The sound of firecrackers boomed through the walls as Rohit Sharma sat patiently for his post-match press conference, wearing a smile that seldom left his face for much of Sunday’s short Asia Cup final that culminated in India winning their first multi-nation tournament since September 2018.
That tournament happened to be the Asia Cup, too, in Dubai, where Rohit had been standing in for a rested Virat Kohli. This one, though, was different, not least because the next few months could define Rohit’s captaincy legacy.
India had a number of niggling questions leading into the tournament. Unlike in 2018, when MS Dhoni was the whole and soul behind the stumps, India didn’t quite know who their first-choice wicketkeeper was until a week before the tournament with doubts still hovering over KL Rahul’s fitness. Then, he picked up a “different niggle” to the one he was in rehab for, and India had to hand the gloves to Ishan Kishan for the first two games. They also had another headache to solve when Shreyas Iyer, also on his way back from a long injury break following back surgery, pulled up with back spasms.
Who knows how things would have panned out had Iyer, India’s designated No. 4, not picked up that niggle. But now, in came Rahul in his spot, literally five minutes before toss time, and he left his imprint immediately with a superbly constructed 111 off 106. His unbroken 233-run stand with Virat Kohli sent Pakistan tumbling to one of their heaviest defeats. It was storylines such as these that pleased Rohit the most as he reflected on India’s Asia Cup campaign.
“It’s so tough when you have to come back like that,” Rohit said. “Five minutes before the toss, we told him he’s playing. An unfortunate incident happened [Iyer’s back spasm] and KL had to come in and play. To get a hundred like that shows the quality of the player, how mentally he’s ready for the challenge. We want players to stand up in big moments and in big pressure situations and a lot of the guys stood up.”
Rohit reserved most praise for his bowling group, saying watching his fast bowlers fire away like they did all tournament was “comforting.” On Sunday, it was Mohammed Siraj’s magic that floored Sri Lanka. His figures read 7-1-21-6, with Hardik Pandya cleaning up the last three batters.
Rohit was so mesmerised by Siraj’s work that he was tempted to keep bowling him, until he was sent a message by the trainer.
“I was surprised with the pitch,” Rohit said. “It was pleasing to watch from the slips. The guys were bowling quick, all three pacers [Jasprit Bumrah being the third] bent their back really well. Siraj got it to bend more than the other two guys. Every day everyone can’t be a hero, you’ll find new heroes everyday and today was Siraj’s day.
“We all complimented him and were behind him when he was bowling that spell. He bowled seven overs which is a lot. I wanted to keep bowling him, but I got a message from our trainer that we need to stop him now. He was also quite desperate to bowl. That’s the nature of any bowler or any batter when they see the opportunity, they want to pounce on it.
“But that’s where my job comes in and I want to make sure everything stays a little calm and you don’t over exaggerate a little too much. That’s the call. I remember against Sri Lanka in Trivandrum he was in a similar situation, he bowled eight-nine overs on a trot, he was on four wickets. But seven overs is good enough.”
Rohit felt the nature of pitches in the Asia Cup offered a good workout leading into the World Cup. At the toss he said he would have batted too given the option, but the decision was taken away from him when Dasun Shanaka called right.
“Honestly I was a little surprised at how much the wicket did,” Rohit said. “Because we didn’t expect the wicket to do that much. That’s been the nature of this ground [R Premadasa Stadium], you have to be prepared for unexpected things. Those are the challenges you come across as sportsmen. In conditions like this you don’t know exactly what the right score is, what the winning score is.
“We defended 213 against Sri Lanka [and it was enough in the Super 4s] but the other day we couldn’t chase 266 [against Bangladesh], and today we bowled them out for 50. So, the nature of the pitches here has been challenging, unexpected as well. I mean when the pitch had so much to offer, we needed guys who have the skill to exploit that.
“Siraj has to be specially mentioned here, when the pitch is looking that dry, to get the ball to move around like that is a special skillset. I hope he continues that for a little longer, at the same time we just need to look after all the bowlers, make sure they’re fresh, and keep them ready for the games in front of us now.”
Rohit on Kuldeep Yadav: ‘He’s brought the team back from tough situations’
Rohit was effusive in his praise for Kuldeep Yadav, the lone wristspinner in India’s squad, who was named Player of the Series despite being only the fifth-highest wicket-taker – his nine wickets in five games were only two shy of Matheesha Pathirana’s chart-topping 11 wickets and there were three bowlers tied on 10, but Kuldeep’s average and economy of 11.44 and 3.61 were was the best among these top five.
“Kuldeep has bowled superbly,” Rohit said. “Under pressure, whenever he’s had the chance to bowl, especially against Sri Lanka [in the Super 4s] where we didn’t have a big score, he came in and picked up a lot of crucial wickets. His confidence has gone up over the last 1-1.5 years. Whenever he’s got the chance he’s bowled well. He’s brought the team back from tough situations, which is a good quality. As a team if we have such a quality bowler, it feels great.”