India cricket star Rohit Sharma's route to greatness passes through South Africa this winter
The gifted batsman is 30 and peaking in the limited-overs game. This is his chance to establish himself in the Test team and realise his full potential
Rohit Sharma is always under pressure. Always has been, always will be.
He is not the only cricketer dealing with it, but if you happen to be as good as Rohit, it is by all accounts intense. And if you happen to be as good as Rohit and living in India, it must reach unfathomable levels.
So how is he dealing with it? A casual survey of his career stats shows he is doing alright.
Across three formats he has scored nearly 10,000 runs and hit 20 centuries to boast 40-plus averages in Tests and one-day internationals. He is the only player to score three double-hundreds in ODIs. He is also one of just 13 players to cross three-figures in all three formats.
His career is not just about numbers either.
He has been an integral part of a World Twenty20-winning team (2007) and a Champions Trophy-winning side (2013).
After becoming the only man to clinch the annual Indian Premier League Twenty20 competition four times as a player and three times as captain, he was named Virat Kohli's deputy in India's limited-overs side this year.
To top what has been a successful 2017 for him, Rohit led India to victory in his first ODI series as captain - over Sri Lanka last week. Next he will lead his team out in a T20 series against the southern neighbours, with the first game getting underway on Wednesday.
Good career? Splendid, many would say, and he has achieved all this at just 30 years of age. He must be dealing well with pressure.
Yet, his career remains an unfulfilled one in the eyes of many, not least the man himself. That perception is unlikely to change until he does two things: one, establish himself in India's Test XI, and two, score big runs outside the subcontinent lest he is left to wear the 'flat-track bully' tag for the rest of his life.
Unfortunately for him, there is some truth to both criticisms often levelled at him.
When India have needed him to score big in crucial situations, he has tended to fail: 34 runs in India's 2015 World Cup semi-final defeat to Australia, 43 in the 2016 World Twenty20 semi-final loss to West Indies and scoreless in the 2017 Champions Trophy final capitulation at the hands of Pakistan.
Despite being in the national selectors' plans for more than a decade, he has played in only 23 Tests - far too few for a cricketer of his calibre. The three hundreds he has to his name in the long form include two against West Indies and one against Sri Lanka - all of them against weak opposition and in the relative comforts of home.
One problem is his mindset: the moment his character is put to the test, he tends to lose his poise.
Such an occasion arose in South Africa in 2013 when he was facing Dale Steyn, then arguably the world's most feared paceman.
Realising Rohit had not scored enough runs in the series and had yet to get his eye in, Steyn had him on the backfoot with some hostile fast bowling and a few terse words. What Rohit needed to do was put his head down and focus on the task of saving his team from probable defeat.
Instead, he got into a war of words that ended with Steyn memorably saying, "You've got one chance, Rohit. One chance!"
Rohit was dismissed in the next over by Vernon Philander and India eventually lost the Test.
The second problem is a lack of application. He has been guilty of soft dismissals on many occasions across all formats, but more so in Test matches.
Former Australia captain Ian Chappell wrote in a 2011 column for ESPNCricinfo that good players who were left on the sidelines too long developed bad habits.
"They don't find it sufficiently challenging to continually play at a lower level, and consequently there is a tendency to become sloppy," he wrote, presenting the six-year gap between Rohit's ODI and Test debuts as a case in point.
Both issues have their roots in an unstable environment early in his life.
He came from a modest background, and seeing that he was blessed with a natural flair with the bat, Rohit's coach Dinesh Lad persuaded the Swami Vivekanand School management to waive off his tuition fees so that he could avail of quality coaching and excellent facilities that would go a long way in making the player that he is today.
From that moment on, he knew he had to do well. He was just too good to miss out.
Rohit told this writer in a 2006 interview, when he was just 19 but already a star in the India A team, that he was ready to play on the big stages - first for state team Mumbai and eventually for India.
In fact, it was high time.
He had a point: fellow Mumbaikars Sachin Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli were even younger when they made their international debuts.
It is a statement that landed him in trouble with Mumbai's selectors, with one of them calling him a precocious teenager who needed a little humility.
His state-level debut got delayed, yet in 2007 he was picked to play for India. Perhaps worried about the dissonance between state and national selectors, Lad told this writer he was unhappy to see Rohit being fast-tracked on to the international stage when he needed more time to mature.
Lad's fears came true as Rohit failed to impress and slipped out of the national scene.
He made comebacks every year, but not before 2010 did he begin to realise his immense ability in the one-day arena. His name was culled - perhaps unfairly - from the final 15 for the 2011 World Cup, but his limited-overs career has fortunately taken off since.
Rohit remains a worrier. He has an excellent cricketing brain, evident from the way he sets his fields and rotates his bowlers, but he is at the core a man not as sure of himself as Kohli. It is an outcome of nature and nurture.
Now he has an opportunity to build on his successful Test comeback against Sri Lanka.
It will be in the more challenging batting conditions of South Africa where he could once again be up against Steyn. He is older and wiser, but most crucially, at the peak of his career.
If he can channel the pressure positively and make his mark in the five-day format, both player and team will be better off for it.
If not, his would go down as a chequered career at best - nowhere as great as Tendulkar's and nowhere as disappointing as Kambli's, but somewhere in between.
Updated: December 19, 2017 07:35 PM