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Self-made captain Rohit Sharma opens up: ‘Whatever I have created today, it’s because of myself… I didn’t expect anything from anyone’


Rohit Sharma is about 11 years old, staring angrily at a group of boys. Behind him, a couple of his teammates have fled. Rohit hears their panicked departure, but stands his ground, still angry at the opponents for brazenly cheating during their cricket game.

“I remember saying it isn’t fair what you guys did.” Outnumbered, he was whacked. “At that time, I would do a lot of maara-maari over this and that.” But he was “scared” to go home with a bruised face. “What will my uncles and grandparents say?”

Next day, one of his uncles went head-hunting. “He got hold of each one of them, and we gave it back!” Rohit laughs now. “It was important to let everyone know that you can’t cheat and fight like that na, bhai!”

Rohit is just days away from his greatest challenge of leading India in a World Cup at home but even back then, the stakes were high, he says with a chuckle. “There was a lot of prize money on offer in those colony games. Cycles, cash prizes, bouquets – and other stuff. As a kid, you wanted to get those things, but fairly. You can’t cheat, and you have to fight those who do.”

Laughter fills his hotel suite, again. It’s a fairly large living room, with an adjoining bedroom. A young waiter comes with coffee, and Rohit senses the nervousness, and indulges in easy banter with him. Smiles all around.

Freedom Sale

Suddenly, the mood would shift. Sitting in a corner on a chair near the window, he turns his gaze to the part of the room near the front door. He points out a small rectangular area, and says, “You know, that was our room. 10-11 of us used to sleep. The grandfather on the bed, me, uncles, aunts, grandmother on the floor. That corner,” he points out, though in his mind’s eye he is gesturing towards the Mumbai home he lived in three decades back.

“I would curl up. I had a thing, I had to touch someone or something with my leg. I would sleep towards the wall, my leg touching it. Else, I can’t sleep,” he smiles gently. In a small claustrophobic space, the kid wasn’t reaching out for a private free area, but a physical touch.

There is no mention of his parents on those nights as they weren’t there. Financial crunch had hit the family, and the grandfather, the unquestioned respected voice of a leader, had stepped in to tell his son, Rohit’s father, to keep Rohit’s brother with them. “He felt it would be easier financially for my parents to take care of just one. He was a baby.”

Not that Rohit was much older. Not even 3, then. And so, Rohit moved in with his grandparents, into the multitude of people. “Six chachas, uncles, and two aunts”.

Dadaji had said, “Rohit ko idhar chhod de, aur chhote wale ko leke ja apne sath (leave Rohit with us and take the little one with you). That’s how I stayed in Borivali while my parents and brother stayed in Dombivli (50 kms away). In some 100-odd square feet house, we used to stay, eight of us.”

xxx

Sachin Tendulkar was around 12 when he voluntarily, on the advice of his coach Ramakant Achrekar and parents, moved out of his home to live with his aunt to pursue his love for cricket. Rohit didn’t have a choice. Sensing the story was heading towards scenes filled with a maudlin background score or dark silence, Rohit quickly adds with a smile, “My uncles, aunts and my grandparents were wonderful loving people; so that was there!”

He seamlessly switches to the present and life in his 5500 square-feet sea-facing Worli flat where he lives with his wife and daughter. “Still, as a father now, I can understand the pain and sacrifice. I can imagine it now, how tough it would have been for my parents to leave me then. Being the first child also, they had to take that decision and it was forced. It was not that my mother and father wanted to do this. My grandfather was the boss, he had nine children!”

Laughter floats again. “Financially we were not that sound. It was not like whatever we wanted, we will get it. When my grandfather said something, it was done; he had that kind of respect. It was probably a sensible decision by him, thinking about the future.”

Like taking hard decisions to leave out a few players from the World Cup team? “Ha ha! Well, quite different, but not easy either. But when the thought behind it is clear, for the sake of the team, it has to be done. I contact those who were not picked. It is very important that players know ki bhai kya chal raha hai (what is the thought behind the decision). Why is anyone dropped?. Players do get upset and it’s valid too. I too have gone through the same thing. My agenda is to get the best from the team, however, we can. I’m not the only one who decides which player I want. It is a collective decision.”

xxx

Rohit is a 4 am friend to many of his teammates. His one-time colleague, medium pacer Praveen Kumar would call when troubled, irrespective of the time of the day. Pacer Munaf Patel would rave about Rohit’s earthiness. A shy smile curls around his lips when these conversations are quoted. He shrugs as if to say there is nothing to talk about.

“There is no point in doing showbaazi, it’s not in my nature. People around me, friends around me whom I have grown up with, have kept reminding me where I have come from. We just live normal lives. Why will I change and why should I change? I’m still not socially comfortable actually because I feel awkward. I am very poor at socialising. I get very uncomfortable at these events, struggling with small talk. I have a bunch of friends who are connected to me because I have connected with them, they have connected to me. Quality matters to me. People who are genuine, who are true, I connect somehow and feel quite comfortable in that atmosphere.”

Suddenly, he opens up. “I have seen those days so I know nothing in life comes easy, I have to work hard. Whatever I’m today is because of the hardship I have gone through. When you get things easily, you don’t understand its importance. The way I grew up, I think, was a great help. I had to make every opportunity count because my past was always in my mind. I know what I had gone through, and didn’t want to be in the same place again. God has given me a great opportunity to make the most of it.”

