Vesuvius postponed

The idea of Rohit Sharma

By Mukul Kesavan
  • Published 18.01.18

The indignation that Rohit Sharma's continuing presence in the Indian Test team provokes on social media tells us very little about Rohit Sharma but a great deal about the people outraging. The futility of the criticism comes of applying the expectations of cricket to a work of art.

Had Picasso been cricket-mad, his portraits of batsmen might have had both eyes on the profile facing the keeper and no one would have objected. If it's silly requiring realism from Cubists, it's daft expecting runs from Rohit. Sharma is a sign and he has to be read as one.

Virat Kohli, his captain, who knows something about cricket, is an unlikely semiotician but he understands the importance of being Rohit. After the first Test against South Africa, which India lost, Kohli said that he didn't mind batsmen getting out early so long as they showed intent. Selecting Sharma is his way of signaling intent. If there is one criticism to be made of Sharma's performance in South Africa after three innings, it is that he didn't get out flashing. Had he showed intent while being dismissed, his job would have been completely done.

What makes Rohit such a potent sign in Test cricket is, paradoxically, not his record in that form of the game (which is modest) but his extraordinary limited-overs past, especially those incandescent double centuries. It's the spectral presence of those molten innings that helps him embody the idea of aggression. Rohit's task is to be that name on the team sheet, that presence in the dressing room, that storied figure walking out to bat, surrounded by the ghosts of those limited- overs eruptions.

By doing this, by being himself, Rohit gives notice of India's explosive intentions. A straightforward way of justifying his inclusion is to point to the way in which he rubs off on others. It should be obvious to a fair-minded student of the game that Hardik Pandya's firecracker knock in the first innings of the Cape Town Test would have been inconceivable without Rohit's presence in the team. Kohli selected Sharma and Sharma begat Pandya, so to speak. Would the young man have had the berserker confidence to go for it as Hardik did if Rohit's presence hadn't reassured him that this Indian team is so committed to attacking play that it's willing to storm South Africa in its lair with just ten players and a sign? Of course not.

As Ravi Shastri and Virat Kohli have said more than once, Rohit is picked on talent and transformative potential. Potential, by definition, gestures at the future, it is a process of becoming. A player who realizes his potential ceases to have potential. Rohit is pregnant with the idea of greatness; once he delivers, he is no longer a portent or a sign: he becomes a player like any other. It is by threatening to perform, by rumbling but not erupting, by being a non-doing Vesuvius, that he becomes a galvanizing presence. For Kohli, Rohit's ODI heroics endow him with that vanishingly rare Test match quality, ATCATIAS: the 'ability to change a Test in a session'.

Once Rohit's inclusion is understood as the broadcasting of intent, Ajinkya Rahane's exclusion is revealed as its perfect complement. Rahane is India's most reliable overseas player. His consistency on pitches outside the subcontinent, his willingness to buckle down to the task, to wear bowlers down, have been invaluable to Indian touring sides in the past. And that, of course, is the point of dropping him. It is to signal that Kohli's men don't do dogged, they don't dig in, they're unwilling to be besieged, they'll either carry all before them or die trying. To pick Rohit over Rahane is the most dramatic way of trumpeting India's commitment to talent, potential, and intent over temperament, achievement and consistency. Dropping Rahane is as necessary as selecting Sharma.

To recap, Rohit's selection has two justifications. It sends an unmistakable signal to the opposition. It's the closest thing cricket has to the fearsome Haka, the Maori war dance that New Zealand's national rugby team, the All Blacks, perform before an international fixture. The second reason he's there is that Rohit is to the Indian team what a starter is to yoghurt: he makes it set. This is what Sanjay Manjrekar must have meant when he said that if Rohit got a chance in South Africa he would come off for India. Coming off here doesn't mean some great weight of runs. The measure of a jaman, a yoghurt starter, isn't its weight, it's the volume of milk it turns into dahi. The measure of Rohit, then, is Pandya's dashing ninety, Kohli's counter-attacking 150.

The angry incomprehension that Sharma provokes is like the reaction of a reader of airport novels to challenging literary fiction. What does it mean? Where's the plot? Why did it end without tying things up? These are the wrong questions. You don't read Woolf for her plots or value Borges for the thickness of his books; why would you rate Rohit by the number of runs he scores?

Rohit is an enabling idea and it is his fate to deal with the same philistinism that conceptual art and its pioneers have had to suffer. The Turner Prize, the most prestigious award in the British art world, was won in 2001 by Martin Creed for an installation that consisted of an empty room and a timer switch that turned the lights on and off every five seconds. Everyone sneered then; twelve years later, the Tate bought it for its permanent collection for more than a hundred thousand pounds. Rohit is Creed's installation - his absent runs are that empty room, those timer lights are twinkling intimations of his genius.

The scoffers who call Rohit, Nohit, have stumbled on to an important truth. We should think of Nohit as a term of negation, a cricketing neti, neti. Rohit is important for what he is and for what he is not. He is not Pujara, not Rahane, not a plodding journeyman. He is the platonic ideal of gorgeous aggression, always immanent, never achieved.

But it can't last. Sooner or later he'll play a blinder. Perhaps it'll be this innings; as I write this, he is not out with a day to play in the second Test. India is three wickets down with a mountain to climb. Might this be his Everest? We must learn to enjoy the Idea of Rohit while we can; once he comes off, we'll miss him.