Rohit Sharma: India’s outstand-in skipper

Vishal Menon
Rohit Sharma has led Mumbai Indians to five T20 trophies — four in the IPL and one in Champions League T20 — in seven years. (Express photo: Praveen Khanna)

"In T20Is, you need a lot of strategy, planning and an understanding with your players on what they can offer."

Addressing the press at Feroz Shah Kotla on eve of the series opener against Bangladesh, India’s stand-in skipper Rohit Sharma, who has led Mumbai Indians to a staggering five trophies (four IPLs and 1 Champions League), gave insights into captaining a side in T20.

"That is the most important thing for a captain to understand. That is something I have probably executed at the Mumbai Indians with the help of the support staff we have."

Rohit is in the midst of a stellar run as a batsman — from notching up five centuries at the World Cup in England to making the seamless transition as a Test opener against the Proteas. Amidst all the plaudits he has been receiving for his batsmanship, Rohit's captaincy is an area that often gets overlooked. Incumbent Virat Kohli’s incredible success as captain has meant that Rohit's leadership role in international cricket is limited. Rohit has never publicly expressed his desire to lead India full-time. However, every time he gets the opportunity, Rohit leaves a mark. A case in point: India’s Asia Cup triumph last year.

“Captaining India is a huge honour, be it for one match, 10 matches or 100 matches. When we were younger, the dream we had was of playing for India, not of leading India. I never think ‘why did they make me captain for just one series or two series. Why not for a full year?’ I don’t think or even talk about these things. Whenever I get these opportunities, I happily shoulder the responsibility and try to set an example," he said.

While the opportunities in international cricket have been sporadic, it is in the Indian Premier League where the 32-year-old has really blossomed as leader. Taking over the reins from Ricky Ponting in 2013, Rohit, who didn’t have any substantial experience as captain at any level, made Mumbai Indians the most successful IPL franchise in seven seasons. Those associated with Mumbai attribute his incredible success-rate to his technical nous backed by meticulous planning that involves data crunching and exploiting weaknesses in the opposition.
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Mumbai's 2019 IPL triumph under Rohit had moments of individual acts of brilliance. However, it was the cool, calculated mind of their captain that helped them tilt the scales during crunch matches. Like when he had asked Lasith Malinga to bowl short from around the wicket to Kolkata Knight Riders' talisman Andre Russell. With Malinga's unorthodox slingy action and pin-point precision, Mumbai ultimately saw the back of their arch nemesis. Another example of Rohit's ingenuity was the manner in which he utilised his bowlers in the Powerplay of the IPL Qualifier against Chennai Super Kings. In that match, Rohit employed five bowlers inside the first six overs to stifle Chennai's batsmen. The rationale behind this move was to keep their batsmen guessing and not let them get used to one particular bowler. The smooth execution of that plan meant Rohit's team would defeat MS Dhoni's outfit for the third consecutive time in the season.

Virat Kohli seems to have taken a leaf out of his deputy's book and has used this ploy on a couple of instances in bilateral T20Is. Even when he is not leading the side, Rohit chips in with valuable inputs. Like when he had asked Jasprit Bumrah to unleash a vicious slower delivery that trapped Shaun Marsh on Day 1 of the MCG Test.

"When I was bowling in the first session, the wicket had become really slow and nothing was happening. So, during the last ball before lunch, Rohit was at mid-off and he told me 'you can try a slower ball like you do in ODI cricket'," Bumrah had said about his Mumbai Indians captain.

Rohit has a simple, uncluttered view to leadership: Let the rest of his 10 team-mates take control of the proceedings.

"When you captain your side, you are not such an important person. The other 10 players are the most important players because you want to get the best out of those 10 players. Of course, your performance will matter but I don't like to consider myself at the forefront. The other 10 guys become important and I have to focus on them and give them that confidence and freedom where they can come out and express themselves," he elaborates. It’s a method radically different to Kohli’s who likes to stamp his presence on the game.

For the moment, Rohit has his hands full. He knows that a Bangladesh team without the services of talisman all-rounder Shakib Al Hasan and star batsman Tamim Iqbal can still surprise. "Bangladesh is a very good team," Rohit said. "Over the years, we have seen how they have performed not just at home but also away whenever they have gone out. Especially against us, they have always put us under pressure. There is no way we look at this team differently."