Virender Sehwag was 23 when he made his Test debut, marking the occasion with a spectacular 105 in his very first innings, against South Africa in Bloemfontein in November 2001. With perennial fall guy Rahul Dravid moving up to open the batting, Sehwag slotted in at No. 6 and justified his inclusion while putting on 220 with his hero, Sachin Tendulkar.
In India’s best interests, however, Dravid had to bat at No. 3. That’s where he had made such a stirring impact, that’s where he was at his most comfortable. A reluctant opener, Dravid often put team above self in agreeing to confront the brand new cherry, but Dravid the opening batsman was never going to be a long-term option. The middle-order was packed with such other stalwarts as VVS Laxman and skipper Sourav Ganguly, so Sehwag’s continuation in the Test eleven could only be as a converted opener who stuck to his natural grain.
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Ganguly and John Wright pulled off a masterstroke by convincing the Delhi dasher to move up the order. Sehwag’s uniquely unfettered mind recognized an opportunity in the challenge, and he responded to the elevation like only he can – 84 in his first dig at the top of the tree at Lord’s, 106 in his third innings, in Nottingham. Those were his sixth and seventh Test appearances respectively. He would go on to make 22 hundreds in all as an opener, amongst them two triples and four other double-tons. Despite signing off with a highest score of 49 and racking up four single-digits in his last nine Test knocks, Sehwag ended with an enviable average of 49.34 at a strike-rate of 82.23. In Test cricket. Notwithstanding his seemingly high-risk game. Genius, anyone?
In two and a half weeks’ time, India will extend their fascination for makeshift openers in their first home game of the inaugural World Test Championship. Selection panel chief MSK Prasad has confirmed that Rohit Sharma will get another set of opportunities – there is no such thing as ‘last’ in Indian cricket – to establish his long-form credentials during the Test series against South Africa. Like Sehwag, Rohit kicked off his Test career, belatedly, with a hundred on debut, against West Indies in Kolkata nearly six years back. Unlike Sehwag, however, his has been a tale of what might have been, not what is.
Slated to play his first Test against South Africa in Nagpur in February 2010, Rohit did his ankle shortly before the toss during a warm-up game of rocket-ball. The untimely injury pushed his debut back by a whopping 45 months; centuries in his first two innings hinted at a glorious run of dazzling peaks, but Rohit hasn’t lived up to expectations, averaging a middling 39.62 in 27 Tests.
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The intriguing contrast between Rohit the white-ball behemoth and Rohit the red-ball under-achiever is remarkable. In limited-overs formats, he is a destructive phenom with a well-worked out game plan from which he veers only occasionally. Since his promotion at the start of 2013, he has been far and away the most influential opener in white-ball play, capping his mastery with an unprecedented five centuries in the 2019 World Cup. In the same period, however, he has been far less of a force in Test cricket, struggling to nail down a permanent spot and therefore setting himself up as the most expendable of the middle-order core.
His ascension to the opening slot has been facilitated by the well-documented travails of KL Rahul, the infuriatingly inconsistent right-hander who has looked a pale shadow of the imperious batsman who took Australia apart in Sydney in only his second Test match. Since the southern hemisphere summer of 2015, Rahul has had his moments – three overseas hundreds in his first six games, 10 half-centuries in 12 innings between February and November 2017. The last 20 months, though, have been disastrous. The 27-year-old has just one hundred and a fifty in 27 Test innings, 12 of which have ended in single-digit misadventures.
As much as the singular lack of runs, Rahul’s technique has come under the scanner. Whether due to an extended run in white-ball cricket or not, bad habits have crept into his game. A pronounced propensity to allow himself to be squared up time and again, and the resultant uncertainty over where his off-stump is, have sucked him into serial indiscretions. At other times, speaking to regular lapses in concentration, he has been dismissed to strokes daft enough not to be attempted even in one’s backyard, let alone in the unforgiving cauldron of Test cricket. Rahul hasn’t done enough to justify the repeated doses of confidence placed in him. Perhaps, time away from international cricket, and with the Karnataka team, will help him sort his mind – and his batting – out. He still has time on his side and he still has plenty to offer the national set-up.
Which brings us back to Rohit. The limited-overs vice-captain is 32 – not that long in the tooth for a batsman – but he is into his 13th year as an international cricketer, and made his Test debut nearly six years back. Since then, he has only played two non-Test first-class matches; furthermore, he has never opened the batting in long-form action. Against this backdrop, the wisdom behind throwing him in the deep end would appear a little addled. Perhaps, the selectors are hoping the opening gamble in limited-overs will produce a like result in the days’ version too, because if Rohit can replicate his success on the most testing stage as well, that will be an excellent development as India seek to retain their No. 1 status and make a strong charge in the World Championship.
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Having said that, it can only be hoped that the selectors have kept lines of communication open with the men who have made rapid strides while opening the innings in domestic cricket for their respective state sides, and subsequently for India A. Abhimanyu Easwaran, the new Bengal captain, and Priyank Panchal, who leads Gujarat whenever Parthiv Patel is unavailable, have been in great touch for a while now, and would have fancied their chances of a national call-up given Rahul’s prolonged travails. Their deeds have been recognized in the form of call-ups to the Rohit-led Board President’s XI to take on South Africa in a warm-up game later this month, but their chances of figuring in the eleven are reasonably remote, given that both Rohit and Mayank Agarwal should get the opportunity to polish their skills ahead of the Test series.
By the end of October, there will be greater clarity on whether the Rohit opening gambit is an unqualified success, or an experiment in futility. The Mumbaikar’s technique, as much as his resolve, desire and character, will be put through a serious examination by Kagiso Rabada, among others. Not for the first time, Rohit faces a moment of truth.
(Kaushik is a veteran cricket writer who has reported on over 100 Tests. He co-authored VVS Laxman's autobiography '281 and Beyond')
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