Rohit Sharma’s dream run in the 50-overs World Cup this summer, combined with KL Rahul’s dismal show in the West Indies, has propelled the ODI superstar to the opener’s slot in India’s Test squad. Now, the 32-year-old Vice Captain of India’s limited overs’ cricket team is all set for the opener’s role in the Test series against South Africa in the upcoming series to be played at home.
As the cricket fraternity awaits the outcome of this interesting move, the key question is—Can Rohit succeed as Test opener and can he finally resolve the opening woes that have troubled Team India in Test cricket in recent times?
Rohit Sharma has been considered one of the finest batting talents in the country since his junior cricket days. He has had an exceptional ODI career, with the distinction of being the only batsman in the world with three double-hundreds. Sharma’s T20 career has also been equally good and in November 2018, he became the first cricketer to score four centuries in T20 international cricket. In the recent 50 over World Cup, Sharma was in superlative form and slammed five hundreds. However, despite being a part of the Test squad for the West Indies, Rohit was not included in the playing XI.
The irony of Sharma sitting out of the Tests in West Indies was unpalatable to many—not just among fans but also the most knowledgeable of cricket cognoscenti. Like Saurav Ganguly, who was the first expert to back Rohit for the Test opener’s slot and said that the ODI superstar deserved a chance in the game’s longest format. The former skipper’s comments created quite a buzz and soon, Gautam Gambhir seconded the idea. Gambhir even went to the extent of saying that Rohit could prove to be an ‘X-factor for India’ if he gets an opportunity to open in Test cricket.
This might have created sufficient pressure on the selectors to give Sharma a chance to open for India in the series against the Proteas. The opening batting conundrum was already a headache for the Selection Committee, and given the poor starts in West Indies and K L Rahul’s patchy form, the selectors had to ring in changes. When Chairman of Selectors MSK Prasad announced that Sharma was being brought in as Test Opener, his comments were revealing: “He is opening in white-ball cricket for a decade now and I am sure he has that ability to bat up the order. We have seen that in white ball cricket and if he can replicate that in red ball cricket, nothing like it.”
Clearly, the selectors have been influenced by Sharma’s stupendous success in limited overs cricket. But it is undeniable that Test cricket remains the Achilles heel in Rohit’s otherwise sparkling career. Though he started with a bang in the Indian Test team scoring back-to-back centuries in his first two Test matches in 2013, Sharma has been unable to cement a spot in the playing XI for India’s Test team. It must also be underlined that Rohit has never opened in Tests and even in First Class cricket, he has opened just thrice—that too, ages ago.
Bringing Sharma to the top of the Test batting order is inspired by Saurav Ganguly’s success in turning Sehwag into a Test opener. But it must be noted that Sehwag was an extraordinary genius of ‘hand-eye’ coordination with a sound defense, and he was picked as an opener as a youngster unlike Rohit.
Even as his admirers hope that Rohit will replicate Sehwag’s model as an opener in Test Cricket, we must recall what happened to another ODI stalwart, Yuvraj Singh when he was tried as a Test opener. Though Yuvi’s credentials in ODIs and his touch and timing were just as impressive as Rohit’s, the left-hander had floundered badly in the few Tests where he was drafted in as an opener. In fact, Yuvraj’s Test career never took off even as a middle-order player despite getting his fair share of chances.
As luck would have it, Sharma debuts as a Test opener in home conditions. A closer look at his Test record shows a glaring contrast between his performances at home and abroad. In 9 tests at home, he averages over 85 but in 17 tests away from home, Sharma’s average comes down to 25.
Sharma’s inability to play the moving ball in swinging and seaming conditions is what has undone him in his overseas matches. This poor overseas record is when Rohit has batted in the middle order and not at the top as he is expected to do now. This suggests that while the Mumbai star could do well in the 3-Test series at home, he may be found wanting in sterner challenges abroad that lie ahead in India’s journey in the World Test Championship—just as his short Test career as a middle-order batsman has panned out.
Ironically, Sharma is set to get the nod as opener ahead of some really talented and consistent performers like Bengal opener Abhimanyu Easwaran and Priyank Panchal of Gujarat, prolific openers in Ranji Trophy and India A games. For a long-term solution to India’s opening woes, it might have been more useful to blood the young gun in Shubhman Gill, the backup opener in the team, in home conditions.
Fundamentally, of course, what is more significant is not whether Sharma will manage to rebuild his relationship with Test cricket but whether his induction as Test opener will strengthen India’s chances at the World Test Championship. The BCCI and Indian selectors should learn a big lesson from England’s collapse in the Ashes series—that trying out ODI players is a recipe for failure in the Test arena. The selection of lots of One Day specialists (like Jason Roy and Jos Buttler) for Test matches has come to haunt England in the Ashes battle.
If the Aussies are doing better in the Test series soon after England won the 50-overs World Cup, it is in a sense a triumph of their philosophy of picking specialists for different formats and conditions. Team India must learn and adapt from England’s errors. Instead of quick-fix solutions based on ODI results (as in Rohit’s case), India must give preference in the Test arena to players who have proven themselves in the domestic or India A circuits and have the temperament and technique that suit the demands of the long format.
Whether Sharma succeeds or not as Test opener, for Team India to excel in Tests and win the inaugural World Test Championship, the key may well be to go the route of developing specialist squads for Test, ODI and T20 formats.