Any skepticism about his ability to excel in the five-day format stands comprehensively quashed.
Playing for the first time as an opening batsman, Rohit Sharma marked his ‘second coming’ in Test cricket with a hundred in each innings in the first match of the series against South Africa. Any skepticism about his ability to excel in the five-day format stands comprehensively quashed.
But while the tons and runs are crucially important obviously, how Sharma put mind over matter, the triumph of will, was perhaps the more meaningful in the context of how his Test career had shaped up till now and the possibilities it holds out for the future from here.
There are very few in the world that can match Sharma’s ability with the bat. He has the supreme gift of timing, a glittering array of strokes and, like all batsmen who play late, has the style and panache that makes for attractive batsmanship.
Indeed, his effortless batting and utter disdain for bowlers, when set, has shades of Viv Richards in his pomp: minus, of course the trademark swagger, power and sheer physicality of the West Indian great.
That’s where the comparison ceased where Test cricket is concerned. Sharma’s failure to click consistently despite his resounding success in other formats (he made 5 centuries in this year’s World Cup) made him not just a conundrum, but the despair of team management, selectors and his legion of fans.
At 32, Sharma’s Test career was on the verge of lapsing. In spite of two centuries in his first two matches, and the fact that he was touted as perhaps the batsman with the most natural ability in the country, he hadn’t been able to assure himself of a regular place in the playing side for almost six years.
Though he became a hugely prolific — and arguably the world’s most dangerous — run-getter in white ball, his failure to come good in Tests dragged his cricketing equity down several notches. You can’t be counted among the greats in unqualified terms if your Test record is poor.
This was the backdrop against which Sharma started this home season. Shikhar Dhawan’s poor form last season opened up the door for Mayank Agarwal as an opener. After this year’s World Cup, KL Rahul’s inability to play big innings despite getting starts had the team management seeking another opener.
Sharma, already in the squad, got the nod. This was being discussed informally for a while over the past year between the team management and selectors. As I understand, coach Shastri and captain Kohli were keen that Sharma should be put to the test during the home season for him to find his bearings in this position.
There’s always a big gap to bridge between getting opportunity and making a success of it. Sharma, squandering quite a few chances that had come his way, belying the talent he possessed and the faith selectors had shown in him so far, was actually flailing for survival though he had been assured a ‘decent run’ by the team management.
This was a make or break situation for him. How well he capitalised on this opportunity has become part of cricket lore after the two innings in Vishakapatnam. Most of this had to do with mental regimentation.
In the past, Sharma had been guilty of some unintended casualness in approach. This is not uncommon in players to whom the game comes very easily. But time runs out swiftly even for the best, and six years after his debut, Sharma was on the precipice, with a failed Test career as his legacy.
In just four days, he’s been able to turn things around remarkably. Apart from Sharma, Agarwal (he hit a double), Elgar, de Kock also hit centuries, but his was the most pleasing, with huge long-term implications for Indian cricket.
Whether India can force a win on the final day (Sunday) remains to be seen. But Sharma success as opener, raises the bar of the Indian team high even higher. In the race for the World Test Championship, this has come as a massive and timely boon.