“Viru, no one made a career by sitting on the bench. Why don’t you open?” were Sourav Ganguly‘s words when there was no place for Virender Sehwag in the middle-order in India’s Test team. And, the rest is history. Sehwag is the only Indian to score two triple centuries in Test cricket and his batting literally sent shivers through the opposition bowlers’ spines.
The Indian team is again facing a similar situation and this time, the same punt is being used for Rohit Sharma – the name which has been discussed more since the West Indies Test series. Very rarely it has happened in the Indian cricket that a player of such a big stature hasn’t dominated all the formats of the game. May it be Sachin Tendulkar, Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, Sehwag and currently Virat Kohli, all of them dictated (or are dictating) terms in whatever formats they played (are playing).
Then why Rohit Sharma is yet to seal his place in the Test side after more than 12 years of his international debut? Not that, he sealed his place in the ODI side from the word go. It took him close to six years to do so and it was only in 2013 when MS Dhoni asked him to open the innings that cemented Rohit’s place in the team. He has plundered runs at will since then in the shorter formats.
Well, it is absolutely baffling to see a player of such a class not being a regular in India’s Test side. It’s been almost six years since he wore the whites for his country for the first time but Rohit has only played 27 Tests. He has been so often in and out of the side and it felt like Rohit was regular in the team during the Australia tour last year. But the team management preferred Hanuma Vihari in the Caribbeans and he shut the debate which followed with his exceptional show in the series.
So, in a bid to give him another opportunity, probably the last one, to revive his Test career, the selectors have picked Rohit Sharma in the squad as an opener. However, the bigger question is, will be he be successful? Has Virat Kohli spoken to him just like how Ganguly did to Sehwag? Is Rohit himself feeling secured of opening the innings?
Why one should fear about Rohit opening in Tests?
With all due respect to Sehwag and all the openers in the past decade and the century, the conditions and pitches especially while playing away from home are way too difficult over the last few years. The specialist openers are having the toughest of times in the last couple of years. In the 2018 calendar year, the average opening partnership has been only 26.98 (25+ partnerships) and all is not hunky-dory in 2019 either as the average is just a shade under 30 (29.94 to be precise).
Even though there have been a few players in the last decade or so who have been successful at the top, the recent failed experiments might worry Rohit Sharma and the Indian team management. Aaron Finch and Jason Roy, both exceptional white-ball openers, literally failed to get going at the top of the order in Tests. Interestingly, like Rohit, both these players were the middle-order players but opened for their respective sides and the result is in front of everyone.
Both Australia and England tried Finch and Roy as Test openers for five Tests (10 innings) before dropping them from the side. While the former mustered only 278 runs at 27.8 with a couple of fifties, Roy’s case was even worse (187 runs at 18.7). Will Rohit be able to change the course? or it will be another failed experiment? Well, only time will tell.
What goes in Rohit’s favour?
Roy and Finch can argue about the conditions which they face at home. It is extremely tough for the openers to see off the new ball in the SENA countries (SENA – South Africa, England, New Zealand, Australia). However, Rohit Sharma can take heart from the fact that it is not that challenging when it comes to opening the innings in Asia and especially India.
Virender Sehwag used to be literally dismissive from the word go while playing in India. His style of batting more often helped India get hold of the Test match on the very first day or sometimes in the session. The numbers also depict a clear story of his domination while opening in the Tests in Asia and in India.
Sehwag averaged 54.82 in 85 innings in India with 13 centuries and 17 fifties which is an indication of the command he had over his game. When we go a little further and look into his numbers in Asia (including India), the average only gets better. Rather he scored his first triple century in Pakistan at Multan.
Now even though Rohit Sharma hasn’t opened in Tests in India so far, his record proves that he loves batting at home. He averages a staggering 85.44 in nine matches at home and has amassed 769 runs with three scores more than 100. If the numbers are expanded to Asia (including India), the 32-year-old averages 61.06.
Given that Rohit will get to play next five Test matches in India (3 against South Africa and 2 against Bangladesh), it should not be a surprise if he piles up some big runs just like Sehwag did. However, even for that to happen, he will have to negotiate the likes of Vernon Philander, Lungi Ngidi and Kagiso Rabada with the new ball when India face South Africa in the three-match series.
But what about overseas? Will Rohit be able to handle the heat?
This is where a team or a player is judged these days in the longest format of the game. Rohit Sharma will face extremely tough conditions away from home, especially in the SENA countries where the red cherry moves a lot at least in the first couple of hours. Virender Sehwag, in this aspect, struggled considerably in the latter part of his career but he managed to dominate at times as well.
Sehwag enjoyed batting in Australia and has played one of the memorable knocks of 195 runs down under while facing a formidable Aussie pace attack. He also averaged almost 47 in 22 innings with two tons and as many as five half-centuries. Having said that, he struggled a lot in England, New Zealand and South Africa. His average of 27.80, 19.37 and 17.54 in these countries respectively proves that the moving ball was Sehwag’s nemesis more often than not.
Well, Rohit strikes exact similarity already with Virender Sehwag when it comes to faring overseas in the whites. It is a well-known fact that the Indian players struggle when the ball swings, may it be any format, and Rohit Sharma is no different to it. Rather he would be the first one to admit it. There is no doubt about the quality he brings to the side with the bat. Maybe, he might enjoy batting in Australia, much like how Sehwag did, due to the pitches which have true bounce.
But will Rohit be able to deal with the likes of Trent Boult, Tim Southee, Rabada, Philander, James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Jofra Archer, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins in their own backyards? Well, these are some top-class fast bowlers and at home, they have the ability to run through the opposition line-ups.
Now, the batsman who has till now batted only at or below five in Tests mostly and has fared poorly in these countries, will he be able to blunt the new ball? Rohit Sharma has only two half-centuries 14 away Tests so far in his career with the highest score of 72. This proves how much needs to amend his mindset while opening the innings.
While many won’t be surprised if he manages to achieve Sehwagesque feats while batting in Asia, Rohit Sharma’s real Test would be doing well outside Asia. If he manages to do it, then we might witness one of the amazing turnarounds ever in Test cricket.
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