Two days after Rohit Sharma smacked 152 not out against Windies (second ODI) in Guwahati, something very obvious transpired. Former Indian skipper Sourav Ganguly spoke out about the need to give the Indian ODI vice-captain another chance in Test cricket.
"It is time selectors give Rohit a go in Tests. He is at his best and mentally seems to be in a terrific space," Ganguly wrote in his column for the Times of India, highlighting that a Sharma-Virat Kohli pairing could help beat Australia in the coming months.
His opinion, apart from the Kohli partnership angle, was quite predictable. It is the usual cycle that manifests itself whenever Sharma strikes rich form in limited-overs' cricket. Pick up newspapers or surf cricket websites for news from exactly a year ago - Sharma was lighting it up against Sri Lanka at home and the case was made for his inclusion in the Test squad for the South African tour.
We know what happened thereafter. The team management got so buoyed by his limited-overs' form that they made space for Sharma in the Test playing eleven ahead of a seasoned overseas campaigner like Ajinkya Rahane. With only 78 runs in four innings at Cape Town and Centurion, Sharma was dropped for the third Test. Since then, he has been waiting for a recall to the longer format.
It begs the question: is form important to be picked for Test cricket, or is it about temperament to dig in deep and grind out runs?
The answer has to be a balanced one. If you are playing at home, form is all that matters. Test history is rife with instances wherein debutants have just stepped in and smacked big runs. Prithvi Shaw is a recent example. Even so, Test cricket has always been more about temperament than form, especially when playing in tougher, overseas conditions. That balance is always tilted whichever way you look at it, and the most successful Test teams have always picked batsmen based on temperament than just recent form.
The subsequent question to ask here is if Sharma is lacking that essential temperament to succeed in Test cricket? It is not an easy answer to judge based on numbers alone - average 39.97 in 25 Tests, 54.71 in 85 first-class matches. Sure, you can segregate it further in terms of overseas performances and that Test average dips to 25.35 in 16 Tests. Take out Sri Lanka and Windies, it falls further - 23.78 in 10 Tests in South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia.
Imagine yourself as the brightest student in your class, with everyone around having high hopes of a great future ahead. From classmates to lecturers, there is a general consensus that you will land up the best job offer there is. You sit for interview after interview, but for some reason, the right offer doesn't come through. While everyone will be surprised with such turn of events, after five or six such disappointing interviews, you will go into the seventh with at least a down-trodden mind set if not completely negative.
Sharma is like that student - much talked up yet unable to find a suitable placement offer, much to the disappointment of everyone watching him go about his business. There is no question about his white-ball credentials today - it is one area where he has delivered on potential promise and will go down as one of the better batsmen to have played ODI and T20 cricket.
In Test cricket though, forget form and everything else, Sharma is perhaps starting to feel weighted down himself. This time, it isn't about expectations, not from the outside atleast. It is about personal desire to do well across formats, but the third outing simply hasn't worked for him, particularly in overseas conditions. When included in the playing eleven, he doesn't have a spot nailed on and others have to make way. When sitting on the bench, there are always a couple eyebrows raised - what indeed is he even doing there?
Sharma, in whites, is caught between two worlds so to speak. One, wherein he is a mega superstar, timing the ball well, hitting sixes at will and scaring opponents into submission every time he goes out to bat. Why doesn't this persona copy into the other world, wherein he is a timid batsman, struggling to cope with bounce and movement, variation in conditions, just doesn't get his timing going and bowlers are able to get on top. This struggle for personal identity comes forth every time he arrives in the middle in Test cricket.
So, where does this leave Indian cricket?
After umpteen chances and equal number of failures to prove himself, it is indeed surprising that Sharma is once again in the reckoning for a Test spot in Australia. Should he have been here? No. Should someone else have been picked in his spot? Probably Karun Nair, with the promise of not being left to twiddle thumbs again after a horrendous English experience.
But all that is conjecture now. Sharma is here and is in contention again based on his white-ball form. Rest assured, at some point he will get to play Test cricket in this upcoming series, whether that is in place of someone like Rahane or Cheteshwar Pujara in the garb of 'poor form' or 'intent', or whether it is about playing six full-time batsmen (sorry Hanuma Vihari), or simply because it suits the whims and fancies of this Indian team management. Undeniably though, it is his last shot at redemption in red-ball cricket.
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