The ease with which Indian captain Rohit Sharma switched between the ruthless and the sublime during his amazing knock in the second ODI against Sri Lanka was a treat to watch; and, well before, the game ended in Mohali, a few engaging questions came bursting forth from a variety of sources.
The first one bound fans and connoisseurs alike. Is Rohit unfamiliar with the attendant pressures of captaincy? He had seen the Indian batting lineup, including himself, crumble helplessly in Dharamsala in his first game as India skipper. In a three-match series, the second game was cloaked in a do-or-die atmosphere that could affect the mindset of the best.
He was under pressure, too, having sought to justify Ajinkya Rahane’s exclusion from the XI by pointing out how his fellow Mumbaikar had come to be seen as an opening batsman in the limited-overs format.
And Rohit responded by scoring his third double century, showing that the additional pressure of leading the side in Virat Kohli’s absence only had a positive impact on him.
The regal audacity with which he played in Mohali was reminiscent of Sir Vivian Richards, Sachin Tendulkar, AB de Villiers, Virender Sehwag and Chris Gayle in their prime. The almost effortless manner in which he raced from 100 to 200 put him in a league of his own, wowing fans and giving them the opportunity to let their minds drift to the future.
The fan of the shorter version of the game — with shorter boundaries, flat decks and powerplay overs in attendance — was quick to ask if Rohit would score a triple century in a one-day international soon. As the owner of three of seven double-centuries in limited-overs internationals, he would be surely expected to make that push.
The lover of Test cricket, an eye grudgingly trained on one-day internationals, was equally quick to take the mind to South Africa. Can the sweet sound of his bat thwacking the cricket ball — ringing louder than the applause — be heard in Cape Town, Centurion and Johannesburg in January when India play South Africa in the first of its challenging away Test series in 2018?
Can Rohit finally become the crucial, durable and reliable cog in India’s batting wheel even in Test cricket? Such questions are not easily answered from the comfort of a critic’s chair but there is no real harm in exploring the possibilities.
Come to think of it, the fact that the supremely talented batsman has featured in only half the 46 Tests India has played since his debut in 2013 does not reflect his undeniable talent. He has found it hard to force his way into the strong middle-order that has relied on Cheteshwar Pujara (41 of the 46 Tests in question), Kohli (45) and Rahane (42).
The decision to bat Ravichandran Ashwin at No 6 by the dispensation which prefers to employ five bowlers has meant that Rohit ’s opportunities in Test cricket have not been as frequent. The impending return of all-rounder Hardik Pandya to the XI means that Rohit’s place can be secured only at the expense of vice-captain Rahane at No 5.
The team management would be tempted to look at Rahane’s 17 runs in five innings in the recently-concluded Test series during which Rohit made 217 runs from three innings, including an unbeaten century in Nagpur and two half-centuries in Delhi. Yet, it will be challenge to overlook Rahane’s overall Test record when making the big decision in Newlands.
There can be no denying the fact that the freedom with which batsmen express themselves in limited-overs cricket is not the same in Test cricket where the challenges are different. But there is little reason to believe that Rohit cannot add further muscle to India’s middle-order batting, more so if he can show that he can play the waiting game, too, at the batting crease.
Yuvraj Singh (40 Tests, from 2003 to 2012), Suresh Raina (18 Tests, 2010-2015) and Mohammed Kaif (13 Tests, 2000-2006) are some examples of players who did not blossom in Test cricket as much as the selectors would have expected them to. Rohit will need a stroke of luck and his batting form to avoid joining such a list.
The Mumbai Indians captain will be concerned that India's focus is veering away from Tests. Pushing 31 now, he may find himself with few opportunities to bridge the gap between his potential and performance as a Test batsman. As a batsman who scored a hundred on Test debut at Kolkata and followed it up with an unbeaten 111 in next Test at Mumbai, he played all but two of India’s 10 Tests in 2017.
The New Year — and skipper Kohli and head coach Ravi Shastri, one may add — hold the key to whether Rohit will continue to brandish the willow with flair and panache without having to spend long spells in the dressing room and only in the nets at some of the most picturesque, inviting and challenging locales.