On Monday, ahead of the start of the second installment of India versus Sri Lanka this year, there were two points of focus at the Eden Gardens. First, it was the return of Rohit Sharma to the ground where he had scored his second One-Day International (ODI) double hundred — that mammoth 264 — against a hapless Lankan bowling attack. And two, the green wicket at this venue for the first Test, so green that it was tough to segregate it from the outfield (albeit 72 hours before the match begins).
It is the second point that is noteworthy. Team India’s selection policy today is a revolving door, but in a good way. In the limited-overs’ arena, it has been the season of experimentation, keeping in mind the build-up to the 2019 ODI World Cup in England. With the bulk of key names from the longer format missing out in Sri Lanka, and against Australia as well as New Zealand, it has generated the idea of different outfits for different formats.
Meanwhile, in Test cricket, Virat Kohli has a penchant for change. Whether owing to conditions or opposition, or both, he doesn’t mind playing around with his team composition. So much so, this first Test against Sri Lanka will be the 30th consecutive time when he will field a different playing eleven in consecutive matches. Yes, it is already a given, because Hardik Pandya has been rested for this series.
This is where the first pointer comes in, and gives rise to a peculiar situation. In Sri Lanka, given the difference in pitches and conditions, Kohli professed the use of an all-rounder in the playing eleven. It meant that India took the field with five bowlers, a concept that they have been building towards for some time now, particularly keeping the long 2018 overseas’ schedule in mind.
Two fast bowlers, two spinners, and Pandya do the trick in the sub-continent. In overseas conditions, where the shining red ball does more, and the old cherry brings reverse-wing into play, it could be three pacers, one spinner and Pandya, or indeed both spinners with R Ashwin playing the all-rounder role, as he did in the West Indies in 2016.
The loser, in this merry-go-round, turns out to be Rohit Sharma. The ferocious batsman from Mumbai last played Test cricket in October 2016, at the onset of India’s long home schedule. New Zealand were visiting then, and on a quick Eden Gardens pitch, Kohli opted to play the extra batsman. Rohit then saved the day for his team in the second innings, scoring a brilliant 82, and helping India secure victory.
It was a typical ‘Rohit’ knock, full of bluster and some intense shot-making. Trent Boult and Matt Henry were spewing venom on a lively pitch in the second innings. There had been some rain, and the bounce was unpredictable. India were reduced to 43/4 and 106/6. An unpredictable batsman held fort on a nearly unplayable wicket, and pulled out his side from danger. Only Rohit could have done that, it was said that evening, and it remains one of his best outings in the short 21-Test career (average 37) yet.
Almost a year later, and Rohit hasn’t made any further progression in the longer format, thanks to long-term injury. It is almost as if his Test aspirations have spiralled out of control, even as he has been static, sitting on the bench or staying in the background in wait of another opportunity. Even so, it isn’t like he hasn’t had his chances.
Way back in 2007-08, he was the first one of this current crop of Indian batsmen to burst onto the scene. Yet, the likes of Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane now stand ahead of him in the pecking order. The team management has tried accommodating Rohit at no. 3, ahead of Pujara; he averages 21.40 in four Tests at the pivotal position. He has been tried at no. 5 (Sri Lanka in 2015) at the expense of Rahane who was moved up the order, but nothing has succeeded in the long-term.
How does he sit then in the team’s strategic planning considering the slew of overseas Tests in the offing? With the addition of the all-rounder in India’s squad, it can also be said that Rohit has come unstuck in Test cricket. There is no surety of when the next chance may arrive. Take this upcoming first Test against Sri Lanka, for example. In Pandya’s absence, he should be easing into the playing eleven, warming-up on home soil against an easy opposition before a true examination begins in South Africa. But this isn’t a foregone conclusion.
Now suddenly, if Rohit looks over his shoulder, he will find the likes of Shreyas Iyer and Karun Nair patiently waiting in the wings. Sure, Rohit is the additional first-choice batsman in the Test squad, but Nair almost made it large with a surprising triple ton in Chennai, and then Iyer was on the verge of playing his maiden Test in Dharamsala. Almost a decade after he debuted on the international scene, he hasn’t done enough in the longer format. Perhaps Rohit doesn’t even want to acknowledge the situation anymore.
“I don’t want to talk about Test cricket,” he had said, when the subject was broached during the Lankan tour. It allowed for an alternate view into his mindset. The ODI series was up next, and he was assured of playing. He was the new vice-captain, a position that agreed with his rising stature in the limited-overs’ arena. Truth be told then, after Kohli, Rohit has become India’s most dependable batsman in ODIs and T20Is of late.
Take one look at the Indian batting card from the recent limited-overs’ engagements, and the middle order has looked short of confidence. It is double-pivoted to revolve around Kohli and MS Dhoni to an extent, but all of this goes to naught if the openers don’t provide a good enough start. And while there is debate over Shikhar Dhawan, KL Rahul and Rahane for the second opener’s spot, Rohit is ever-present in the line-up for the Men in Blue.
It has been a gradual, but steady rise for Rohit, one that came about when he started opening the innings for India. That was back in 2013, and what started as an experimental ploy came to full fruition. It took him some time to get going, adjusting to the demands of batting in the top-order as compared to the middle, and the two ODI double hundreds alone are proof enough that he had made the transition successfully.
In fact, it's safe to say that for once, Rohit has delivered on what he had promised, in terms of sheer ability and temperament, at least in the limited-overs’ arena. As he returns to the ground where he came up with an epochal performance in ODI cricket, can he turn his Test career around? That is, if he is afforded that chance again, in the absence of India’s first-choice all-rounder.