My first glimpse of Rohit Sharma was eight years ago at Udaipur, a city known for its majestic palaces. Pravin Amre, who had made a Test century on his debut at a fiery pitch at Durban back in 1992, always spoke highly of this lad from Borivali. Was he so good? “Wait till you watch him. You will believe me,” insisted Amre.

The opportunity came during the 2006 Deodhar Trophy. West Zone was playing North Zone at a college ground in Udaipur. North had a decent attack — Gagandeep Singh, Joginder Sharma, Abid Nabi, Amit Mishra, RS Sodhi. West had Sharma, who was just 18 at the time and impatient to outdo the competition and make it at the national level. Dinesh Lad, his coach since childhood, had taught him discipline, hard work and the importance of not squandering opportunities.

Here was a chance and Sharma did not err. He smashed the North attack with a 123-ball 142 — destroying the bowling with a wide range of shots. It was magical stuff for the simple reason that the ball stayed hit when he put his bat to the ball. Not one of the 14 fours and three sixes that he cracked was crude. He appeared to caress the ball between the gap, and that has remained his forte.

Recently, when he pulverised the Sri Lankan attack, he did just that, picked the gaps. And improvised, hitting inside-out strokes and savagely sending the ball across the field to make a record-breaking innings of 264 runs. The match was a thriller and proved the mettle of a man whose indiscretion at the crease had cost him a place in the 2011 World Cup. At that time, Lad had termed it the “right thing to happen”. Sharma’s mastery of all shots is born from necessity. These days the opposition studies batsmen through video recordings. Sharma found his way out, by being unpredictable, by working on different angles. He learned how to place the ball beyond fielders. Fielding captains are yet to find a solution around this.

The experts never doubted Sharma’s talent, however some senior teammates questioned his discipline. He seemed to have lost direction even though the national selectors continued to back him. A poor series in Sri Lanka in 2012 threatened to curtail his international career as Sharma aggregated a mere 13 runs in five One Day Internationals. He had begun to feel the pressure like never before. That he came out of it on a thunderous note speaks volumes about Sharma’s unflinching faith in his own abilities.

“I can do it. I will do it,” he would often tell his close friends and teammates. And he did it in style, drawing inspiration and discipline from his close association with Sachin Tendulkar. Sharma gave more and more time to cricket and grew in stature as a batsman of great potential.

Sharma symbolises the modern cricketer — confident, aggressive, ambitious and professional. He always looks to make a statement in an authoritative style, his presence at the crease is an eventful sojourn, without a moment of ennui, the bowlers often a picture of trepidation, exploring avenues of escape.

“I look to dominate. The bowler has a ball. But I have my bat and the crease is my domain,” he had said at the end of that century in Udaipur. He has grown into a batsman who now appeals to the crowds and the T20 squad. It is his place in the Test team that causes anxiety. His Test debut happened only in November 2013. He responded with a century. In the next, which was Tendulkar’s farewell Test, he paid his tribute to the master with another century. Sharma’s next 10 Test innings yielded a mere half century.

When most experts believed that batsmen like Chris Gayle, AB de Villiers, Kevin Pietersen or Virender Sehwag would be the first to achieve the double century in ODI, Tendulkar rose to the task. Sharma has eclipsed them all with scores of 209 (against Australia) and 264 (against Sri Lanka) within the span of one year. Not bad for someone who had once aspired to become an off-spinner!

When Lad promoted him to open the innings in a club match, the 12-year-old Sharma responded with a century. That small step in local cricket has now become a stride in the international arena.

Only he would do well to remember the laafa (slap) that Lad reserved for him once for throwing his wicket away. He learnt the value of keeping his wicket that day.

( Vijay Lokapally is Deputy Editor,Sports, The Hindu)

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