LET’S TRY AND grasp the enormity of the stage first. This is the ninth over of India’s chase against Pakistan, the marquee clash of the group round of this tournament; the tournament, of course, being the 50-over World Cup (hands down the game’s biggest event) and this key match held at the new Motera in Ahmedabad—a stadium so large that it isn’t just the biggest cricket ground in terms of seating capacity in the world, which it is, it also happens to be the second largest sport venue globally after the Rungrado 1st of May Stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea (which is supposed to seat 1,50,000 at any given time).
So, here we are, about 1,30,000 of us spectators, watching Haris Rauf at the top of his mark, waiting for the ever-so-dangerous fast bowler from Rawalpindi, Pakistan, to commence the penultimate ball of the ninth over. Also waiting for him to do so on the batting crease is Rohit Sharma, India’s captain and the team’s opening batsman. Rauf runs in and delivers a good ball, literally, as it pitches bang on a good length and begins to seam away from the batsman. This is the kind of ball that most batters wouldn’t chase, given that the line wouldn’t affect the stumps and following it with the willow, away from one’s body, could perhaps induce an edge. But Sharma isn’t like most batsmen.
With minimal foot movement (nothing more than a gentle straightening of his left shoe), Sharma leaned into this leather ball travelling at over 130kmph and simply let his beautiful hands do the rest. The drive, an aerial one over covers, sailed over the off-side and then sailed some more. As the ball landed somewhere in the first tier of the stands, a sea of blue humanity rose as one: disbelief in their wide eyes and borderline delirium in their voices. Given the heft of the potent moment—the stage, the location, the opposition, the bowler, the ball even—this would have been a career shot for most other players; the kind of shot that their families would’ve got framed and nailed on their living room walls. But again, Sharma isn’t like most players and that six perhaps wasn’t even his best six of that Rauf over, let alone his whole career.
For just three balls earlier, Sharma had hit Rauf straight back over his head and the leather was smoked above the sightscreen and into the ecstatic stands of Ahmedabad. This delivery had landed just back of a length and Sharma met it with unusual violence. This was the kind of shot that makes it to billboards and television advertisements, enticing us mortals to buy whatever the ad is peddling—be it apparel or deodorants, it doesn’t matter. But for Sharma, it was just another moment of utter magic that left a nation in his spell in the 50-over game, especially at World Cups. He simply shrugged, checked the pitch and punched gloves with his batting partner, Virat Kohli, without as much as a smile on his face. Such has his genius been normalised; such has his artistry become routine.
What is it about the ODI World Cups that brings the best out of Sharma? Perhaps the ignominy of being left out of the 2011 squad (they chose leg spinner Piyush Chawla in his stead to bolster the bowling attack in turning conditions) that went on to win the trophy in his backyard, Mumbai, has stayed with him, haunting him whenever he is asked about it. When picked four years later in 2015, he made it count with a hundred against Bangladesh in the quarterfinal, but this maiden World Cup ton will warrant nothing more than a passing mention when Sharma’s biopic is filmed—all thanks to his heroics in the 2019 World Cup.
Sharma was already a devastating white-ball batsman by then, having tasted immense success with three double hundreds (three!) to his name, including the highest-ever individual score in the 50-over format: a mind-bending number that is 264 personal runs in one innings against Sri Lanka in Kolkata. But, somehow, at the World Cup in England and Wales in 2019, he found a way to expand more imaginations with five hundreds in one tournament, coming against South Africa, Pakistan, eventual champions England, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in Southampton, Manchester, Birmingham (twice, back-to-back) and Leeds, respectively.
Five hundreds at a single World Cup was a record, as was reaching six overall World Cup hundreds, tying Sachin Tendulkar for the statistic. But the only difference was that Tendulkar had played 45 quadrennial innings to get there, while Sharma had done it in 17; which is essentially a World Cup hundred every third game. He was then 32-years-old, in the absolute prime of his career and such feats should’ve been impossible to recreate four years later, because of a number of factors—age (36), playing in his first home World Cup (50-overs) and the pressures of being the leader of both the host nation and tournament favourites.
But because Sharma is Sharma, a batsman so gifted that he could well be a once-in-a-lifetime, he has, at the 2023 World Cup, found newer, greater and more frankly ridiculous ways to blow minds. And given the way it has gone so far, the Sharma of 2023 could perhaps even overshadow his 2019 avatar for one vitally important reason: his form and runs at this tournament could well land the trophy in our hands on November 19.
His first 50-over game in a World Cup at home didn’t begin all that well, what with Sharma being dismissed for a six-ball nought against Australia in Chennai. But then came Afghanistan in Delhi and a strong Afghanistan team at that; just four days after taking on India, Hashmatullah Shahidi’s side would go on to fell the defending champions England on the same ground. No such wobbles for India as Sharma would make a crisp first innings total of 272 runs by Afghanistan look bland, mediocre even.
As dusk fell on Delhi’s baking earth, Sharma walked out to bat with Ishan Kishan, who too had been dismissed for a duck in the Chepauk game. Both of them must have been internally relieved as they got off their respective marks (Sharma with a single from his very first ball, Kishan with a boundary off his eighth attempt), but they certainly were circumspect initially as the ball moved ferociously under the Kotla lights. But then, in the fifth over, Sharma smacked Fazalhaq Farooqi over long-off for a six and instantly the floodgates opened, a dam of more fabulous records ready to burst.
That six off Farooqi got Sharma to 1,000 World Cup runs in just 19 innings, the fastest to get there along with Australia’s David Warner (Tendulkar took 20 innings). That six also put him just two such hits away from becoming the highest six-hitter across formats, ever. Bang and bang they came in the next two overs, a front foot pull off Farooqi tying him with Chris Gayle on 553 sixes; a backfoot pull off Naveen-ul-Haq taking him where no man has gone in international cricket before, a 554th six. It also took him to a relatively less significant landmark of his first World Cup fifty in India, coming in just 30 balls.
Somehow, in the middle of all this madness, he managed to put a smile on faces as well. When medium pacer Azmatullah Omarzai was tonked for a 96-metre six over deep midwicket, teammate KL Rahul, following the trajectory of the ball from the dressing room, was caught by the broadcast cameras mouthing just one word: “Wow!” Nearby, the other Rahul, coach Dravid, shook his head and chuckled. Soon, India’s team hundred came up, in the 12th over, with Sharma scoring 79 of those runs and Kishan 14 (extras accounted for the remaining 7 runs).
Then, of course, his personal hundred came up as well. And because it was scored in just 63 balls, Sharma also took home the honour of scoring the fastest World Cup hundred by an Indian. But that wasn’t all—he now had seven World Cup hundreds, one more than the great Tendulkar, with at least seven games in this tournament to go. Sharma could well have clinched an eighth World Cup hundred in the following game in Ahmedabad (the big one against Pakistan), but while batting on 86 and very close to victory, a slower ball by Shaheen Shah Afridi induced the first false shot from his blade spanning two cities, and he was gone.
He slumped his head in sadness and even chastised himself by knocking his bat gently against his helmet before making his way back to the pavilion. But immediately the crowd, 1,30,000 strong, rose to their feet and applauded, now confident in their shared belief that with Sharma in such imperious form, the No 1 ODI team in the world would shortly take their rightful place at the top of the 10-team stack; exactly where they would like to see the Indian team about a month and a bit from now on the same ground in Ahmedabad.