MUMBAI: The BCCI on its twitter handle shared a video of Rohit Sharma joining the team at Melbourne after flying from Sydney on Wednesday, where he underwent a ‘hard quarantine’ period of two weeks since arriving in Australia. The warmth among his colleagues was palpable and even a buoyant Ravi Shastri could be seen and heard quipping, “How was quarantine, my friend? You’re looking younger!” And on the first day of 2021 on Friday, he was anointed vice-captain of the Indian team for the last two Tests of the ongoing series against Australia.
Having finally found his mojo in Test cricket by relaunching his career as an opener in 2019, the Mumbaikar slammed 529 runs in three Tests@132.25, plundering three hundreds, with a highest score of 212 against South Africa. In white-ball cricket, he has already carved a reputation as a feared opener, one among the best, if not THE best currently.
His inclusion in the Indian line-up in the series, which is locked 1-1 with the wounded Aussies waiting to bounce back in the third Test at Sydney from January 7, could be a double-edged sword though. Having been out of action due to a hamstring injury, there’s a fear that 33-year-may be undercooked.
One should also consider that before his reboot as a Test opener, Rohit was struggling to cement his place in red-ball cricket. And much had to do with his performance outside India, where he has scored 816 runs in 18 Tests@26.32, without a hundred. All his six Test hundreds have come at home, where he averages a healthy 46.54 in 32 Tests.
In Australia, Rohit has played five Tests, in which he’s scored 279 runs, with his highest score being 63 not out. For all his success as a limited overs batsman Down Under, his average in Tests is a modest 31.00.
Having missed the two-Test series in New Zealand earlier this year due to a hamstring injury, Rohit is yet to open in a Test outside Asia. It means we still don’t know how good or bad he is as a Test opener in bowler-friendly conditions. The question is, should he open, where he can replace an out-of-form Mayank Agarwal (31 runs in two Tests@7.75), or bat at No. 5, where Hanuma Vihari (45 email@example.com) hasn’t been in great touch too?
For former India off-spinner Sarandeep Singh, who was part of the selection panel which picked the team for the Australia tour, the question is a no-brainer, “Rohit has excelled as an opener till now in all formats. You can’t suddenly push him down the order at No. 5 like this. It would reflect chaotic thinking from the team management,” asserted Sarandeep. “If Mayank comes back after being dropped, will you play him in the middle-order? An opener stays an opener,” Sarandeep said.
Former India pacer Ajit Agarkar concurs with Sarandeep. “Even if he’s untested as an opener abroad, he’s your first choice opener.
It was only due to fitness issues that he wasn’t there. If he was good enough to be picked as an opener, I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t play as one,” said Agarkar. “There is enough time till the third Test for him to find his touch,” he added. The fact that Rohit is yet to open in a Test abroad doesn’t worry Agarkar. “He’s become a Test opener just a year ago. He missed out on the Tests in New Zealand,” feels the 43-year-old.
Meanwhile, Sarandeep is all for continuing with Vihari in the middle-order. “There’s no place in the middle-order now, which is why even KL Rahul hasn’t played. Vihari hasn’t done much wrong till now and he needs to be given a full series to prove himself. He can bowl too,” he said.
There is a school of thought that since Rohit is a bit rusty, he could ‘settle’ into the game by batting in the middle-order at the expense of Vihari. Clearly, with someone like Rohit around, there would be less pressure on Rahane in the middle-order, especially in the absence of Kohli.
“I think KL Rahul should open (with Shubhman Gill). Rohit should play at Vihari’s spot at No. 5. I know he has started to open in Tests, but right now, he’s short of match practice. At No. 5, things will be a little easier for him. If Rohit gets going, he will get a big hundred for you,” says former India opener Wasim Jaffer.
It was the previous selection committee which encouraged Rohit to ‘revamp’ his Test career by trying his hand at opening the innings.
“After the World Cup, in which he slammed a record five centuries, we (selectors and team management) asked Rohit if he could open in Tests, since KL Rahul wasn’t doing too well. We needed an opener like him on overseas tours. Such a high-quality batsman can’t sit out, hence we asked him to open, and he scored three hundreds against South Africa in that series (in 2019),” Sarandeep said.