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How Rohit turned a corner

Sandeep Dwivedi, Devendra Pandey

Posted: Dec 11, 2011 at 0222 hrs IST
      

: His friends call the early part of this year as the ‘eccentric’ phase of Rohit Sharma’s life. But their sinful laugh accompanying the word ‘eccentric’ blows the lid of a popular, personal joke amongst them. Tumultuous times provide for happy nostalgia once the tide has turned. And that’s why a few painful memories from Rohit’s difficult days, with passing time, bring comic relief to those close to him.

The year hadn’t started well for the 24-year-old who was once seen as the next big Mumbai batsman but was of late being blamed for wasting his priceless talent. He had failed to make the World Cup cut, and it hurt. It was a period of angst, anger and sometimes unbridled elation as he watched his former team mates’ amazing journey while punishing his body on a treadmill.

Rohit wanted to change a number of things around him. For one, the extra layer of fat around his once slender frame. Rohit opted for a rather radical measure, going on an eccentric, or, as his mates say, ‘eggcentric’ diet. For close to two weeks, he was just on boiled eggs. Eventually, though the mind was willing, the body gave in. Dizziness, blackouts and dehydration forced Rohit to end his diet plan.

When his mentor-cum-motivator-cum-Mumbai teammate Abhishekh Nayar heard about Rohit’s self-imposed starvation, it resulted in an immediate visit to the doctor. Nayar was clearly worried. Being a fitness buff himself, Nayar is regularly consulted by many of Indian cricket's twenty-something brat brood on health issues. So he suggested a more scientific approach to weight loss, while others chipped in. Seeing their usually cocky friend turn unusually contemplative, the Rohit entourage—a collection of his buddies from school, old neighbourhood and junior cricket days—moved a step closer.

With their famous friend, who didn’t change or forget them despite moving to a Bandra-flat with a nine-digit price tag, going through a rare low, they were there to lend a hand, shoulder or to merely say the right things. “One day we will be able to laugh about this” was something that Rohit heard a lot during his early days in the “discomfort zone” as he tried to change his shape, psyche and, most importantly, his sleeping hours.

Nayar can’t keep a straight face as he talks about the duel that would begin when he would give an early wake up howl to the man who is known to sleep like a log-on- sedatives. For the two training mates, the day would start with one dodging pillows and the other a splash of water. It’s funny now, but it wasn’t then.

But the other innovations that Nayar came up with to weed out boredom from the monotony of a daily regimental work out are timelessly comical. With the strict diet discipline making the cook virtually unemployed, he was asked to keep up with Rohit as he ran up and down the stairs of his multi-storeyed building. The driver was made his master’s jogging mate during road runs. The sloppiness of the domestic helps added the all-important laughs to the exhaustive hours.

Besides the fringe benefit of having a fleet-footed kitchen assistant and an alert chauffeur with a toned frame, the hard yards put in by Rohit resulted in an 8-kg weight loss, an international recall, a 100-plus batting average in the last 10 ODIs and a place in the Test squad for the upcoming Australia tour.

In his various interactions with this paper during the last 11 months, Rohit came across as someone in the middle of a

major metamorphosis.

In January, he was an India discard who was desperate to take a grip of a career that seemed to be rapidly slipping through his fingers.

On his flight back to India at the end of the ODI series against South Africa in January this year, where he had a highest of 23 from five games, Rohit asked himself an important question: Did he like the way he looked? The answer was easy—all he needed to do was to look at the mirror and play his old tapes. He was to return home and tell his friends that the next time he would be on television, the world would see a different him.

February and March become the months when Nayar and the Mumbai team fitness trainer Amogh Pandit moved to Rohit’s 10th floor three-bedroom apartment at Bandra. Morning paranthas were replaced with protein seeds, cornflakes, oats and

8 p.m. became the new dinner deadline. “Rohit’s main problem was that he used to have food really late at night and that saw him gaining weight,” says Pandit.

But in April, after he was snapped up by Mumbai Indians to play in the Indian Premier League, came the runs and a lot more.

For Rohit, the IPL was the most important outing in his new avatar. On the night of his first televised game in April, Rohit’s phone was constantly busy. The next morning, he returned the calls. “I received about 100 messages and never-ending calls. This is more than what I get when I score a century. Everybody said I was looking thin and fit,” he says.

Nayar too got a message from Rohit. “He isn’t a guy who believes in expressing himself too much. But that day I got a really sentimental text where he spoke about the time we spent together while preparing for the season,” says Nayar.

To highlight how dramatic the change was in Rohit’s fitness, he recounts how even Paaji (Sachin Tendulkar for those who haven’t yet shared a dressing room with the game’s great) complimented Rohit on his lean look. That sagely ‘Paaji nod’ means a lot in Indian cricket. It means Team India isn’t far.

