A 100 percent result is something you associate with a maths paper, and not in the glorious uncertainty of cricket, especially in limited overs formats. So Rohit Sharma’s 100 percent win record since taking over the captaincy from Virat Kohli in November last year is remarkable. He hit the road running with a 3-0 clean sweep in a T20 series over New Zealand, finalists in the 2021 T20 World Cup, and this month, he had 3-0 clean sweeps in the ODI and T20 series over the West Indies.
Admittedly these were all on home turf and tougher challenges await abroad. But the last time India recorded a clean sweep in an ODI series at home was way back in 2014. So the drubbing of the West Indies isn’t to be scoffed at, because the hard-hitters from the Caribbean are a dangerous side who beat England in a T20 series just before arriving in India.
Rohit Sharma’s success as a captain is nothing new. He won over 80 percent of his matches as a stand-in captain for Kohli in T20s and ODIs, starting with a clean sweep over Sri Lanka on his captaincy debut for India in 2017. He has been an even bigger success in the IPL, winning five titles in nine seasons as captain for Mumbai Indians since donning the mantle in 2013. That trumps even MS Dhoni’s four titles for Chennai Super Kings in 12 seasons as captain since 2008.
Sharma’s tactical nous and people skills are just as good as Dhoni’s and leading the Indian team was overdue after being in Kohli’s shadow for so long. After all, we shouldn’t forget that India hasn’t won a T20 or ODI World Cup since the Dhoni-led triumph of 2011. Sharma’s leadership amplifies the chances of rectifying this record in the T20 World Cup in Australia this year and the ODI World Cup at home next year.
An attacking mindset: What makes Sharma tactically superior on the field than most other captains was evident in the recent ODI series against the West Indies. The three matches were played on bowler-friendly pitches in Ahmedabad where the Windies pace attack extracted steep bounce.
India had the advantage of winning the toss in the first day-nighter, where dew makes batting easier in the second half. But India batted first and posted modest totals of 237 and 265 in the second and third ODIs respectively. That’s when we saw the attacking mindset that has made Sharma such a successful captain.
He never let the pressure off from the Caribbean batsmen, undaunted by onslaughts and always looking for wickets in his bowling options and field placements. This was in stark contrast to the ODI series in South Africa, under stand-in skipper KL Rahul, where India had the rival batting side on the mat more than once but let the Proteas off the hook with defensive fields.
It’s always tempting in the middle overs of an ODI, when the field restrictions are off, to put as many men on the fence as possible and cut off boundaries. But the easy singles on offer as a trade-off can allow a partnership to rebuild an innings, after which it’s hard to stem the flow of runs from well-set batsmen.
For Sharma, attack is the best form of defence. Pacers usually have two slips in place if there’s a chance of inducing an edge, and spinners often have in-out fields with close-in fielders as well as those on the boundary for skied catches. Runs have to be earned and risks taken to maintain the rate.
Finger on the pulse: It’s not a formulaic approach either. Sharma seems to have his finger on the pulse of a game, making his moves according to how he reads situations or batsmen. He’s expressive on the field with his frustration or joy, but what’s also noticeable is his collaborative nature. This allows players to seize the initiative on their own, instead of just following orders. This helps construct a team that’s striving to do its best—enjoying success and coping with adversity without being overwhelmed by a larger-than-life captain or an uncertain situation.
It’s also to be noted that India rotated players liberally through the ODI and T20 series, in the quest to prepare for the coming world cups. But this did not affect the results. It speaks of the depth of talent in Indian cricket but also the adaptability of Sharma’s captaincy.
In the last T20 in Kolkata, where the pitch had enough purchase to aid spinners, India went in with four pacers and only one spinner, having already taken an unassailable 2-0 lead in the series. In fact, the West Indies enjoyed an advantage over the hosts with three spinners in the playing 11. But Sharma’s handling of the medium-pacers—Shardul Thakur, Harshal Patel, and Venkatesh Iyer—and their execution of variations, compensated for the absence of spinners.
A number of new players got opportunities in the new dispensation. Sharma dropped himself down the order to give his opening slot to young Ruturaj Gaikwad who was so successful for CSK in the last IPL. Gaikwad went for a premature hoik and got out, but others grabbed their opportunities—especially Venkatesh Iyer in the all-rounder finisher slot once occupied by Hardik Pandya, pace bowler Prasidh Krishna, and the emerging master of the disguised ball, Harshal Patel. We can expect these team-building exercises to continue in the upcoming series against Sri Lanka.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.