Heading into the second Test against Australia, India had headaches aplenty. Not only did the players need a morale boost after the infamous defeat in Adelaide, there was a lot to ponder over in terms of team selection too. Virat Kohli was heading back, Mohammed Shami had been ruled out due to injury, and the batting order looked shaky in general.
With Ajinkya Rahane taking over as captain, India made four changes for the second Test and they all played a part in the visitors scripting a remarkable turnaround. Shubman Gill, Rishabh Pant, Ravindra Jadeja and Mohammed Siraj were brought in as India put in a dominating performance to square-up the four-match series in Melbourne.
Now, as we build-up to the third Test in Sydney, the current holders of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy are in a much more comfortable position than they were a couple of weeks ago. Despite two more setbacks due to injuries, with Umesh Yadav and KL Rahul ruled-out for the rest of the series, India will be confident of their chances at SCG.
As far as the team selection is concerned, there are two changes that India are likely to make. One of them is a forced one as Umesh is set to be replaced by either Navdeep Saini, Shardul Thakur or T Natarajan. But the other change is the one that poses a conundrum for Rahane and coach Ravi Shastri.
Having missed the white-ball leg of the tour along with the first two Tests, Rohit Sharma served his quarantine period in Sydney before joining the Indian team for the remaining two matches. And even before one could fully comprehend what his arrival and India’s emphatic win in the second Test mean for the playing XI going forward, the 33-year-old was declared the vice-captain of the team which all but confirmed his participation in the Sydney Test.
Now, let’s take a moment to remember that Rohit wasn’t always a certainty in India’s Test side. He made his international debut in the longest format back in 2013 and spent several years going in and out of the team. But after playing his first 27 Tests as a middle order batsman, he was promoted to the opener’s role and delivered a string of impressive performances at home, raising hopes of a turnaround similar to his white-ball career.
Best Test avg since Jan 1, 2018 (min 500 runs)
|KS Williamson (NZ)||20||31||1901||251||67.89||57.12||7||6|
|Babar Azam (PAK)||18||31||1570||143||62.80||61.64||5||11|
|M Labuschagne (AUS)||16||27||1588||215||58.81||54.92||4||8|
|RG Sharma (INDIA)||9||14||740||212||56.92||66.01||3||1|
|HM Nicholls (NZ)||21||31||1460||174||54.07||50.29||6||5|
One of the big questions facing Team India now is whether to continue with Rohit as opener. Firstly, despite his success at the top of the order so far, the fact remains that he has batted and succeeded in that position only while playing in India. His struggles against the moving ball are well documented and the likes of Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood, on lively a pitch, could well expose the chinks in the technique.
Secondly, Rohit being drafted as an opener will mean Mayank Agarwal’s exclusion from the side as Gill seems to have done enough in the Melbourne Test to hold on to his place. While Agarwal has indeed struggled in this series, with scores of 17, 9, 0 and 5, his Test average of 47.85, as well as the overall success he has had as an opener at various levels in his career so far, show that he perhaps deserves a longer rope.
Former India batsman VVS Laxman, though, believes Rohit replacing Agarwal at the top of the order is the way to go.
“Rohit will come in place of Mayank, because Rohit, since the South Africa series (at home in October 2018), has been a regular opener for India,” Laxman told Star Sports. “I feel that his style of batting and talent is very suited for Australian pitches. So, if he gets his eye in and sees through the new ball, I’m sure a big hundred will be on the cards.”
If not Agarwal, the other option is to drop Hanuma Vihari. The right-hander has only managed scores of 16, 8 and 21 so far this series and struggled to provide stability. With the experience Rohit has batting at No 5 and 6 for India in Test cricket, it would make sense to shield him from the new ball and allow him some freedom in the middle order.
Having said that though, as is the case with Agarwal, Vihari facing the axe will undoubtedly be harsh. Since making his debut in 2018, the 27-year-old has played crucial knocks for India in tough conditions in England, West Indies, Australia and New Zealand. He scored an unbeaten century in the second warm-up game ahead of the Test series and will be hoping to get more opportunities.
“One guy I am really looking forward to seeing bat in Australia is Vihari,” Kohli had said before the start of the series. “He is a solid player and I’m hoping for good things from him.”
Lastly, as suggested by Sunil Gavaskar, there is the third option of going with Rohit and Agarwal as openers and dropping Gill to the middle order. Gill was brought into the side as a replacement of Prithvi Shaw, after the shocking collapse in Adelaide, but Gavaskar reckons the 21-year-old is better suited to bat lower.
“Despite the fact that Gill has done so well in this match, I’d look to bat him at No 5 in the third Test,” the former India captain had told broadcaster Sony right after the Melbourne Test ended. “For the simple reason that I’m not too sure that with his approach he would be too successful in the opener’s position.”
Rohit has surely been a welcome addition to the Indian squad, one could see that in the warm reception he received from his teammates after getting out of quarantine. His stellar numbers as a white-ball batsman, along with his record five IPL titles as Mumbai Indians captain, have sealed his position as one of the biggest names in Indian cricket. And with Kohli absent, his presence does lend much-needed experience to this group.
However, one only hopes that in facilitating Rohit’s inclusion in the playing XI, India don’t end up losing the balance and momentum they painstakingly gained in Melbourne. Either way the team management goes, there is bound to be one disappointed, and rather unlucky, batsman in the Indian dressing room.
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