190621 Sharma
Image Credit: Seyyed de la Llata/ © Gulf News

Rohit Sharma’s rich vein of form has been a feature of India’s victories in Cricket World Cup 2019. He may not have been fluent in the opening game, but his gritty century brought victory against South Africa. Against Pakistan, Sharma was at his imperious best, and his ton effectively shut India’s arch-rivals out of the game.

India-Pakistan games are always special. Cricket is a passion for the people of the subcontinent. And there’s no bigger rivalry. Bigger than the Ashes, the clash between traditional rivals England and Australia, which has a long and storied past. A cricket game is a proxy battle for the two nuclear-armed neighbours who have fought three wars.

The sour ties have merely added more flavour and fervour to the contests. Cricket ties are now limited to international fixtures. So when that happens, expectations of a high-voltage clash soar. This World Cup encounter was no different. Coming three months after the Pulwama terror attack in Kashmir, and after weathering calls for a boycott, the match was hotly anticipated.

A sea of supporters, some clad in blue and others in green, filled the Old Trafford stands. The atmosphere was electric. The threat of rain hung heavy over Manchester. When Sarfaraz won the toss and elected to bat in heavy overcast conditions, opinion was divided. Was it the right call? The general feeling was that the Pakistani captain might have erred, for his team are never good at chasing. But Pakistan banked on Mohammad Amir and Wahab Riaz to use the moisture in the air to make early inroads into the Indian batting.

That didn’t happen. Sharma single-handedly took the match away from Pakistan, making a mockery of Sarfaraz’s decision to bowl first. With K.L. Rahul for company, Sharma swiftly neutralised the early threat of the Pakistan quicks, laying the platform for a massive total. He took little time in getting his eye in before tearing into the attack. Hassan Ali was pulled over midwicket and later slashed into the crowd at point.

He was so much in command that the only chance Pakistan had was when there was a possibility of a run-out. For all his blazing strokes and insight into the game, Sharma has never been a good judge of a run. The run-out chance was the only time the Mumbai batsmen came close to getting out.

A knock to remember

Pakistan were left to rue that miss. For Sharma soon shifted gears. His timing was exquisite as always. Short deliveries were dispatched to the fence with stiletto square-cuts and rapier pulls. When pitched up, the balls were met with wristy flicks and silken drives. His 140 off only 113 balls should rank as one of the great World Cup knocks.

Such was Sharma’s dominance that Virat Kohli had to play second fiddle. A rare sight indeed. The Indian skipper is a huge admirer of Sharma. Every century has Kohli gushing. Even the dour knock against South Africa was dubbed by Kohli one of the best he has seen.

When Sharma broke into international cricket in 2007, he provided glimpses of his abundant talent in the Twenty20 World Cup. Yet the first six years were very patchy for the Nagpur-born right-handed batsmen. His class was never in doubt. Critics marvelled at his timing. He seemed to have more time than others when easing into his shots. But his career graph was frustratingly erratic: delightful knocks were interspersed with abject failures. His international career looked in jeopardy.

More on Rohit Sharma

All that changed in 2013. His skipper at the time, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, promoted him to open the innings. That worked wonders. Sharma rediscovered his form and consistency in the Champions Trophy. And what followed was a string of high scores, including two double hundreds in One-Day Internationals. In fact, he’s the only one to own two ODI double tons. His 264 off 173 balls against Sri Lanka at Eden Gardens is the highest in limited overs cricket.

Sharma continued to burnish his reputation with some breathtaking displays in the Indian Premier League. The league also helped him blossom as captain. His tactical acumen helped lead Mumbai Indians to IPL titles.

At 32, Sharma continues to be an enigma. A swashbuckling batsman in limited over games, he has struggled to adapt to the rhythms of Test cricket. His sensational scoring in the shorter formats fetches him a berth in Tests. For a player, who builds his innings sedately his technically sound game should be ideal for Tests. Strangely, he hasn’t been able to replicate the ODI success. He’s yet to figure out the demands of the five-day game.

Cricket World Cup games are played over 50 overs, a format that suits Sharma. He has provided the starts in all the games so far. If Sharma can continue his high-scoring ways, India could well be barrelling towards the final at Lords on July 14.