The previous time Kohli and Dhoni were rested, Ajinkya Rahane was assigned the captaincy for the 2015 Zimbabwe tour. As Rahane is no longer a permanent member of the Indian ODI side, a ‘course correction’ by the selectors was only obvious.
Accompanied by another debutant captain (Sri Lanka’s Thisara Perera), Rohit Sharma would certainly have had some butterflies in his stomach, as he made the long walk from the pavilion to the pitch of the picturesque Dharamshala stadium for the toss on Sunday (December 10, 2017). What would probably have been more unusual for him was the fact that he would be leading the side with Mahendra Singh Dhoni in it.
The rapport shared by Kohli and Dhoni is a treat for the Indian spectators. As the viewers look on, every time MSD makes a fielding change from behind the stumps – with the same authority as he used to, when he was the captain – it’s a testament to the the solidarity of the Indian cricket team. Every time there is a DRS call to be made, the way all eyes (including Virat’s) turn to Dhoni has become a characteristic of the Indian cricket team.
Being an active part of this set-up, Rohit too must have been observing it all this while. Somewhere, in his flight of fancy, he must have been dwelling on what he would do differently if he was the captain. After all, this is his chance to show what he’s made of.
In the September of 2007, the Kingsmead cricket ground in Durban was buzzing, jam-packed with its full capacity. The stadium, located on the shore of the South Atlantic Ocean, had already been a witness to Yuvraj Singh’s six sixes against England, just a day ago.
India was facing South Africa on its home turf to ensure a semi-final berth in the inaugural ICC T20 World Cup. When Rohit Sharma came out to bat, the team was tottering at 61-4. The opening pair of Sehwag and Gambhir was already back in the hut. On a tough wicket where the ball was wobbling due to the sea breeze, Rohit fought it out with his maiden T20I fifty and bagged the Man of the Match award.
Interestingly, on the other end was skipper MS Dhoni, who had been recently assigned the captaincy of the Indian team. It was the 85-run partnership between Rohit and Dhoni that pulled out India from trouble and allowed it to advance to a the semi-finals.
That was the first solid partnership between Rohit and Dhoni in the middle. Ever since, the duo has nurtured a strong bond between themselves – both on and off the field.
When Rohit burst on to the cricketing scene, he mesmerised one and all with his elegance and stroke-making. Whoever saw him (fans and cricket pundits alike), was in awe of the Mumbai batsman. But gradually, the ‘pleasing-on-the-eye’ adjective started sounding more caustic than complimentary. Everyone knew that the guy had real talent, but their frustration owing to his streak of failures was also palpable.
MSD gave Rohit a long (very long, indeed) rope in the middle-order, but he too was becoming unsure of Rohit’s place in the ODI side. On the 2012-13 England tour of India, Rohit had been warming the benches – with fellow Mumbai batsman, Ajinkya Rahane, making the final XI.
After Rahane failed to deliver the goods in the first three ODIs, Rohit got a game in the fourth ODI at Mohali. But voila! This time, he was an opener. For once, Rohit did not disappoint as he went on to make a breezy 83. Although he could not duplicate his performance in the fifth ODI at Dharamshala, MSD’s ingenious brain had noticed something. It was Rohit’s knock in Mohali that sowed the seeds of something that had the potential to flip his ODI career upside down.
The next thing Rohit knew was that he would be opening the batting with Shikhar Dhawan for India in the Champions Trophy in June 2013. It would be fair to say that Rohit did not have a run-feast like Dhawan, who went on to score 363 runs in five innings, and became the tournament’s highest scorer. However, Rohit’s achievement (the tournament’s fifth-highest run scorer with two 50s) was a lot better than his previous performances. Moreover, India struck gold with a solid left-right opening combination, that had no issues with pace and was adept enough to score runs in alien conditions.
After Dhoni quit captaincy, Rohit himself revealed what had precisely happened leading to his promotion in the batting order. “He (Dhoni) just came up to me and said, ‘I want you to open the innings as I am confident that you will do well. Since you can play both cut and pull shot well, you have the qualities to succeed as an opener’,” Rohit Sharma told PTI.
Rohit not only recognises the positive impact Dhoni has had on his career, he has also not shied away from making his admiration public.
“I believe the decision to open in ODIs changed my career and it was a decision taken by MS Dhoni. I became a better batsman after that. In fact it helped me understand my game better, react better according to situations. With no disrespect to other great Indian captains, I was blessed to play under MS all these years. His calmness in pressure situations helped us. He always led from the front. There won’t be one like him,” an emotional Rohit had once said, giving Mahi his due credit.
When Rohit scored his maiden double century in the seventh ODI against Australia in Bengaluru, he aptly had skipper Dhoni by his side.
Fast forward a little to the third India-Sri Lanka ODI in Pallekele this year. India had what could be called a batting collapse. Coincidently, the score was 61-4 (again) when Dhoni took the crease amid the superb spell of the Lankan off-break spinner, Akila Dananjaya, with Rohit at the other end. The duo steadied the ship and led India to a comfortable three-wicket victory.
Rohit was all praise for the calm-headed Dhoni, as he even dished out a tweet for him –
— Rohit Sharma (@ImRo45) August 28, 2017
With level-headedness and equanimity as his stand-out traits, Rohit has already proved his credentials as a captain in the Indian Premier League (IPL). Once he was elevated to the position of the permanent captain of the Mumbai Indians in 2013, the 30-year-old led the team to a record 3-time victory. After MI bagged the 2017 edition of the IPL, he was asked if he was aspiring to become India’s T20 captain in the coming future. However, the elegant right-hander said, “That’s thinking too far ahead. I don’t think too far ahead. When the opportunity comes, it comes. I will grab it with both hands.”
Rohit Sharma will be India’s 24th ODI captain and the 7th Mumbai player to do so!#INDvSL
— Mohandas Menon (@mohanstatsman) November 27, 2017
Recently, when he was asked how different captaining India will be from leading the Mumbai Indians, Rohit said, “It will be completely a different ball game all together but the process and basics of captaincy will remain the same.”
It’s no secret that Dhoni has shielded Rohit at different times of his roller-coaster career. But, nothing is permanent in life – and cricket is no exception. With rising criticism, Dhoni is working hard to wield his spot in the side till the 2019 World Cup. Rohit, on the other hand, had been struggling to cement his place in the Test XI. Now, he finds himself as the skipper of the ODI team, due to the absence of Virat Kohli.
Being of the same age group as Virat, Rohit will have limited ambitions of captaincy. But, having played under Dhoni’s captaincy for the most part of his career, the chemistry between Rohit and Dhoni in the novel arrangement should be a treat to watch. All said and done, the eyes of the Indian fans will pass by Rohit and rest on Dhoni – be it in the case of a DRS call or bringing about a bowling or fielding change.
A version of this post was first published here.