Rohit Sharma is an enigma like none among the current generation of Indian cricketers. The opening batsman can score double centuries in one-day internationals (ODIs) like it’s a walk in the park, while in Tests, the Mumbai cricketer resembles a kid lost in the same park. Sharma, however, isn’t the first and won’t be the last international cricketer to have mastered the limited-overs game, but failed to have a similar impact in the longer version. There was Michael Bevan of Australia, Sharma’s former team-mates Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina and Pakistan’s Shahid Afridi – all of who were stalwarts in limited-overs cricket, but did little to deserve a regular place in Test teams. Sharma started his Test career as a middle-order batsman with two back-to-back centuries against the West Indies at home in 2013, after which he went 34 innings without a ton. Having lost his place in the team multiple times, the Mumbai batsman was eventually back in the team for the 2019 home series against South Africa as an opener – a role he has successfully played in the limited-overs format since 2013.
He made the South Africa series his own with two hundreds and a double century, each scored with a strike rate of more than 70, giving India hope of a like-for-like replacement for Virender Sehwag, who retired the year Sharma made his Test debut.
Since then, however, Sharma has managed to score a fifty only once in the past eight innings. Which has once again raised questions on whether he should hold on to his spot in India’s playing XI, especially after the emergence of 21-year-old Shubman Gill, who has had a sparkling start to his Test career, and with Mayank Agarwal, 29, and KL Rahul, 28, waiting in the wings. Both, Agarwal and Rahul, are likely to be in contention for a spot in the playing XI longer than the 33-year-old Sharma.
Agarwal, though currently out-of-form, has performed well since his debut in 2018. The right-hand opening batsman from Karnataka has scored 1,052 runs at an average of 45.73 in 14 Tests and has slammed three centuries, including a double ton. Rahul, on the other hand, has a more modest record, having scored 2,006 runs in 36 Tests at an average of 34.58 with five centuries.
Also from Karnataka, Rahul made his debut in 2014, but has been in and out of the Test team owing to injuries, poor form and the team’s decision to try out various opening combinations over the past five-six years. To put the numbers in perspective, Sharma has scored 2,288 runs in 35 Tests at an average of 44 with six hundreds.
Assuming the team management prefers to give Gill a long run, given his age, the second opener’s choice will be between Sharma, Agarwal and Rahul. While Sharma has the most international experience of the three, it’s time the team looks to give Agarwal or Rahul a longer stint, keeping the future in mind. A stable opening partnership over a period of time would only help the team have higher chances of success, especially when travelling to SENA – South Africa, England, New Zealand, and Australia – countries.
Most successful international teams, including India, have invariably won more when they have had an opening pair that has played together over a longer period. Gordon Greenidge-Desmond Haynes for West Indies, Matthew Hayden-Justin Langer for Australia, Alastair Cook-Andrew Strauss for England and Virender Sehwag-Gautam Gambhir for India.
While captain Virat Kohli and the team management may stick to Sharma and Gill for the next Test match – also in Chennai from Saturday – they will have to, at some point, make a decision that augurs well for the long-term future.
Sharma, meanwhile, can focus on elongating his limited-overs career, with a focus on winning the two World Twenty20 tournaments to be played in India and Australia this year and next. And, ultimately, spearhead the Men in Blue to their third ODI World Cup victory in 2023, when India hosts the showpiece cricket event.
That’s what will set Sharma apart from a Bevan, Singh, Raina or Afridi – the status of a legend and not just a stalwart.