IND v SA: Will India’s Rohit Sharma gamble pay off?
The inaugural World Test Championship (WTC) kicked off since Ashes 2019 while India started their campaign against West Indies. Virat Kohli’s men got the best possible results in the Caribbean country and are the current table-toppers in WTC. India found a few positives as Ajinkya Rahane and Hanuma Vihari stood tall for their team when Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara did not have a good time and Rohit Sharma did not play. Whilst there were a few positives, one prolonged issue got highlighted again.
Yes, those never-ending opening woes of India in Test Cricket. It has been ages since Indian fans enjoyed a decent opening pair in the longest form of the game. India began their last overseas cycle in South Africa, and no surprises the openers have been below par since then. But India aren’t the only team with this issue – all teams apart from New Zealand are stressed by their opening woes.
India find themselves at the fourth position (in terms of averages) but their openers have been mediocre without a shadow of a doubt. However, their average falls to 21.18 away from home. India have tried 7 openers in this period but could not find a stable opening pair.
Lokesh Rahul was painful to watch, to say the least. Due to Rahul’s poor returns and India’s hesitancy to try the domestic guns who are shining, Rohit Sharma, a limited-overs specialist, has been asked to take the opening responsibility in the red-ball cricket.
However, the question arises – What are the odds for Rohit to succeed as a Test opener? He averages over 54 in the first-class cricket. So, what’s stopping him?
One major problem with Rohit is his performance outside the Indian subcontinent. Although Rohit who made his Test debut in 2013 has been amazingly good in Asia, his numbers go downhill away from the sub-continent. One of the main reasons is his vulnerability against the moving ball in testing conditions.
He averages over 85 on Indian pitches but his average falls to about 26 away from home.
He has got an ample number of opportunities in the middle-order but failed to cement his spot. A few things like lack of solid technique versus the moving ball and tendency to play risky shots after getting starts have not helped the batsman from Maharashtra.
India are scheduled to play five matches at home before they tour to New Zealand for their next overseas series. Whilst his record in India is stupendous, he had a good time in New Zealand in 2014. His average of above 40 in New Zealand is the second-best for him in any nation. But this time around, he could be up against Trent Boult and co facing the new ball at the top of the order.
However, to be on the plane for New Zealand, he has a few hurdles to cross. He will be facing the Proteas against whom he scores just about 12 runs per innings, which is the lowest for any top 6 batsman in Test cricket (minimum 12 innings). Even though he will open in India for the first two series, it would not be a cakewalk.
How fair is the selection?
Whilst many former cricketers have advocated the inclusion of Rohit as an opener in the Test squad this decision seems to be spurred by India’s obsession to keep a talent like him in and around the setup. Rohit’s selection, it can be stated with a certain amount of assurance, is unfair on the youngsters like Priyank Panchal and Abhimanyu Easwaran, who have been piling runs in the domestic circuit. The 20-year-old Shubman Gill is rewarded a place in the squad but it is unlikely that he might start.
We have seen a couple of white-ball specialists as Aaron Finch and Jason Roy failing in tough conditions. Rohit has a better record in non-Test first-class matches than Finch and Roy. But he has played all the red-ball cricket as a middle-order batsman which means he has hardly faced the new ball. He might succeed in familiar conditions but the probability of his success on overseas tours, especially in SENA countries is less.
Let’s roll back to the past and analyse.
When was the last time India had a rock-solid opener suitable for testing conditions? Among all the Indian batsmen who have played at least 20 innings outside the subcontinent, only one batsman – Sunil Gavaskar averages more than 50 with the willow. The southpaw Gautam Gambhir averaged in the 40 to 50 range and Sehwag just over 35.
Thus, history tells us that it has never been easy for Indian batsmen to perform in alien conditions. And, it would not be easy for Rohit Sharma too.
The 28-year-old opener Mayank Agarwal has been pretty impressive in his short Test career of four matches. He has already three 50+ scores in just 7 innings in foreign conditions. The right-handed batsman from Karnataka looks like a long-term prospect and India need to find a good partner for him.
The Mumbai-born Prithvi Shaw was scintillating in his debut and only series. But, the young lad couldn’t play further due to ankle-injury in Australia and a dope-test failure later. These things have contributed to the selection of Rohit Sharma at the top. Rohit himself expressed his wish to be a Test opener in 2018 when he said – “I am ready to open in Test cricket.” Now, the onus is on him to grab the opportunity that has been gifted on a platter.