Rahul has gone 12 Test innings without a 50-plus score and struggled in the recent tour of West Indies where India won both the matches to top the World Test Championship table.
Former captain Sourav Ganguly was among those who felt Rohit, who smashed a record five hundreds at the 50-overs World Cup in England and finished as the tournament’s top scorer, should partner Mayank Agarwal at the top of the order. “We want to give Rohit Sharma an opportunity to open the innings in Tests,” chief selector MSK Prasad said after naming the 15-member squad.
The only player in the world with three double hundreds in one-day internationals, Rohit averages nearly 40 in Tests batting in the middle order. The 32-year-old has struggled to replicate his limited-overs heroics in the 27 Tests he has played so far and must reinvent himself as an opener in the long form as well.
The malaise: Despite being the world’s top-ranked Test side India have struggled with their opening combination. Since 2018 India have tried out seven openers in Tests – KL Rahul, Murali Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan, Parthiv Patel, Prithvi Shaw, Mayank Agarwal and Hanuma Vihari. In this period, Rahul got the most opportunities – 13 Tests and 23 innings – and also scored the most runs (491). But if you go by his batting average of 22.31, he drops to fourth, behind Shaw (118.50), Agarwal (39.28) and Dhawan (27.36). Well, Shaw’s out due to a doping suspension, which ends on November 15. And while Agarwal’s position at the top was guaranteed, Dhawan and Vijay weren’t expected to be considered after repeated failures. With Ajinkya Rahane and Vihari putting in solid performances in the middle order in the two Tests against the West Indies, their slots were unlikely to be tinkered with.
The cure: Come Thursday, the selectors, while announcing the squad for the three Tests at home versus South Africa, did away with Rahul. And chief selector MSK Prasad informed that the panel wanted to give Rohit Sharma an opportunity to open the batting. “He [himself] is keen, and all of us in the selection committee are keen [as well],” added Prasad. “We want to push him, and give him some opportunities up the order, and see where does he stand, and then we will take a call.” This after former captain Sourav Ganguly had suggested post-2019 World Cup that the 32-year-old should be tried as an opener in the Caribbean. (Rohit had finished as the showpiece event’s highest run-getter, including a record five centuries.) Even his one-time Deccan Chargers team-mate Adam Gilchrist supported his promotion up the Indian batting order. Rohit was also named captain of the Board President’s XI, which will take on the Proteas in a three-day tour match in Vizianagaram.
Side effects: While the 32-year-old has secured his place at the top of the order in the Twenty20 and 50-over formats, he’s opened just thrice in first-class cricket, which came in the early part of his career, between 2009-12.
Fact: Rohit has never opened in Tests. And since his Test debut back in November 2013 against the West Indies, he’s never really flourished on the stage. Till date, he’s managed 1585 runs across 27 Tests and 47 innings, including three centuries and 10 fifties, at an average of 39.62, with a highest score of 177. Most recently, he was dropped following a poor return in South Africa in early 2018 when he returned 78 runs in four innings. He did play two Tests – with vital contributions – in the four-match series in Australia at the end of the year, missing one match with injury and another due to the birth of his child. But against the Windies, he had to sit out, giving up his place to Vihari.
Also: Earning his maiden Test call-up on Thursday was 20-year-old Shubman Gill. The inclusion was on expected lines after he top-scored for India A in the tour of West Indies and was adjudged Man of the Series. He became the youngest Indian to score a first-class double hundred during the series.
India’s squad for the three Tests: Virat Kohli (c), Mayank Agarwal, Rohit Sharma, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane (vc), Hanuma Vihari, Rishabh Pant (wk), Wriddhiman Saha (wk), R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Kuldeep Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, Ishant Sharma, Shubman Gill