It was the middle of the 2013 season, with Mumbai Indians’ campaign hanging by a tenuous thread. Worse, their new captain, Ricky Ponting, wasn’t doing enough to justify his place in the XI. In a final throw of the dice, the management group turned to Rohit Sharma to resurrect their fortunes. Not even in their wildest dreams would they have imagined what would transpire next.

Rohit Sharma of Mumbai Indians(PTI)

Masterminding a Phoenix-like rise from the Ashes, Rohit turned the campaign around, embarking on a run of seven wins in their last nine league ties on their way to a maiden Indian Premier League crown. It was the start of a romance that lasted ten and a half years. Until it didn’t. Until 15 December 2023.

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On Friday, Mumbai Indians announced a captaincy switch which was expected if you believe some, left-field if you listen to others. Hardik Pandya, the prodigal son who left for Gujarat Titans in 2022 after seven years under Rohit but was brought back this year in a trade between the two former champions, was named the new skipper, starting with IPL 2024. One must assume it is a seamless transition because such a call couldn’t have been made without Rohit’s knowledge and consent. Then again, why didn’t Rohit announce his decision to step down, like Virat Kohli had done a couple of years back?

Never mind, that’s a topic of discussion for another day. For now, it’s about reflecting on Rohit’s legacy as the most successful skipper of cricket’s most high-profile franchise tournament.

Five titles, 87 victories in 158 games in charge and a success percentage of 56.2, suggest a glorious leadership run. That’s precisely what it was, as Rohit took a supremely talented but vastly underachieving group and shaped it into a team, relying on constancy in selection and a focus on the collective to carry the day.

One of the great assets of a leader is calmness under pressure and clarity of thought. Mahendra Singh Dhoni is a master at both, Rohit was more than an able understudy to IPL and India’s most successful captain (Dhoni has steered Chennai Super Kings to five titles, the same as Rohit, but hey, who’s counting?). Rohit took the best from various leaders who appealed to him, but he was his own man, shaping his philosophy around inclusiveness and collective inputs but eventually making the final call and thus making sure the buck stopped with him.

Armed with an empathetic, understanding management group and a robust behind-the-scenes system of talent spotting and nurturing, Rohit was admittedly given the best environment in which to flourish. That he made the most of the resources at his disposal and often thought beyond the franchise without compromising on its interests is something the 36-year-old can and should understandably be proud of.

The eagle eyes of John Wright, India’s first overseas coach, spotted the immense talent and potential of Pandya and Jasprit Bumrah, once-in-a-generation cricketers who might still have slipped through the cracks had it not been for the IPL landscape. Within a year of making their IPL debuts in 2015, both were playing for India. They are now vital cogs in the well-oiled Indian cricketing machine, Bumrah across formats and Pandya in the white-ball set-up where, it has been held for a while now, he will become Rohit’s natural successor as captain and leader.

Tough and uncompromising but still one of the ‘boys’ whose streaks of anger and disapproval disappeared as quickly as they surfaced, Rohit carried his overseas stars with consummate ease. Easy-going and approachable, his rapport with Sri Lankan pace spearhead Lasith Malinga and powerful West Indian all-rounder Kieron Pollard were among the standout features of Mumbai’s stirring eight-year run between 2013 and 2020 when they were crowned champions five times. Coaches came and went but Rohit ran a tight ship without being pompous or overbearing, his ready smile and willingness to work hard endearing himself to both the coaching staff and his colleagues who responded in kind to his style of leadership.

It’s not hard to see why Mumbai have gone with Pandya. Rohit may not have much cricket left in him, especially in the 20-over format. At 30, Pandya ought to be around for another half-dozen years, injuries permitting. In any case, once they had wrested Pandya back from Gujarat Titans, whom he had led to the title on their debut in 2022 and to the final this year, Mumbai had to reward him commensurately. This passing of the baton was inevitable, as will be Rohit’s whole-hearted and unstinted support for his successor in whom he sees a kindred spirit.