has in 2023, where he has scored centuries in Test cricket, double-centuries in ODIs and three tons for Gujarat Titans in IPL. It is, Rohit said, "just about giving him more and more confidence".

In many ways, Rohit comes from the MS Dhoni school of captaincy: he believes in the process, too. Mental preparedness, if you listen to Rohit, is the backbone of his success. The one difference between him and Dhoni, though, is Rohit is big on winning "championships", world titles.

And Rohit now faces in front of him the prospect of a lasting success, a legacy-ensuring success, as important as any of India's previous world titles.

"I've gotten the job to make sure that we take Indian cricket forward every time. Whoever it is, whether it's me or someone else - even the guys before - their role was to take Indian cricket forward and win as many games, as many championships as possible," Rohit said responding to the kind of legacy he would want to establish.

"I want to win games, I want to win championships. That is what you play for. It'll be nice to win some titles, win some extraordinary series. Having said that, I genuinely feel that we don't want to put too much pressure on ourselves by thinking, [or] overthinking about these kinds of stuff. So for me, it'll be nice if I can win one or two championships before I decide to move on from this job."

In 2007, a 20-year-old Rohit won his first world title - the 2007 World T20. Four years later, he was desperate to have missed out on the ODI World Cup win having not put together the form to be part of the squad. In 2013, he won the Champions Trophy, which was the last time India won an ICC title. In the 2019 World Cup, Rohit had a dream individual tournament with five centuries and finished as the tournament's leading run-maker, but he was gutted as India lost in the semi-final.

At the 2022 T20 World Cup in Australia, his first ICC tournament as captain, his team were brushed aside by a rampaging England in the last four. Rohit became India's captain across formats last year. All six Tests he has captained so far have come at home, with India winning four and losing one, against Australia.

Thus, the WTC final will be his first overseas Test as captain. At 36, winning the WTC final is his shot at creating a true legacy. Losing to Australia doesn't make India a bad Test team, or Rohit a poor leader. Winning it, though, can become the defining moment of Rohit's Test career, elevating him alongside the finest of India's captains.

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