Fighting a battle of perception, Rohit Sharma has won the latest round
There were some nervous moments in the beginning, particularly against the new ball in Vernon Philander’s hand. But South Africa played into India’s hands with three spinners, and without that extra full-time pacer, it was always going to be a struggle on this day one batting pitch.
Test average at home: 98.22. Test average overseas: 26.32.
These numbers are a great paradox. How do you begin to define the cricketer they belong to? Awe-inducing at home, a champion batsman in familiar conditions, and someone who simply struggles with change in conditions, with his temperament and shot selection coming into the spotlight.
Add the name Rohit Sharma to this description, and it fits just fine. After all, his career has been the greatest paradox faced by Indian cricket in recent times. From the day he burst onto the scene to this day, his first in a new role as Test opener, this cricketer has defied numerous compliments and criticisms coming his way. In doing so, he has mostly surprised everyone too.
Take his ODI career for example. Until 2013, he simply didn’t belong, unable to find rhythm or grow comfortable with any role given to him at different spots in the middle order. Once MS Dhoni decided to promote him to the opener’s spot, things changed, his fortunes did as well and the rest – as the cliché goes – is history. Quite literally in fact, as Sharma went on to re-write record books with three blistering ODI double hundreds.
He is a modern-day white-ball great, a phenomenal batsman in ODIs and T20s. And today, he also asserts himself as a shrewd thinker of the game, leading Mumbai Indians to definitive success in the most-watched T20 show on earth. That last bit underlines his thinking prowess – he can understand and adapt, and react too, when in-charge of a side whether in IPL or deputizing for Virat Kohli in international cricket. In those two formats, he can do the same adaptation when at the crease in individual capacity.
What stopped Rohit Sharma from succeeding in Test cricket then?
In a Test career spanning six years, across 29 matches, and with a great chasm between home and overseas performances, consistency is the only word that comes to mind. One by one, the likes of Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara came onto the scene and grew in stature as well as acquired stability in the middle order. But Sharma, surprisingly, couldn’t make a mark.
Indian cricket has never been able to cut the cord with him, though. Even when struggling in the white-ball set-up, there were always efforts to help him find his rightful place under the sun. All it takes is an unwavering selection committee, an imaginative move and a captain bold enough to make the call. Dhoni did, and in promoting Sharma to the opener’s job in Test cricket, Kohli has tried to emulate that 2013 move.
Interview: Opening up with @ImRo45 & @mayankcricket— BCCI (@BCCI) October 2, 2019
India's smashing opening Test duo reflect on their respective innings after they posted a 200-run stand in Vizag at the end of Day 1 - by @RajalArora
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There was much reason to argue against this move. For starters, India used eight different opening pairs since July 2017, six of them during the last 14 overseas Tests. India’s top-order struggled habitually during that last year in South Africa, England and Australia. This was a time to invest in fresh blood, with another 14 overseas Tests lined up until 2021, and the team think-tank moved for a 32-year-old?
In a way, it was a set-up for failure. What if he succeeded in home conditions and failed overseas immediately? Sharma has previously lacked the temperament to succeed in the middle order, where a batsman doesn’t face the new ball too often. What if he failed to get going at home too, for the new ball can be penetrative irrespective of conditions? Was this move worth jeopardizing Sharma’s confidence atleast as a white-ball batsman, and in turn, India’s opening fortunes across all formats of the game?
Opportunity is the other way of looking at things. Over the past 27 months, India have discarded four Test openers (Shikhar Dhawan, KL Rahul, Murali Vijay and Abhinav Mukund). Two others (Parthiv Patel and Hanuma Vihari) were stopgap arrangements while Prithi Shaw is serving a ban at present. In ignoring the likes of Abhimanyu Easwaran and Priyank Panchal (both have scored a lot of runs in domestic cricket), the team management also sent a message: they were getting tired of this merry-go-round as well.
After day one in Visakhapatnam then, nobody can deny that Sharma didn’t take his opportunity. There were some nervous moments in the beginning, particularly against the new ball in Vernon Philander’s hand. But South Africa played into India’s hands with three spinners, and without that extra full-time pacer, it was always going to be a struggle on this day one batting pitch.
There are few batsmen in world cricket at the moment who can hit better sixes than Sharma. For him, it is even easier still – he simply has too much time to hit shots that clear the ropes. And hitting sixes is also his individualistic method to ease off pressure in Test cricket. At times, in the middle order, it hasn’t worked because of the prevalent situation. Opening now, Sharma looked in greater control, dictating the situation at will, and powering India to 202-0 at close with some help from Mayank Agarwal.
“Batting as opener suits my game. Just go out and bat without thinking too much. Batting lower down the order, sometimes you have to think about other things,” said Sharma after the day’s play. In favourable conditions then, and a pedestrian spin attack, his innings was on expected lines. The bigger surprise would have been if Sharma had failed to deliver on this day, or indeed in the short term over the next four Tests at home.
The underlying point, however, is worrisome. Did Sharma’s innings answer India’s long-standing questions about success in overseas Test series? Not really – playing Philander at Visakhapatnam is different than facing him in Cape Town. Never mind the hundred, finding anyone who is convinced already by Sharma’s opening abilities in Test cricket will prove to be an onerous task.
In that, Sharma was fighting a hard battle against general perception. At the very least, he has won this round and Indian cricket can be hopeful for the future.