Rohit Sharma in India Test XI: A gamble that could work wonders for the road ahead
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Rohit Sharma in India Test XI: A gamble that could work wonders for the road ahead

The India-West Indies Test series ended on a frustrating note as four out of the five days in the final game at Trinidad were called off without a ball being bowled, with play being stopped on Day 1 after just 22 overs.

The match was poised for an exciting finish with Virat Kohli and co gunning for a win, more so to defend their newly-acquired number one rank in the longest format, which eventually was lost to Pakistan as the match ended in a draw. There are hardly any talking points from the fourth and final Test of the series. The mismanagement by authorities at the Queen’s Park Oval would be the primary one. The other, of course, would be the toss, in which Kohli made a few changes in his typical unpredictable manner.

“We need an extra batsman,” is what he was quoted as saying when he brought in Cheteshwar Pujara for Ravindra Jadeja, thus putting an end to the much talked-about five-bowler theory for time being. The next change the more foreseeable one, was Murali Vijay coming in place of Shikhar Dhawan to open alongside KL Rahul. Rohit Sharma retained his place in the XI.

Rohit Sharma in action during the recently-concluded tour of West Indies. AP

Rohit Sharma in action during the recently-concluded tour of West Indies. AP

Social media outraged when Kohli decided to come up the order at number three to adjust Rohit in the batting line up for the St Lucia fixture (as if dropping Pujara wasn’t enough). Succumbing to the pressure, the latter fell for a modest 9 in the first innings before scoring an aggressive 41 in the second. Indian captain later received flak for selecting Rohit in place of a fit Vijay, arguably one of the team’s best Test batsman, and Pujara.

Despite describing the Indian captain’s decisions as muddled, majority rooted for Rohit to execute what had been expected of him in the final Test after a blink-and-a-you’ll-miss-it performance in the first innings of the previous game. Only for him to be denied a chance at redeeming himself by the wet outfield at Port of Spain.

Changing a batting line-up for the sake of adjusting a replacement for one game is unorthodox. It disturbs the balance of the team, which was clearly evident as India lost their first four wickets just for 87 before Ravichandran Ashwin and Wriddhiman Saha scored match-saving centuries to help India score a mammoth 353. This decision would’ve been somewhat understandable if the change was a one off thing, but Kohli gambled by including him in the final Test too.

“To field a player like Rohit Sharma, we had to make to him bat at No 5. To make that happen the other player will go one place up the order. That’s what we did,” is what Kohli had said while justifying the inclusion of Rohit in the side at the start of the third Test.

Which undoubtedly indicates that Rohit would be a certainty in the playing XI in the near future. Something that is not conservative, but couldn’t have been prophesised either, given the aggressive mindset Kohli wants to blend into this young Test Side.

As a matter of fact, going against the conventional style of play isn’t something that Indian cricket is witnessing for the first time. Kohli’s predecessors Sourav Ganguly and Mahendra Singh Dhoni went against status quo, did what they thought was right, and tasted success afterwards.

One of Ganguly’s toughest decisions in his tenure as a captain was hailed after initially being criticised – playing the young ‘turbanator’ Harbhajan Singh in place of stalwart Anil Kumble in the 2003 World Cup. The former Indian leggie played only three matches, as compared to Harbhajan’s 10 appearances. In hindsight, the decision looks like a strategic masterpiece, but it wasn’t something any rational captain would’ve dared to make, dropping Kumble at his peak, back then. ‘Dada’ did precisely that. The result? India went on to play the final, where they lost to one of the greatest sides ever in the Ricky Ponting-led Australia. Harbhajan picked 11 wickets in the tournament with an impressive economy of 3.92.

In 2008, India won the Commonwealth bank series under Dhoni’s captaincy. But even before the tri-series began, tension encompassed Dhoni as he urged selectors to drop Ganguly and Rahul Dravid in order to bring in young players like Suresh Raina, Robin Uthappa. The reason cited by the 2011 World Cup-winning captain was to improve the team’s fielding, as he wanted a young unit that could save those odd singles or boundaries to maintain pressure against a tough Australian side at their own backyard. The results were visible. India won the triangular series, beating the hosts in the best-of-three finals 2-0.

Test cricket of course, is different from One-Day Internationals. There are more factors to be considered before making such a decision. But I am talking about the thought process of that the previous captains had, the legacy of which is being preserved by Kohli. His mind set is clear — having someone aggressive in the team who could bat alongside the tail-enders and complement the defensive batting style of the Ashwins and Sahas.

Let’s be honest and agree that in Ashwin, India has found a good batsman, but not someone the team could rely on. He could however, play second fiddle to Rohit quite perfectly. Adjusting the team’s batting line up for Rohit’s sake doesn’t make much sense now, might do so on the longer run.

The Indian Test captain has made his intent clear, and declared that his team would go for the win no matter what the situation is, to become the top-ranked Test side. But some obstacles lie in the path in achieving that status, the biggest being India’s weak lower middle-order. Strengthening it would be something that makes Kohli play Rohit in the XI. If India has to win in the five-day format, they need someone who could accelerate quickly in the third and fourth innings of the match, and go for the kill.

“My natural game is to attack and put the pressure on the bowlers whether I am facing the first ball or the last. I know situations are going to be different, but one thing is for sure that I am not going to change my natural game. I am what I am,” Rohit was quoted saying after the third Test.

With KL Rahul performing consistently, chances of Shikhar Dhawan batting alongside him in the coming home season look bleak, which leaves Rohit as the with only aggressive batsman in the team.

Whether India implements the five-bowler theory or not, Rohit’s presence in the playing XI looks certain. This means that Kohli will bat at No 3 followed by Ajinkya Rahane and Rohit. This is an experiment, something that could either work wonders or flop miserably for India. But with the Anil Kumble-coached side aiming to be the top-ranked team in the future, they need to win consistently, and the combination of six batsmen and five bowlers will be the one that helps them do so. And there will hardly be a better time than the upcoming season to implement the risky plan as India await a long stretch of home fixtures.

Rohit could find partner in Ashwin-Saha to bring out his natural game. But he still has some abilities to develop, one of them being batting with tail-enders if the lower middle-order fail to contribute much. The Mumbai batsman also becomes quite impatient when the ball is pitched slightly outside off. This is one of the weaknesses he will have to resolve on a priority basis, because it would be highly probable that he will be responsible to see off the second new ball more than he would fancy.

This plan is a risk, a risk which depends a lot on how Rohit performs. A risk which has to be taken to guarantee India success in the longer run. A risk that would be hailed as a tactical stroke of genius, should it pay off, as was the case with Kohli’s predecessors.

Whether it works or not remains to be seen, but two things are certain. One, that there is hardly a better player than Rohit, who brings in aggression with experience, in the Indian circuit right now for this task. Second, under Kohli’s era of captaincy, we would see a different Indian team which will have the aggressive shadow of Ganguly’s team along with the demeanour of Dhoni.

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