"We brought Mumbai to a standstill.”
Those were the words of Mahendra Singh Dhoni moments after he and his young bunch of boys returned home from South Africa in September 2007 after clinching the inaugural World Twenty20 trophy, travelling in an open-top bus from the airport to the Wankhede Stadium as thousands of cricket-crazy fans lined the streets of Mumbai.
A few months later, one of the kids on that bus once again brought Mumbai traffic to a standstill. Not through glorious achievement, but because he and his friends were out to have some fun.
Welcome to the world of Rohit Sharma.
Rohit and his close-knit bunch of friends decided to stage a fight on the streets at peak traffic hours. “Rohit’s car and Bhavin’s car touched each other with precision at Worli. All of us got out and started a heated argument,” remembers Abhishek Nayar, who has been a friend, philosopher, trainer, teammate as well as roommate to Rohit.
Prashant Naik, a Mumbai batsman who has been Rohit’s friend for two decades, quickly adds. “You won’t believe we almost came to blows. All the words that shouldn’t be uttered about family members were hurled at each other. A huge crowd gathered and people were trying to tell us, Arre kuch nahi hua hai , just let it go.’ After 10-15 minutes, the moment we saw a police van getting closer, all of us swiftly rushed into the cars and drove away.”
Had that happened in the age of smartphones, the video would most likely have gone viral and the world would have known this other side of Rohit Gurunath Sharma, whose brand in Indian cricket today is exceeded only by M. S. Dhoni and Virat Kohli.
But if not for his personal struggles and those of his family, as well as the efforts of coach Dinesh Lad, the world might have missed out on a chance to be mesmerised by the Hitman.
Twenty years ago, Dinesh Lad was scouting talent while coaching at a summer camp at Swami Vivekanand International School in Gorai, on the outskirts of western suburb Borivali. He was impressed with an off-spinner who played for the opposition and asked him to come and see him later.
“I asked him to come and see me with his parents, so he said his parents lived in Dombivali (a central suburb) and he lived in Borivali with his uncles,” says Lad.
Two days later, on June 2, 1999, Lad vividly remembers standing on the same ground as Rohit walked up with his uncle Ravi. “I told them Rohit should change his school for his cricket to flourish,” he said and convinced the school management to accept him after admissions were over “without donation.”
“But when his uncle heard the annual fees were ₹275, he declined. He told me that for Rohit’s summer camp fees of ₹800, all six siblings had chipped in besides borrowing money from some of their friends and well-wishers. So the school was not affordable for them. I walked into the cabin of Yogesh Patel, the chairman, and he agreed to offer Rohit a waiver of fees. That’s how Rohit joined me,” says Lad.
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For nearly a year after being a regular at Lad’s nets, Rohit was the primary spinner for the school team. Then one day, as Lad entered the school, he saw from a distance a batsman — with his back to the coach — knocking the ball.
“I was amazed at the swing of the bat and the grip and started wondering where this talented batsman had cropped up from. Only when I went closer did I realise it was Rohit. In the next match, he was promoted to bat at No. 4 and he scored a scintillating hundred. Since then, Rohit Sharma’s bat hasn’t stopped talking,” Lad says.
Rohit quickly rose through the junior ranks. He was spotted early on by Vasu Paranjape, who was instrumental in picking him for the Mumbai under-17 team for the first time, with Naik as captain. Then having impressed the likes of Dilip Vengsarkar and Pravin Amre, he was called up for the India under-19 side, which was followed with a Mumbai Ranji cap and an India debut.
All that in a span of three years.
Then came the Indian Premier League bandwagon and the distractions that come with it. With Rohit lacking consistency with the willow, there were murmurs of him losing focus on cricket. What followed was a big setback — exclusion from India’s World Cup squad in 2011.
By then, Rohit had moved from a tiny flat in Borivali to a plush apartment in Bandra. While watching the World Cup with his close friends, he turned to Nayar. “He looked at me and said, ‘I am ready to do anything. I want to get back into the Indian team. I want to prove everyone wrong in terms of what they think about me.’ That’s when it started for both of us,” says Nayar.
