Rohit Sharma as Test Opener - Fitting a Round Peg in a Square Hole

While India’s Test team selection has reached a stage where it’s about listing down 13 of the 15 names and just discussing the remaining two spots, they managed to create enough fuel to ignite a fire on Thursday by pinpointing Rohit Sharma as the opener for the series against South Africa.

No, we aren’t talking about limited-overs cricket here. The fact that Rohit hasn’t managed to fit into India’s Test plans snugly enough despite his blockbuster performances for the limited-overs side speaks volumes.

What They Are Seeking

BCCI Selection Committee Chairman MSK Prasad said that they are looking at Rohit Sharma as an opener in Test cricket.

The chairman of selectors, MSK Prasad, is only happy to give Rohit the whole series against the Proteas.

"“Yes, we are definitely looking at him (as an opener), and we want to give him an opportunity.”" - MSK Prasad, Chairman of Selectors

"He (himself) 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 he stands, and then we will take a call. He has been opening in white-ball cricket for more than a decade (since 2013),” Prasad added.

"“We feel he has the ability to bat up the order, 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.”" - MSK Prasad, Chairman of Selectors

India are probably looking to bring out a Sehwag in Rohit. That move then worked wonders. But the plan to open with Rohit and expecting him to do something similar is fraught with loopholes. Unlike Sehwag, Rohit prefers to play himself in before attacking, even in ODIs.

Against the red ball, when the ball swings around, Sehwag could put bowlers off their rhythm by counter attacking the new ball. Rohit is unlikely to do the same given his linear aggressive approach we see in limited-overs cricket.

The Case for Rohit

In Australia in the third Test at Melbourne, Rohit made an unbeaten 63.

The case for Rohit primarily comes from his handful of knocks in Australia and South Africa which came in difficult times for the team.

In Australia in the third Test at Melbourne, Rohit made an unbeaten 63 with the team at 299 for 4 and looking to set up a massive lead before declaration. The second innings knock was pivotal in helping India win by 137 runs.

In Adelaide, as the innings folded in quick time, Rohit made 37 to help Pujara at the other end. From 41 for 4 on day one, it was this partnership which stabilised the Indian innings.

Earlier in January 2018, in the second Test against South Africa at Centurion, Rohit had made a valiant 47 in the second innings out of India’s total score of 151.

While these weren’t enough for him to edge out Ajinkya Rahane and Hanuma Vihari in West Indies, Rohit has managed to get back into the scheme of things in a new role.

Where it Goes Wrong

Rohit Sharma has struggled against the likes of Trent Boult, Dale Steyn, Mohammad Amir and Jason Behrendorff in Test cricket.

But what goes against Rohit is again his one weakness in limited-overs cricket – the swinging cherry. Much of Rohit’s big knocks in ODIs have come on placid wickets and he has often struggled at the first sign of swing as evidenced from his issues against Trent Boult, Dale Steyn, Mohammad Amir and Jason Behrendorff.

In red ball cricket, it only further compounds Rohit’s issues. The ball swings longer with the red ball and lasting those initial few overs is in itself a challenge. Rohit usually doesn’t start off with a flurry of attacking shots either. This means that bowlers are likely to be able to stick to a plan against Rohit.

Even if he does get away with opening in the sub-continent, can he fulfill a similar role abroad where conditions are more testing for the opening batsmen?

Since 2018 when India toured South Africa, in turn kicking off a lengthy away season, the openers have averaged a combined 27.05 in 17 matches, the sixth best average among Test teams. This includes just four hundreds, three of which came at home.

In away Tests, this drops to 21.05, the worst for any team after South Africa, Ireland and West Indies.

The Obsession With Rohit

File picture of Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli with chief selector MSK Prasad and coach Ravi Shastri in England.

Expecting a batsman, who has struggled to fit into the middle-order to come at the top and rectify a glaring issue is incomprehensible.

Rohit has a lot of technical deficiencies which have been exposed at Test level before.

The common argument that goes against this is that “you never know until you try”.

This could hold true for any of those domestic guns like Abhimanyu Easwaran or Priyank Panchal. Expecting a batsman with a questionable technique to open in Tests and fire is like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole.

At home, anyone among Shikhar Dhawan, Murali Vijay, KL Rahul or one of the aforementioned domestic openers could have come in and made runs. Instead of going for a stop-gap option like Rohit, India have undervalued the contributions of Easwaran and Panchal.

The obsession with Rohit isn’t a first either. In South Africa, Ajinkya Rahane was benched to accommodate Rohit. The returns were slim. He was brought back and when Vihari and Rahane made it impossible for him to get through, there seems to be a new role opening up for Rohit.

What this shows is that the management just does not seem to want to go beyond a closed circle of players.

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