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The Talented Mr. Sharma

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“It’s hard work making batting look effortless,” David Gower is reported to have said. I don’t recall in what context the statement was made. I’d guess that even if he said it somewhat offhandedly, as was his tendency, it was a studied response to the countless times the left-hander was accused of not maximizing his talent. It was, I’d wager, a rejoinder to those who frequently labeled him carefree and careless; those who figured that batting came so easily to him that it was a travesty of his own making that he wasn’t consistently more dominant.

It is the bane of the languid stroke-player that his failures are frequently attributed to lack of effort or lack of grit. The liquid ease is taken to signify an abundance of talent, while failure to maintain the expected level of production is seen as a needless squandering of that talent.

The list of batsmen who have had to carry that burden throughout their careers is fairly lengthy. One name at the top of that list is Indian middle order test batsman Rohit Sharma. Long regarded as a batsman with stratospheric potential, his returns in test cricket have been, on the whole, disappointing. For this he has been pilloried, unfairly in his view, by fans and pundits aplenty.

 

Recently, in an interview with DNA, the batsman fired back firmly at his critics, pouring scorn on the view that he is especially gifted, and underscoring the toil he has had to dedicate to developing his batting. “People say, ‘Boss, this guy is gifted and he can do this and he can do that.’ But nobody knows what happens behind the scenes. Nobody knows about the hard work that’s been put in.”

Rohit has a point. Sportsmen normally have to work long and hard to climb to the highest level. Former basketball player, now high jumper, Bahamian Donald Thomas, came to high jumping in early 2006, yet won gold in the event at the 2007 World Championships in Osaka, Japan. Thomas’ story is, however, very rare, and elite athletes generally sacrifice much to reach the top.

But they wont get there without considerable talent either. Naturally, different athletes will be blessed with different levels and different varieties of gifts, even those within the same sport. It takes meaningful practice to hone those innate abilities in order to bring them to the highest stage.

 

“This talent talk has messed things up for me,” Rohit claimed. He went further, “All this natural talent, god’s gift that you guys in the media talk and write about is unfair and wrong. I have worked on my batting to get here. I used to bat at No. 8. From there I made my way up. Ask my coach Mr. Dinesh Lad, and he will tell you I was an offspinner.” Rohit also informs us that he became a regular batsman only after breaking a finger during a 50-over match in 2005.

The preceding, in Rohit’s assessment, is supposed to fortify his theory that he is not especially talented. I take the opposite view and posit that it is evidence of his supreme gifts as a batsman.

I would argue, for instance, that his broken finger might not have been a bad thing as it enabled him to develop his true potential – that of being a batsman. Additionally, the fact that he came fairly late to batting in 2005 and yet was playing for India by 2007 emphasizes, contrary to what he’d have us believe, that he was endowed with special talent.

Another sign of the abundance of Rohit’s ability is his success in the shorter formats of the game. “See the ball, hit the ball” is a phrase often used to explain the very gist of batting. It is batting in its simplest, most natural form; it is batting reduced to first principles. In limited overs cricket, it is chiefly the batsmen who are more capable more frequently who’ll be more successful. In other words, the more naturally gifted batsmen are more likely to excel.

Test match batting, on the other hand, demands other qualities in addition. Patience, to name an example, can be a very useful tool. Murali Vijay transformed his test career partly by deciphering which balls to play and which to leave. Concerned he was losing his wicket too often to the cover drive in Australia in 2004, Sachin Tendulkar shelved the shot for the Sydney test. The result was 613 minutes at the crease for 241 runs.

Understandably, Rohit readily acknowledges the hard work he has put in, but is quick to deny his natural gifts. After bowling a good spell without much luck for Yorkshire, former England captain Ray Illingworth answered in the affirmative when asked by a correspondent if the wicket was turning. Later, the bowler was castigated by his captain. “Never say it’s turning when you have not taken any wickets,” Len Hutton told him. Perhaps Rohit’s version of Hutton’s reprimand would go something like this: “Never admit to having talent if you haven’t scored a boat load of runs.”

To be successful in tests, talent has to come laden with a healthy dose of mental fortitude. Not many batsmen will admit they haven’t been successful because they are not sufficiently able to apply themselves. That would be like admitting to some kind of mental deficiency or some kind of character weakness.

Lawrence Rowe was worshipped by the cricket community in Jamaica and in much of the Caribbean for his batting artistry. Michael Holding testified that Rowe was the best batsman he ever saw, and a young Viv Richards held the Jamaican in such high regard that he painted “YAGGA” on the fence that enclosed his home in Antigua. Yagga was Rowe’s nickname.

One evening in Barbados in 1974, Rowe was 48* opening the innings against the visiting England team. There was one hook shot for six off Bob Willis, struck so sweetly, that sailed all the way to the boundary boards at no more than head height. The next day, in anticipation of the master-class to come, a large and unruly crowd turned up. Things became so chaotic that the players could hardly gain entry and had to be escorted to their dressing rooms. Rowe was eventually dismissed at 551/7. His score? 302 of the most handsome runs one could ever hope to see.

Injury and illness took a toll on Rowe’s career. Probably more crucially, however, the stylish right-hander, who never realized his full potential, suffered from what Jamaican Prime Minister and cricket historian Michael Manley referred to as a “flaw at the centre of his character.” Those were harsh words indeed, coming from someone strongly drawn to his countryman’s classy batting, but it was a sentiment shared by many others. Rowe subsequently killed what should have been a spectacular test career by going on two rebel tours to South Africa.

Rohit can deny his considerable talent all he wants; nobody who has ever seen him in action has ever doubted his high quality. At 14 tests, his career is young, and so he has the opportunity to turn things around as Vijay managed to do. It’s not a slur on him to say he has not yet fulfilled his potential. It just means he hasn’t quite worked out his test game yet.

 


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I am from Jamaica, currently live in USA. Have followed cricket for a long time. Took to writing ab...

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