For the first time in nearly three weeks that the Indian team has spent in Sri Lanka playing red ball cricket, Rohit Sharma finally found a reason to smile. He had been elevated as the country’s new one-day vice-captain.
It was the second-last day of the Test series, one in which the only action Rohit had been a part of was to carry drinks for his teammates and to break into conversations with the other reserves and the support staff.
It was on the same day that Hardik Pandya had casually strolled into bat at number eight and destroyed the Sri Lankan hopes with a blistering century. Pandya’s assault had also left Rohit further away from regaining his place in the Test team.
A 38 retired in the warm-up game was the only stint Rohit had had in the middle on the tour so far. But that was not enough to help him play his first Test since October 2016.
Kohli’s love for the extra bowler is no secret. Pandya offered the captain the additional bowling option along with the promise of a few quick runs lower down the order. That allowed Kohli to gamble and hand the all-rounder a debut at Galle instead of playing the genuine batsman in Rohit. And by the time India had blanked the hosts 3-0 in Pallekele, Pandya – with his thunderous century and important scalps – had ensured the gamble was successful.
After Ravichandran Ashwin had castled the last man Lahiru Kumara’s stumps to seal India’s whitewash, Rohit would have rejoiced too. But that was not how Rohit would have envisaged his three-week stay with the Test team.
“I know what I have to do as an individual... it is a great feeling of getting back to the whites. At the end of the day, I want to be a big-match winner for the team. That’s what I am looking forward (to),” those were Rohit's words, awash with hope, before the Tests against Sri Lanka had commenced.
Then, Galle happened. Pandya was chosen over Rohit. The opportunity to be the ‘big-match winner’ had sidestepped Rohit in the process. But the hunger remained. In fact, it increased with every day of the first Test he spent hoping he was a part of the team’s dominance on the field rather than in the quiet of the pavilion.
India personified ruthlessness as they whipped Sri Lanka by 304 runs on the fourth day. By then the eagerness to step onto the park had turned Rohit restless. Moments after India had completed the rout, Rohit headed for a stint at the nets with KL Rahul.
Rahul had missed the Test because of fever. And, he was set to walk into the team for the second game as India’s first-choice opener. Rohit, on the other hand, had been left out of the first match. It had hurt him. He wanted to play. And, he wanted his captain to know. So, there he was, making the kind of noise – willow smashing the leather in the nets – that he hoped would slot him back into the side.
But, unfortunately for Rohit, the noise was not loud enough. The only noise that could have assured him of another outing in the whites would have been a truckload of runs against the red cherry, not the knocks in the nets.
He was prolific in the Champions Trophy, but he had not played First Class cricket since October last year. He had undergone a surgery on his right upper quadriceps tendon in November.
As expected, Rohit’s berth for Colombo eluded him. Once the bench was confirmed as his place for the next few days, the BCCI sent Rohit to Mumbai for a ‘scheduled’ medical check-up. But the desire to be a part of the set-up burned brighter than the pain of the axe that had fallen. It meant that he shuttled between the two countries at a blink-and-miss speed and rejoined the team the following day.
But any hopes Rohit harboured of his flash-like return reminding Kohli of his presence were crushed as Pandya retained his spot for Pallekele. Eventually, the blazing ton on the second day of the final Test from Pandya left Rohit staring into an uncertain Test future.
It has been four years since Rohit announced his long overdue arrival in the longest form of the game with consecutive centuries against West Indies in Kolkata and Mumbai.
Since those two games, Rohit has represented the country in only 19 more Tests. The returns have not begged for too many chances either – a mere seven fifties and not a single century after his initial burst.
When the Indians visited the Lankan shores two years ago, Rohit started off the series as India’s number three. He had played in that spot – one of cricket’s most critical positions – in the preceding two Tests at Sydney and Fatullah too.
But playing the seaming ball – as a one-drop batsman must often do – is a different art from countering the turning ball a middle order batsman is expected to master.
Rohit struggled to set the stage alight in his opportunities at the top of the order and was expectedly pushed down back into the middle order. The number three experiment had failed. Rohit had failed to grab on to the lifeline that could have resurrected his Test career.
From there on, Rohit’s fight for a regular spot resumed. Now in the middle order, he made sporadic appearances but managed only one half century for a while – in the Colombo Test after he was demoted in the order, before crossing the fifty mark thrice against New Zealand last year.
Just when it appeared that Rohit and Test cricket had decided to be friends, injury decided to spoil the party. It ruled Rohit out of the rest of India’s grand summer of Test cricket at home – a platform he would have dreamt of to make his bonhomie with Test cricket the talk of the town.
In the interim came and went Karun Nair. A 300 in his third Test threatened to shut the door on Rohit. But a horrific lean patch that followed immediately left the door ajar. It meant Karun missed the bus to Sri Lanka, the one on which Rohit found a place.
The script seemed to be in Rohit’s favour till Kohli threw the Pandya dice and struck gold as the all-rounder scored his first-ever century in senior cricket. The Mumbai batsman took to Twitter to praise the brutality of Pandya’s knock, but he would have known that he had slipped another step away from reigniting his flame with cricket’s purest form.
If the ambiguity over the slot in the batting line-up two years ago was disturbing for Rohit, he was now left with no slot in the playing eleven. He should remain a part of the squad but the road back to the epicentre of action could be long. For there are tours of South Africa, England, Australia and New Zealand coming up over the next 18 months, and India could prefer a seam-bowling all-rounder to a genuine batsman in each of those countries.
If that is the case, Rohit may have to spend more time on the bench and with a group of singing fans – like he was seen doing in Colombo – as he awaits an opportunity to go and serve his teammates drinks. Rather, more so, as he waits for his opportunity to shake hands with Test cricket again.