Imagine yourself sitting with a group of friends, and as passionate cricket fans, envisage having a conversation about who is the best batsman in the world currently. Virat Kohli will be the frontrunner. Steve Smith’s name will crop up. Somewhere in the backdrop, a friend will say Joe Root or Kane Williamson. Since he is still playing, AB de Villiers will get a mention too.
Even so, the narrowed short-list will have two names — Kohli and Smith. There will be arguments over Test and ODI form, and T20 runs, matches played in India and Australia, various opposition, but the bottom-line will be ‘Tests played in England’. That’s where the conversation will end. That’s the most common stick to beat Kohli with, never mind that he has just outscored Hashim Amla and de Villiers in the recent Test series in their tough, tailor-made home conditions.
Every batsman worth his salt has had such condemnations thrown at him. Sachin Tendulkar didn’t win enough matches for India. Ricky Ponting didn’t score enough in the sub-continent. Brian Lara was too much of a maverick. Alastair Cook is boring.
Cut to the present. Cheteshwar Pujara doesn’t have intent. Smith doesn’t have the numbers in limited-overs cricket. De Villiers is too selfish. And then there is the ‘Kohli argument’.
Often, you won’t find enough merit in these jibes. After all, great batsmen don’t bow down to whims and fancies of those passing random remarks at a drinks table. In some cases though, you don’t need acumen to back up these innuendos. Rohit Sharma, of course, makes for one such example.
“Rohit was averaging over 200 in Tests and had scored 1,200-odd runs in ODIs (in 2017). So what does the team tell him? Your form doesn’t matter?” coach Ravi Shastri was quoted as saying by The Times of India recently.
Of course runs matter, and Rohit got apt reward for his past form when he played the first two Tests. Whether or not he should have played ahead of Ajinkya Rahane is a different debate. In singularity, there is no denying that he had earned his way back into the Test whites on the basis of heavy run-scoring last year.
So yes, again, runs do matter and at times, they matter more than ability. Rohit is no stranger to the oddity of this statement for the past four-five years have seen him repeatedly fall behind in the Test pecking order — behind Rahane, Pujara and a few others. He has not fallen behind enough though, doing just enough to stay ahead of the likes of Karun Nair and Shreyas Iyer, who are continuously knocking on the Test team’s doors.
Harsh as it may sound, but it is a sad reality for Rohit. Wind back your clocks to a decade ago, when Indian cricket stood on the cusp of transition. Rohit had announced himself on a grand World T20 stage and carried that winning momentum into the CB Series, putting himself in pole position to be the next flag-bearer of Indian batting craft.
That was in 2007-08, and the likes of Kohli, Rahane and Pujara had not yet appeared on the horizon. Meanwhile, Rohit had already toured South Africa and Australia, soaking in overseas experiences that ought to have accelerated his growth as a batsman. Isn’t that how it works for any young batsman?
Ideally, it should have in this case too, but for some inexplicable reason, it didn’t.
It is not to say that Rohit regressed as a batsman, no. But he surely didn’t climb up any further. He stood still, while others drew level and then, one by one, surpassed him. In the measure of time, Rohit should be a more venerated batsman in this Indian team than Kohli. In the measure of experience, he should be a better overseas batsman than Rahane. In terms of sheer ability, he should be a more dependable batsman than Pujara. He is not, period.
Sample this. Since 2007, this is Rohit’s fourth visit to South Africa. In 20 innings, across formats (until the 2nd ODI on this 2018-19 tour) and against different opposition, he has scored a meagre 385 runs at average of 21.38, including two half-centuries. Restrict this to his record against South Africa in South Africa, Rohit has scored 347 runs in 17 innings at an average of 19.27. Both his half-centuries have come in T20 cricket. His highest in Tests was recorded on a ‘sub-continental type’ pitch at Centurion — 47. His highest in ODIs on South African soil is 23, scored in 2010-11. His highest ODI scores in 2013 and so far on this tour have been 19 and 20.
These are, whichever way you look at it, incredible numbers. This is a batsman who is so ahead of the game when it comes to limited-overs’ formats that he boasts of three ODI double hundreds. He has scored 681 runs in three ODI innings.
Sure, they have come in friendlier home conditions, but that can hardly be a believable explanation of the simple fact that Rohit hasn’t scored a single half-century in nine ODI innings in South Africa. In truth, this point is as staggering as the natural talent he possesses.
Maybe, with four ODIs and three T20Is still remaining, Rohit will redeem this lopsided record. Maybe he will score seven hundreds in these remaining seven innings, and this writer will look like the biggest fool on Earth. Sure, why not, stranger things have happened in cricket.
Yet, at this juncture, the form argument has quickly dissipated. It has now moved over to Rahane’s corner, who is back in favour in Test cricket after a brave knock at The Wanderers (and even solving the No 4 problem in ODIs for the short term). And so, it cannot be denied that every single time Rohit has visited South Africa, his career trajectory has taken two steps back, instead of four forward. If he were Napoleon, this country would be his Waterloo. If he were Kohli, this would be his ‘England’.