Twice now in the last four days, Rohit Sharma has held live audiences at the WACA and the Gabba, and global audiences on television, in thrall with his mesmeric strokeplay on India’s tour of Australia. He has done so with subliminal batsmanship, oozing grace and elegance and style and class that has forever been the hallmark of the wristy oriental. Occasionally, as you must when you stack up 171 not out and 124 at a run a ball or better, he has given the ball an almighty thwack, but a majority of those 295 runs have come with an apologetic brush of the bat, as if the ball must be dismissed from his presence but without malice or ill-will, and only because the circumstances so demand.
Rohit is quite the prototype of the archetypal modern-day professional. Agreed, he doesn’t have the same lab-sculpted physical structure of his Test captain Virat Kohli or even his limited-overs skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who has put the extra time on his hands since his retirement from Test cricket to good use to re-arrive without an iota of anything resembling fat. But Rohit is a fit young man who can bat long periods, who is quick across the turf, with great reserves of physical strength and stamina. The athlete’s athlete, if you like.
While his batsmanship might be in a league of its own, in his work ethic and in looking after his body, Rohit is pretty much what you get across sports in this era of supreme physical fitness with plenty of hours spent in the gym, even if some of it can be put to better use. Sport nowadays places such demands on body and mind that if you neglect that aspect for even a little while, the damage it can wreak is humongous.
Of course, there is nothing that contributes to a healthy mind more than a healthy body. And of course, by definition, a healthy body is a trim body. A slim, well structured, linear specimen. Optimum muscle and tone, minimum adipose. Not quite a recipe for success, but definitely one of the primary requirements.
And then, you have Mohammad Shahzad.
Afghanistan’s wicketkeeper-batsman who shares his initials with the man that brought ‘helicopter’ to cricket will never be accused of contributing to burgeoning electricity bills in the gym. He won’t even so much be allowed entry into physical fitness contests, let alone win them. In all ways imaginable, he is an anachronism, an embodiment of the amateur spirit in this dog-eat-dog ultra-competitive professional era. Political correctness be damned, he is fat. But can he bat? Boy, can he indeed!
Last Sunday, Shahzad produced one of the true epics in international Twenty20 cricket. With adoring fans filtering into the Sharjah Cricket Stadium, Shahzad took them on an electric, emotional ride, laying his heart on his sleeve and laying into the Zimbabwe bowling with an unconcealed gusto that was almost infectious. He was part batsman, part showman; he was also part playing to the gallery and part caught up in his own world. I haven’t seen a more uninhibited innings in international cricket for a long time.
Shahzad’s robust 67-ball, unbeaten 118 won’t make it to the top 100 pretty knocks. Maybe not even the top 1000. And yet, there it was, an innings that you couldn’t take your eye off. The ball was struck with such ferocity that it screamed to the fence – 10 times. It was hammered with such finality that it soared over the fence – on a further eight instances, with at least a few disappearing over the roof and onto the impeccably designed and maintained Sharjah roads.
Each time the ball flew off his bat and over the ropes, Shahzad tracked its progress unblinkingly. When it exited the stadium, he turned away with a slightly self-satisfied smile, as if it was no more than what he had expected. When it landed between the rope and the stands, his face would be an admixture of disgust, disbelief and disappointment – ‘Hello, what are you still doing in the stadium?’ Shahzad didn’t just want to hit sixes, he wanted to hit a different ball for six each time. It was riveting stuff. By the end of the innings, the teeth hurt because involuntarily, they had been clenched for nearly an hour and a half. My teeth, mind, not his.
With due respect to Rohit and his two recent masterpieces, I enjoyed the Shahzad pyrotechnics immensely more. There is, needless to say, nothing that brings a smile to the heart more than a mean fast bowler despatched with minimum of fuss, with a twirl of the wrist and a gentle but wondrously timed connection between willow and leather. But sometimes, a smile alone isn’t enough. Shahzad provided multiple laughs – not comic laughs but laughs born out of millions of little smiles – that left you gasping in astonished wonderment. Rustic and rudimentary, but also gripping and simply unignorable.
That same morning, in another T20 International in an entirely different hemisphere, Colin Munro had smashed a 14-ball half-century for New Zealand against Sri Lanka, minutes after Martin Guptill had set a Kiwi record 19-ball fifty. Against that backdrop, Shahzad’s first fifty in 30 deliveries was almost pedestrian. His second block of 50, however, came off just a further 22 with six further sixes, the midwicket area targeted with such astonishing regularity that Zimbabwe almost dashed off a request to the ICC to position two fielders – at least – in the densely populated stands there.
Shahzad is no stranger to international hundreds – he has four in ODIs to go with this first T20I ton by an Afghan batsman – though in deference to his looming accomplishment, he was happy to work a single to take him from 99 to 100. To say that he hared down the track for the 100th run will be a gross exaggeration, though by then Zimbabwe were so shell-shocked that Shahzad could well have gently walked those 22 yards, and still comfortably made his ground even though the ball hadn’t gone past the infield at point.
His celebrations weren’t as brazen as his stroke-making. Maybe he was too exhausted by then. He is not gym-body Shahzad, of course. But he is cricket-fit – batting-fit and, as he showed during the Zimbabwe chase, keeping and stumping-fit as well. He is to Afghanistan’s batting what Shapoor Zadran and Hamid Hassan are to the bowling. A superstar in his own right, colourful and passionate and excited and excitable and exciting, an entertainer first and a cricketer next.
A little over a half a decade ago, Afghanistan as a cricketing entity made for a wonderful story of emotion and drama and novelty. Today, while they are far from world beaters, theirs is no longer the Cinderella tale, the Shahzads and the Zadrans have made sure of that. And may their tribe increase.