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T20 World Cup 2021

Is Rohit Sharma really one of India’s best two openers in T20Is?

Rohit T20 World Cup
Aadya Sharma by Aadya Sharma
@Aadya_Wisden 4 minute read

The only player to hit four T20I centuries, there’s little doubt over Rohit Sharma’s credentials in the format, but with younger opening options cropping up and a string of sub-par IPL seasons behind him, is the 34-year-old still their best bet for the T20 World Cup?

An Indian white-ball team without Rohit Sharma is virtually unimaginable.

Here’s a man who, in his last global tournament, reeled off five centuries @ 81, has four magnificent centuries in T20Is, and averages 54 in his last five T20I matches, with three fifties. This year’s T20 World Cup will be his seventh (he’ll be the only Indian from the inaugural title-winning batch), and he’s not far from reaching the 3,000-run mark in T20Is, a club only one other batsman is part of.

Let’s take a step back, though. While his longevity is undoubtedly impressive, and the four peaks on his innings chart highlight his extraordinary ability to play long innings, his recent IPL seasons presents a different story, and probably gives a deeper insight into his T20 game.

In his last two IPLs, Rohit’s ended with a strike-rate of 150+ only twice (across 18 innings). According to CricViz, among all opening batsmen since IPL 2018 (30+ innings), Rohit has the lowest attack rating (150). Since 2017, he has crossed 400 runs in an IPL season only once, the only season where he ended with a strike-rate of 130+. There’s also the very obvious shortcomings that have hurt him: early swing, leg-spin bowling (googly in particular), and a generally scratchy approach in powerplays.

When talking about T20 World Cups, the IPL performances are likely to present a much better picture of a player’s approach when compared to bilateral T20I series. These games are sporadically sprinkled around the calendar, and there’s little chance to build momentum and there’s hardly time to make a comeback if you falter early. The IPL, on the other hand, is closer to a World Cup in terms of its structure – the competition becomes tougher as you go further, and there’s a set timeline (and an actual goal) for you to work towards.

For such a tournament, if (and that’s a big if) India does have to look beyond the 34-year-old Rohit, there are a hoard of options. There’s KL Rahul, for starters, who might be painfully slow off the blocks, but has been an unbelievably consistent run-getter, setting up IPL games with measured fifties. There’s Prithvi Shaw, a white-ball beast in recent times, who struck at 166.48 in IPL 2021 (at one point, his IPL 2021 powerplay strike-rate was 181.57). Outside that, there’s Devdutt Padikkal too, a 20-year-old who smashed an IPL hundred off just 52 balls, Mayank Agarwal, who has a century and 99* in the last two seasons. And we’re assuming that Shikhar Dhawan, on the back of his stunning season (380 runs @ 54.28), has done enough to force his way in.

Separately, if Virat Kohli decides to open the innings (like he did for most of the England series and the whole of IPL 2021) alongside Rohit, India will have two superstars who are highly unlikely to come out all guns blazing in the powerplay. The prize they place on their wicket accumulates pressure on those to follow, and pushes India back to the mentality that’s best left to one-day cricket of the 2000s. In similar ways, the Rohit-Dhawan pair might be the most prolific T20I opening duo ever, but it’s also a pair that takes its time, builds on steady starts, and in essence, needs a push from the other end to start firing.

Is Rohit really one of India’s best two openers in T20I, then? Rohit’s pairing with Dhawan was probably still a rage in 2016, the last T20 World Cup, but the game has evolved significantly since then. Is he still indispensable at the top?

The answer is probably driven by exploring the other options around. If this was 2018, and KL Rahul was still his freewheeling, intent-filled self, he would have been a better candidate to take up one slot. But, Rahul’s last two IPL seasons have exhibited a cautious, almost team-harming approach of watchful batting. On the other side, players like Prithvi Shaw are a delight to watch, but against quality opposition, there are still doubts over the ability for sustained success. He might give you quickfire starts, but can he consistently do the same against genuine pace from Mitchell Starc or Mark Wood. Padikkal and Mayank are still untested at the T20I level, and fronting them up to the new ball at a global event would be a massive gamble. Is there really a better option around?

Which brings us back to Rohit, India’s most capped T20I player, and his role in the team. When lining up against the cream of the world’s bowlers, it’s probably worth featuring your most trusted batsmen who can absorb the early jitters, set a good platform and save you from shock exits. You might not see Rohit smashing a 40-ball hundred, but there’s a higher chance that an experienced Rohit will carry you to the last rounds, with a better understanding of the slippery terrains of ICC events, the variety in international bowling attacks, and a proven track record for stepping up in big competitions. It’s a superstar that you can’t not have.

He might not be the first batsman on your team sheet, but he’s still your trusted warhorse. Whether India keeps him after the World Cup depends on their overall plans for the format, and the approach they want to go with. But, five months from now, Indian fans will probably feel more assured if Rohit, Dhawan and Kohli, the mighty triumvirate, lead the charge from the top. It could probably be the last time they feature in the T20 World Cup together, and if the real Rohit stands up, it could well be a grand send-off.

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