Much has been said about his natural talent. For a while, when he wasn’t grading up smoothly in the international arena, it was used as a taunt, but in the developmental years, it must have been a different feeling, knowing what one possessed. “Let me put it this way; I knew that game toh hai, and it did give me confidence to reach the place I wanted to. But I wasn’t that confident that I would be successful because I had the game. There have been many who played for a few years and were all gone. But we see so many examples of players who are less talented but make it. Anything is possible if you have the mind right and if you believe what god has given you and can make something out of it.”

The mind went back to the 2012 tour of Australia and to one particular moment beside the India nets. It was the image of Rohit kicking the ground in frustration pre-game and walking away, on his own, in a bubble of discontent. He wasn’t getting the chances then. He had already missed the World Cup that India had won. Things seemed on a brink; one wrong move either out of self-pity or anger could have dragged him right back to those Borivali nights.

“I myself realised what I had to do. Honestly, not many individuals have played a part in my journey,” Rohit says, with an inverted gaze. “Whatever I have created today, it’s because of myself, of course there has been support from my family and friends, everybody. I realised I had to make all this talent etc count. Else, it’s a meaningless word. It’s not like someone has called me and said ‘boss, do this!’ And why will anyone do it? I didn’t expect anything from anyone.

“Now if I see someone in any situation, I try to use my example. I first ask myself, does this person need any help from me? If I feel so, I offer. When going through rough or bad times, I generally wouldn’t take any advice that came my way at that age, I would welcome that thought though. The tough times I saw when I wasn’t picked for the World Cup and then there were a couple of bad tours that followed. I figured that it’s just my battle and I shouldn’t be expecting that anyone would come and help me. That I need to figure it out on my own. That I have to create my own path from my own struggle. That trait was inbuilt: figure out a way out of any problem, don’t go looking for people to help you.”

He plunged into creating that path. “Rather than sulking in my room, I have to make sure that my captain, coach, selectors think that we need this guy; he will do something for the team. So I started to think on those lines. Many times, the reasons are something different. The team wants to go with some different combination and probably you don’t fit in that combination. I want to do things to ensure the captain should not ignore me … Being the captain now, I understand that I cannot please everyone.”

Neither can he change their obsessions: like social media. He smiles before saying, “It’s the time we live in. The new generation is more on reel, Instagram, different social media; they all are into it.”

But he says he can’t change the others. That would amount to forcing his opinion on them. “I don’t run people’s lives, if people love it, they love it. Social media these days is fake. I saw someone on the team bus in the morning saying, ki dekha ki nahi, isne yeh bola, usne yeh bola. (Saw this? He said this, that). They discuss it.”

Since he has become India captain, especially this year, Rohit says he has de-cluttered his social life even further. “You see my phone, you can check it, I don’t have Twitter or Instagram on my phone for the past nine months. If we have to do any commercial post, my wife handles it. These are distractions, they all are on the phone the whole day. It’s a waste of time and energy. So I have decided not to have it on my phone because if it’s there, I will watch it.”

xxx

For someone who overhauled his game on his own, course-corrected, and has become India captain, Rohit has a couple of regrets. That his cricket-crazy grandfather never saw him as a professional cricketer.

“Unfortunately he passed away in 1996 when I just started playing for the Borivali Club. My grandmother at least saw me playing for Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy. She passed away the day we won the Ranji Trophy in 2006 in my first season. I really wished she could see and touch the actual Ranji Trophy … A few months later, I got selected for India. I always wanted one of them to see me getting an India cap. Unfortunately, both were not there but I’m sure they will be happy. They gave so much of their life to create my life.”

He certainly has created quite a life. It’s to his captaincy philosophy that the chat returns. “The way I think about it is that as a captain, you are not the most important person; the other 10 are. That is my philosophy because eventually you have to get the best out of the other 10.”

That can involve hard and frank talks too. “Of course. I am ready to do that. You have to. I do feel that sometimes you have to get out of your comfort zone and have those hard talks. It is part of this job. The captaincy job is not just on the field or to walk with a paper for the toss.

“But I like to manage the off-and-on-field differently. Captaincy is on the field. Once inside the hotel, I’m not going to people’s rooms and talking to them. They have their own privacy. Whatever conversation I like to have, it is at the ground, during training, matches and such.”

This World Cup is most probably his last throw of the dice at an ICC event in his brief tenure as India captain. A tournament where reputations are made and broken. 2011 lives on, 1983 still glows, 2007 rankles. What would it be in 2023? Will his hands wrap that trophy?

“I don’t have an answer for it. How can I say that now? All I can hope is that the team is in a good space. Everybody is fit and fine. That’s all I can hope for. I cannot say beyond this. Good space is such an important factor and it’s a very key thing now.”

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For a boy who, for years, needed a physical touch as an assurance to sleep, it has been a remarkable dreamy rise, but with his greatest challenge of the World Cup upon him, have sleepless nights returned?

“I’m not a person who overthinks too much. Yes, we have not won an ICC trophy in the last 10 years, but I’m not going to overthink that and put myself in a tough place where I’m not able to make a decision.”

Then, a lovely smile lights up his face as he says: “Sleep is my favourite thing, be it any situation or position.”





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