The next six weeks saw Nayar changing Rohit’s lifestyle, getting his famous friend out of his comfort zone. Rohit is not a morning person, but Nayar made him rise early and work on his fitness. A rigorous schedule was chalked out till the start of the 2011 IPL, and it paid rich dividends.
“2011 was when he changed the way he thought of fitness. What has changed is the way he prepares, the way he looks after his body,” says Nayar. “I stayed with him at his house in Bandra. We treated ourselves like government employees. To earn our salary, we had to slog six-eight hours a day. He had to come back with a bang and we had to do well collectively. Those six weeks saw him losing seven kilos. He built some muscles. His four-pack was evident. He was fitter, leaner, meaner. He worked very hard for it. Once he got it, Rohit has never looked back.”
The partnership man
Rohit today is the most successful captain in the IPL, with a team owned by India’s richest family, having taken over the reins midway through the 2013 season. But he still retains his suburban charm, though his friends stress that his wife Ritika has been instrumental in bringing out the sophisticated SoBo-ite (South Bombay) in the brash kid from Borivali wherever it’s required.
“Ritika has been unbelievable for him. You know how aloof he is as a person. She has been the positive. She is there everywhere he is. The biggest change is her. Versatility is something that she has managed with him so well,” says Nayar.
That’s not the only partnership Rohit has cherished in his life. All his close friends are still the ones he had during his early playing days, and he makes a point to keep in touch with them. Moreover, Nayar and Naik both got closer to Rohit because of their partnerships at the crease.
While Naik and Rohit shared some real big partnerships for the Mumbai under-17 and -19 teams, and were “the default roomies whenever we were in the same team,” Nayar and Rohit hit it big with their big stands for Mumbai’s middle order in Ranji Trophy since 2006-07. Despite having emerged as a big brand and moving into a sea-facing palatial home in Worli, Rohit still makes it a point to stick to his roots. Naik says he was stunned to see Rohit still enjoying vada pav at a stall in Worli and again in Pune right next to the unit of a business venture the two are involved in.
“I am iffy about eating such street food, but his philosophy is simple: I should stay attached to my roots. He believes if he has never got an infection eating such food in his childhood, he will never have any problem even now,” says Naik.
Captaincy and cars
Rohit’s efficacy as captain, be it in the IPL or international cricket, may have surprised the world but not his mates. “I haven’t seen anyone who watches more cricket than Rohit. At times, it used to be frustrating to be his roomie, even for someone who loves the sport so much. To just see him watch game after game,” Nayar says. “If you are sitting with Rohit Sharma and if he is watching TV, be rest assured he is watching cricket. He is always observing, analysing the game. Now you can see it in his captaincy.”
Naik adds that the only thing that kept Rohit away from watching cricket — before the birth of his daughter Samaira, of course — was Bollywood flicks featuring Govinda and Rajpal Yadav.
“Let it be an extremely bad film, but if it has Govinda or Rajpal, he will watch it. He is crazy for them. You have to be with him to actually realise how much he enjoys these films.”
But that’s not all he’s crazy for. Ever since his childhood, Rohit has had a fetish for luxury cars. Lad remembers that while having street food after a junior cricket game at the Mumbai maidans, standing next to a Mercedes, Rohit told his coach he would soon own one. “I asked him if he had lost it, but he sounded so confident that he would soon own one. Not long afterwards did he call me from Australia in 2008 to convince his father to let him buy a BMW,” Lad says.
“After India won the CB Series, the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India) announced a bonus for all the players and Rohit, just like many India players, had booked a BMW. His father was unsure about the need and maintenance of the beast, but I finally convinced him to let Rohit go ahead with buying it since he had earned it,” he says.
A few years prior to that, Naik would drive nearly 30km in his father’s Maruti Zen. Not to pick up Rohit, but to teach him how to drive. “He had this fetish about cars, so I would drive down the white Zen twice a week and that’s how he learnt driving. I still remember the first brand new car he bought, a Honda City. Rohit, Bhavin and I had driven down to Lonavala,” he says.
As Rohit gets ready to board the aircraft to England as Virat Kohli’s deputy, all of his childhood friends are hoping that two months down the line Rohit and his India teammates once again bring the Mumbai traffic to a standstill.
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