Rohit Sharma is finally fit and ready to take on Australia, and is likely to be included in the team for the Sydney Test. But are India hurrying to squeeze him into the series just because he is available, asks Aadya Sharma?
Less than a week ago, Mayank Agarwal posted an emotional note on Instagram, recalling his memorable debut at the MCG on the Boxing Day of 2018. That day, he had wowed Indian fans with his crisp strokes, especially his eagerness to fight fire with fire and take on Nathan Lyon. The long-standing questions on India’s opening slot had dissipated, at least for a while.
The current tour has been bittersweet for him – after an abysmal and fairly incredulous team effort of 36-9, India bounced back to bring the series alive, but even in the merriment of the win, there are whispers that Mayank could potentially face the axe for the next Test.
The player who he could make way for has been the cynosure of all eyes for the last two months, even while being out of the squad. The hamstring injury couldn’t come in the way of his sixth IPL title, but Rohit Sharma has since been racing against time to participate in the Australia tour.
Such is the player’s calibre and popularity, that every movement of his gained interest – we got to know that Rohit was reportedly confined to a two-bedroom apartment, and was unable to train. We knew that the Sydney Covid cluster would not affect his quarantine period. Popular demand escalated even further when India’s batting order suffered a collapse of immeasurable cost, and when Rohit’s quarantine finally lapsed, the BCCI’s video team aptly captured the heroic arrival of their superstar.
Rohit Sharma has finally joined the India squad!
Wait for the coach's question 🤭pic.twitter.com/Mn8vHYbdcl
— Wisden India (@WisdenIndia) December 30, 2020
However, India no longer look like the team that limped out of Adelaide with their lowest total in 90 years of Test cricket just ten days ago. In fact, after their historic Melbourne win, India aren’t just fighting for survival, but eyeing back-to-back series wins Down Under. And they’ve managed to do it without Virat Kohli.
In such a scenario, is it fair to break the current combination just because Rohit, a player whose overseas Test record still raises questions, is available?
When the India squads were announced back in November, there was considerable chatter and confusion over his omission. Fans had one eye reserved for Rohit’s social handles, scrounging for updates of his availability. Of course, we need Rohit in Australia, they said. Rohit was the renaissance man of Indian cricket, having resurrected his Test career with a breakthrough 2019, averaging 92.66 from five Tests.
But while those recent scores have been impressive, they have, just like the majority of Rohit’s 32-match, seven-year Test career, come in home conditions. Away from home, Rohit still averages 26.32 in 18 Tests. Hehas two fifties and a best of 63* in 10 innings in Australia. Rohit is a superstar and a white-ball phenom, but whether he is good enough as a Test batsman in foreign conditions to walk into the side midway through the series, especially after a big win, remains debatable.
Mayank Agarwal's last six Test innings: 7, 3, 17, 9, 0, 5
Rohit Sharma's last six Test innings: 176, 127, 14, 212, 6, 21
— Wisden India (@WisdenIndia) December 29, 2020
If Rohit does come in, he potentially replaces Mayank at the top of the order, swapping places with a batsman who has scores of 7, 3, 17, 9, 0 and 5 in his last six innings, the first two and the last four separated by a period of eight months. But there are plenty of mitigating factors. In the second innings in Adelaide, Mayank’s nine actually turned out to be India’s highest score in their 36, highlighting just how good Australia’s bowling trio had been. Facing Australia’s pace battery, with a new ball in hand, on their home soil is no mean task; it might be the toughest challenge in world cricket currently. It didn’t help that Mayank lost his opening partner in the first two innings with the score in single digits.
For a player who has in a short Test career scored fifties in Australia, West Indies and New Zealand, it is easy to identify a blip when he’s been largely prolific. Mayank’s run-rut is concerning, no doubt, but facing the brand new ball in Australia is a challenging proposition, and Mayank deserves a longer run on the back of all the good work he has done in the lead up to the tour.
And, while Rohit does average 92.66 as opener in Tests, he hasn’t played a single innings at the top of the order abroad. To top it, he’s known to be someone who struggles against early away swing, and while Australian pitches suit his play, bumping him to the top of the order based on his home exploits, at the expense of an opening batsman who has spent the major part of the last month studying those conditions, is a risky move.
With Gill all anyone can talk about, the only other possible spot for Rohit is in the middle order, a place he is more accustomed to at the Test level, and one he could pip Hanuma Vihari for. Again, Vihari hasn’t excelled in Australia so far, but he’s been still played a role as a gritty No.5 who steadies the ship when needed and puts on vital stands down the order, as he did alongside Ajinkya Rahane in Melbourne.
In 18 innings abroad, Vihari has played three innings of over 100 balls, facing 225 in his century against West Indies in Kingston last year. In 33 innings abroad, Rohit has crossed the 100-ball mark just four times and hasn’t gone beyond 133. It’s starkly in contrast to Rohit, the white-ball behemoth, but it also highlights his inadequacies in the longer form of the game.
There is a danger of overstating the credentials of Rohit, the Test cricketer, especially in the context of this series. If Rohit was fit and available from the first Test, it would have been a fair shout to include him in the starting XI from the get-go. But, to expect him to take on Australia’s raging pace trio in his first competitive game in two months (and his first Test in over a year), after having spent the last two weeks in quarantine, would be unfair not just to who he might replace, but for Rohit too.
Vihari and Mayank waited for years, mustering runs at domestic level season upon season to reach Test cricket. Maybe it’s Rohit who has to wait now.