Last Chance Saloon: Rohit Sharma picked as India’s Test opener

Sandip G
Rohit Sharma will captain the Board President s XI in a three-day warmup match against the Proteas in Vizianagaram from September 26. (File)

A straightforward synopsis of the selection committee meeting on Thursday that picked the Test squad for the South Africa series would read thus: Shubman Gill for KL Rahul, an impressionable young batsman replacing a weary opener. Gill s sustained run-making was too irresistible to go unrewarded while Rahul s run-drought was too long to ignore. It s the way selection debates usually whirl, between the expelled and the newbie.

But the crux of the meeting, for all practical purposes, would read thus: Rohit Sharma for KL Rahul. The chief selector MSK Prasad confirmed that the former would open alongside Mayank Agarwal. Yes, we are definitely looking at him as an opener, and we want to give him an opportunity. He is keen, and all of us in the selection committee are keen as well. We want to push him, and give him some opportunities up the order, and see where does he stand, and then we will take a call, Prasad elaborated.

There are layers to this narrative that could potentially turn out to be the central thread of the series, and multiple prisms through which the decision would be viewed. There s hope and scepticism, fear and risk, pragmatism and even a sense of desperation about Rohit opening in Tests.

Limited-overs template

Hope because of his own precedent. Six years ago, in white-ball cricket, he was struggling down the order before a move up turned his career around. He has since installed himself as one of the finest batsmen in limited-overs cricket. So maybe, this move would rejuvenate Rohit s Test career, which though hasn t been as flattering as people thought it would be or as ordinary as it s sometimes projected. There s also a likeability about him that everybody wants to see him prosper in the longer format as well. Since returning to Test cricket with a resounding hundred against Sri Lanka in Nagpur in 2017, he has averaged 50.12 in seven Tests. Though the defining, spot-nailing knock has eluded him he did have opportunities in Australia and South Africa he has looked equipped at this level to carry out his middle-order duties.

Only that the utilitarian Hanuma Vihari has superseded him. Now if Rohit could translate his white-ball dynamicism to Test cricket, India could kill two birds with one stone: solve the opening woes, which has been plaguing them since Murali Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan and Rahul ran into a wretched patch; and stimulate Rohit s Test career, which s considered too precious to go wasted without being fully tested.

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In the backdrop, lurks Virender Sehwag too, someone who was branded a white-ball marauder, or at best a middle-order buccaneer in Tests, rewriting the grammar and syntax of opening in Test cricket in a manner as only he could. Which brings us to scepticism regarding Rohit.

Sehwag was a glorious exception and Test cricket is a different beast. There are others like Justin Langer Langer, Sanath Jayasuriya, and to a lesser extent Ravi Shastri too, men who morphed the game to become Test-cricket openers. But few other batsmen have imperceptibly transitioned like Sehwag. Not that it s beyond Rohit, but it s a tough act to follow.

The Jason Roy conundrum that has followed England in the Ashes serves as a cautionary tale. The dynamic opener, England s batting enforcer in the World Cup, was ruthlessly exposed when he opened in the Ashes, when his technique was stripped to the bones by Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood. He was shoved down the order, where unexposed to the shining red ball, he at least managed starts. It s a task even some of India s legendary figures have shirked away from. Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly, India s most prolific 50-over firm, both shied away from it. After initial experimentation, VVS Laxman too expressed his discontent. Even the all-weather man and India s go-to alternative in contingency, Rahul Dravid, was not always a keen opener, despite his terrific record as one.

Fear and risk

There s fear because Rohit, like Roy, could be a suspect against the moving red ball with pronounced stitches, unlike the white ball that loses its venom after the first 10 overs. The devastation an SG ball could wreak on placid Indian decks is considerably less, but still, Rohit would be tasked with negotiating the seam movement that Kagiso Rabada could produce. At rapid pace and hostile aggression. Against one of the sharpest bowling brains in the world looking to exploit the faintest of his weaknesses. And Rohit, for all his grand stroke-play, is not invulnerable. Ironically, the very strength of his in 50-over cricket the minimaslism of movement, the tendency to play from the crease could prove to be his nemesis.

As much as technique and temperament, a batsman would require grit to survive and prosper. Like his limited-over partner Shikhar Dhawan once said: Yeh sabse mushkil kaam hain. Hamare jigrewale kaam hain, bhai. Talk to Graham Gooch or Alastair Cook, David Boon or Matthew Hayden, all of them would agree with Dhawan.

Risk because he has barely opened in first-class cricket in 90 first-class outings (excluding Test cricket), he has opened just once, during the second innings against Saurashrta in a Ranji Trophy quarterfinal in Chennai in 2008 when Mumbai were looking to set a stiff target. So Rohit, at the age of 32, is on the verge of treading an unchartered territory, though the selectors are not apprehensive.

He has been opening in white-ball cricket for more than a decade. We feel he has the capability to bat up the order, and we have seen that in white-ball cricket, and if he can do that in red-ball cricket, then nothing like it. We have a lot of practice matches coming up, which will be a boost to this side, explained Prasad.

There a whiff of desperation in the air because he has reached that stage of his career where time is running out to stretch his Test career. In other words, opening was the only vacant role in the team. It was the only spot where he could be accommodated, the last song before dusk encroaches. Rohit, therefore, would gleefully accept any role the management wants him to don, making the opportunity a last-ditch chance to achieve at least half of what he was expected to scale in Test cricket.

There s pragmatism from the selectors, partly because they appear to have moved on from Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan. Prasad admitted in as many words.

With Dhawan and Vijay gone, we can t keep changing both the openers in the side, he says.

Add Prithvi Shaw s ban till November and they have decided to invest in young talents. Gill s inclusion was a nod towards the future. But then what do you do with Rohit, who s neither young to be considered the future, nor tested enough to be jettisoned like Dhawan and Vijay? So the best way to solve both dilemmas was to make him open. In one stroke, they would solve the opening puzzle and give Rohit an extended run (if he doesn t prosper, he could be overlooked for good).

Test Squad: Virat Kohli (C), Mayank Agarwal, Rohit Sharma, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Hanuma Vihari, Rishabh Pant (wk), Wriddhiman Saha (wk), Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Kuldeep Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, Ishant Sharma, Shubman Gill.