SAKSHAM MISHRA | 17 SEPTEMBER, 2019
Rohit Sharma as Test Opener? One of Indian Cricket’s Most Polarising Debates
When he started opening in ODIs it marked a new dawn in Indian cricket
With Prithvi Shaw banned retrospectively for a year upon failing a dope test, K.L.Rahul dropped after a poor run of form and Hanuma Vihari having cemented the no.6 spot, the Indian team management must choose between Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill as Mayank Agarwal’s opening partner for the three-match home test series against South Africa.
Like most charismatic personalities, Sharma is one of the few pet topics of contention among fans of Indian cricket. He is a flat track bully, the critics reckon. No, how dare you say that? He’s an all-weather batting wizard whose test career has been marred by injuries and a lack of opportunity, the fans vehemently retort.
As the Mumbaikar continues to divide opinions and polarise debates, he has been named as an opener in the Indian test squad. As things stand, he is likely to make the final XI in the first test against South Africa in this newfound role.
When Sharma first burst onto the cricketing scene, he mesmerised one and all with his lazy elegance and touch play. Whoever saw him, fans and pundits alike, was in awe of the wristy brilliance and the fluidity of the Mumbai batsman. It was sheer poetry at the crease.
However, as the years passed by and promising starts were thrown away by some inexplicable swipes, the ‘pleasing-to-the-eye’ moniker started taking on a more caustic meaning. The question mark was never on his ability, but as he failed more and more, the frustration stemmed from him not valuing his talent enough.
After flattering to deceive in his first six years of international cricket, Sharma’s career leapt after he was promoted to opener alongside Shikhar Dhawan in the 2013 Champions Trophy. It was a move that marked a new dawn in Indian cricket post the Sehwag-Gambhir era, and one that the team continues to benefit from.
Much to the joy of his fans, Sharma more than made up for his rocky start, and boasts a staggering average of close to 60 in ODIs since the 2013 Champions Trophy, as opposed to 30.43 before 2013.
“I believe the decision to open in ODIs changed my career and it was a decision taken by M.S.Dhoni. I became a better batsman after that. In fact, it helped me understand my game better, react better according to situations,” Sharma told the press.
It was on the back of hefty returns in white-ball cricket that he received a test cap in 2013, after having missed his Test debut years earlier due to an ankle injury. He instantly took to the occasion, notching up centuries in his first two innings, becoming only the fifth batsman to do so.
But the honeymoon period soon gave way, to tours of South Africa and England punctuated by injuries and Sharma’s struggles against the moving ball. He lost his test spot.
It is due to these two reasons that Sharma has had a start-stop test career, ill befitting such a prolific ODI run-scorer. To be fair, he has got most of his opportunities on tough assignments such as in South Africa and England, where almost every Indian batsman struggled, bar Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara.
But as the class batsman hit the form of his life, slamming five centuries in the recently concluded World Cup, the tide turned once again. Almost every cricketing expert, not least Nasser Hussain, Adam Gilchrist, Sourav Ganguly and Kevin Pietersen, was amazed that the 32 year old still hadn’t come of age in test cricket, and advocated another stint for the opener.
Many pundits also noted that Sharma had tightened his technique and was now playing closer to his body, which will help him conquer his past demons in tests.
The selectors obliged, giving him the nod for the two-match test series against the West Indies, but he could not get a game there.
When you have a player as talented as him, it’s almost criminal to keep him warming the benches. You somehow want to fit him into the Test XI. But now Hanuma Vihari, having shown his utility by ending as India’s top run scorer in the Windies tests, has all but sealed the no.6 spot for at least a few matches.
The Mumbai Indians skipper has still been retained for the three-match home series against South Africa. But this time, he has been selected to partner Mayank Agarwal at the top of the order.
“Look, I have never been offered it yet (opening the innings in tests) but I am open to anything, as in whatever the team management wants. I never thought I will be an opener in ODIs when I started playing or when I was playing for India. But it happened along the way, so I keep my options open. No option is shut for me, if the opportunity comes, I will take it,” Sharma said in August last year.
Chief selector M.S.K.Prasad is also in favour of trying him out as a test opener. “Yes, we are definitely looking at him (as an opener) and we want to give him an opportunity,” he told the media.
The selection committee has also included prodigy Shubman Gill in the squad as an opening option, and the management will have to choose between Sharma and Gill. Going by what Prasad said, it looks like Sharma will be given the preference based on seniority. “Gill has done well both as an opener and in the middle order, so he can be a backup for both the slots.”
Most experiments of auditioning white-ball specialists as test openers worldwide have failed, with the exception of David Warner, who himself is struggling in the ongoing Ashes. Jason Roy, Martin Guptill, Aaron Finch and Alex Hales are the prime examples. In fact, there are very few batsmen in international cricket, apart from the Fab Four, who are equally comfortable in all three formats.
That said, it was Virender Sehwag who, in a way, started the trend of attacking opening batsmen in test cricket, to move the game along at a quick clip. It was a move that came out of the blue at the time, but proved to be visionary in the long run.
India are faced with a similar situation now, with the management searching for long haul options for a test opener. It coincides with a phase when Rohit Sharma is still trying to find his feet in the longest format.
At such a juncture, it is only reasonable for the team management to give the 32 year old a go. You never know, it might just be what the Hitman requires for his test career to turn the corner.