****

The IPL high, plus the nod, saw Rohit wearing India blues again on the tour to the West Indies in June—the shirt-size medium, not large. The new look comeback man was to hit an unbelievable run streak on his return. It proved to be a dream comeback with Rohit winning Man of the Match awards in the first and last games of the series, to go along with three fifties and the Man of the Series. Returning home after the Caribbean tour, he spoke at length about his days of struggle and how he was, finally, at peace with himself. “When you are young, you make mistakes. Only if one makes mistakes, one learns,” he had said.

Looking back at his period of slump, Rohit spoke about the criticism he, along with other cricketers from this generation, face when they are not in form. But he was quick to make it clear that comments don’t quite bother him. “I never watch news channels or read the papers. But if some friends tell me there is a good article on me, I do read it,” he said. “People have a job to do. I can’t say, ruk jao bhai, yeh kya bol rahe ho?”

Becoming a millionaire overnight wasn’t easy for a person from his background to deal with. “Players like me, who are from middle-class families, suddenly got a lot of money. So it’s a given that pair to fislega hi. After that, you become an India player and there are people all around you. It is a tough world. It depends on how an individual deals with this. Some learn after a fall, others never do,” he said.

Though Rohit has never let whispers about his off-field activities bother him, what hurt him was that his laidback approach to batting was often interpreted as laziness and, worse, as a lack of interest in the game. But again, it’s more disappointment than anger. He doesn’t launch into a counter-offensive against his critics, but instead switches over to the Hindi ‘dialect’ that they speak in the Mumbai maidans. “Is duniya mein ek opinion naam ke cheez hai, woh bahut badh gaayi hai. Log badh rahe hain, to opinion bhi badh gayee hai (the number of people are increasing, and so are opinions).”

This non-confrontational approach has seen Rohit make more friends than foes on the circuit. He is a popular member of Team India but isn’t part of any clique. He is a loner who loves the company of those who he is comfortable with.

While his form may have changed, the man remains the same. For his friends, he’s still the Borivali boy who loves his game and mates. They see no difference in the India batsman and the nervous kid who once stood outside an academy near his home wondering who would give him the Rs 800-entry fee. He may own three houses in Mumbai but he doesn't mind spending a night, just like the old times, squeezed between the television set and the cramped living room furniture in his old home.

His upmarket 2,500-sq-ft Bandra house, with a billiard table in the living room, is a popular haunt with his close friends and the keys to his BMW changes hands frequently when he is busy with cricket tours. He can be a bully during leg-pulling sessions but when the chips are down, he is the best of buddies.

It was because of this strong bond with his friends that Rohit didn’t find himself alone when he was against the odds. A few didn’t even wait for him to ask for help. Prashant Naik, a Mumbai middle order batsman, knew how Rohit was feeling towards the end of the World Cup. “He was upset about missing the World Cup berth. And it got worse when the final was happening in our home ground, the Wankhede stadium,” says Naik. “I think every cricketer needs a kick once in a lifetime and Rohit got his when he missed the World Cup at home.”

It was in England, a few months ago where he was injured while playing the first one-dayer of the series, when Rohit spoke about the missed opportunities during his career. “Sometime I wonder why I let the chance slip from my hand. And at other times, I say chod yaar.”

That’s Rohit for you, letting a chance slip, regretting it briefly and then bouncing back.

Highs & Lows

2006: Rohit Sharma enters the nation’s consciousness with impressive returns in the Under-19 World Cup in Sri Lanka. Weeks later in his second List A match, he smashes 142 for West Zone in the Deodhar Trophy. He’s later named in the 30 probables for the Champions Trophy. Ends the season with a 205 for Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy against Gujarat.

2007: Takes only 45 balls to light up the Brabourne Stadium in India’s maiden domestic T20 tourney. Soon handed the India cap during a rain-affected ODI series against South Africa in Ireland where he scores eight in his maiden innings. His impact in the inaugural World T20 though is impressive as MS Dhoni lifts the title in South Africa.

2008: The Australian wickets provide the perfect platform for Rohit to showcase his talent and during the CB Series, he scores 66 in a stand of 125 with Tendulkar while guiding India to a win in the first final. Later, the Deccan Chargers buy him for $750,000. He flounders for the rest of the year, averaging 25 by the end of the year.

2009: Scores a century in each innings of Ranji Trophy final as Mumbai lift trophy. Is dropped from Indian ODI squad.

2010: After playing 42 ODIs without a century, he finally scores his maiden ton—against Zimbabwe—and follows up with another one in his next innings against Sri Lanka. But doesn’t show this form for the rest of the year.

2011: Is left out of the World Cup team. A fitter Rohit plays for the Mumbai Indians in the IPL. He wins the Man of the Series award in the Caribbean. He suffers a finger injury in the first ODI in England, but returns with a bang during the home series against West Indies with 284 runs in four games at an average of 94.66.

Bharat Sundaresan

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