Rohit Sharma is into the position before the bowler digs it short and then comes that 'Natraja' pull shot. With a very little swivel and a lot of elegance. No brute force, just touch, and placement. A sight to behold as if an artist just whisked his paint brush on the canvas. It's as if Rohit had an extra second to judge the length of the ball. Or he certainly reads the delivery from the hand of the bowler before other batsmen. That has been the secret of Rohit's unprecedented success in white-ball cricketer — extra time. But there's one area where he's running out of time, in saving his Test career.
At the age of 32, Rohit doesn't have much time time left to prove himself in Test cricket after repeated failures but he has another opportunity knocking on his door. And this time he will be donning the role of an opener. A role that has made him the 'Hitman'.
“Rohit Sharma has been selected in the side as an opener. He will open in the three matches," said selector MSK Prasad after Test team announcement for series against South Africa.
Gifted with strokeplay and timing, Rohit, for long, teased the fans with brilliance and dismay. But it all changed in 2013. Asked to open the innings in ODIs, the right-hander went from an inconsistent talent to unstoppable force. Three ODI triple tons, four T20I centuries, numerous match-winning innings, there's no end to his long list of accomplishments. And yet during all this time, he, for some reason, has failed to find his bearings in Test cricket.
It was also in 2013 that he made his Test debut. A 177 on debut, a 111* in next innings but then the scores started dwindling. Rohit kept reaching new heights in shorter formats and kept reaching new lows in Tests. He was rested, dropped, axed, everything. Eventually, after all these years, he only has 27 Tests to his name and 218 ODIs.
But the suffering of Indian openers have forced the selectors to now look back at Rohit as the top-order guy. In last two years, India have tried out seven openers — KL Rahul, Murali Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan, Parthiv Patel, Prithvi Shaw, Mayank Agarwal, and Hanuma Vihari, but only one has stuck so far — Agarwal. While Shaw has great numbers to show, his injury and doping ban have kept him out for now.
Rahul's disastrous run of form tied the hands of selectors into trying Rohit as the opener — in a position that has brought him all the success in other formats. In Tests, it will be the first time he will be opening. A few times he has batted at No 3 and 4 but has largely been a 5 and 6 in his Test career. Those spots are not vacant anymore; Ajinkya Rahane and Hanuma Vihari have sealed it for themselves.
Why Rohit fails in Tests?
Test cricket is a different beast, and Rohit's certain technical limitations have made it tougher form him to tame the beast. Rohit never had a long stride like other successful batsmen. He has an instinctive forward press and plays a majority of his shots from the same position. He plays on front foot and back foot from the same position with just a subtle transfer of weight depending upon which feet he will be using. In shorter formats, tight lines make it easy for him to get behind the ball and play his shots. In Tests, there's more freedom to the bowlers and balls are outside the off-stump. Rohit is inevitably forced to play away from the body, hence the edges. If one moves back in, lbw or getting bowled is a sure shot opportunity. Exactly 55 percent of his dismissals in Test cricket has been either bowled, lbw or caught behind.
Can Rohit succeed as an opener and what would it mean for India?
Rohit's Test average is a shade over 39. His away average is 26.32, however, his home average is 85.44. Rohit loves scoring at home and there's a good chance he would do well, especially as an opener. He's familiar with the role, the pitches will be in its best shape at the start of innings. There's rarely steep bounce or swing in Indian conditions. It's tailor-made for Rohit to succeed. But then, the World Test Championships is on.
India will be playing New Zealand and Australia away from home before the final and also England and South Africa by the end of 2021. So, this is a long-term investment for India. They want a long-term opener and want to maximise the full potential of Rohit. Now the question is, can Rohit be India's openers in away Tests even if he succeeds at home? He can or cannot be. The answer to that question, for now, lies in Rohit's hands.
Despite all the fallacies, Virender Sehwag conquered the summit of Tests as an opener, so should Rohit. But for every Sehwag, we also have an Aaron Finch. Rohit would do well to pick the best from Sehwag. While the Mumbai batsman has more shots than the former opener, Sehwag had a better defence. He was smart to judge which ball to leave and which to one to go for. Defend the incoming one, put away the bad one and leave the good one was Sehwag's mantra.
Besides taking a leaf out of Sehwag's book, there's also a lot of himself that he needs to put into the process. Mainly, not compromising on his natural game. It's the flow of his batting that makes Rohit the dangerous prospect. He must keep his mind clear, continue playing his shots, albeit on the merit of the ball.
But most importantly, if he fails to click, it could be the endgame for Rohit in Tests. And at such an important crossroad, what matters the most is how badly he needs it. If it's about giving it another try, it may not work. But if it's about taking something by the scruff of the neck, it may click for forever.
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