When Jason Roy was controversially picked to open in the Ashes opinion was split into two camps. The first camp argued that it was a terrible idea and should never happen. The second camp argued it was a terrible idea but the least terrible option England had at the time. Basically, nobody thought Roy’s prospects were terribly good.
However, much as England supporters complain how difficult it is for aggressive ODI openers to transfer those skills to test cricket, some batsmen have made a very good fist of it. David Warner averaged nearly 50 in test cricket until he encountered a fired up Stuart Broad this English summer. And now, over in Visakhapatnam on India’s east coast, another familiar white ball star is showing it’s possible to flourish at the top of the order in test cricket. You just have to be a bit better equipped than Jason Roy (or indeed Alex Hales).
Now 32 years old, many wondered if Rohit Sharma would ever fulfil his potential in test cricket. His record isn’t bad – one and a half thousand runs at an average just under 40 – but a man of his considerable abilities could, and should, be capable of more. After all, he averages an astonishing 48.6 in ODIs. That’s the highest average a white ball opener has ever had.
Before yesterday Rohit had never opened in test cricket. His only real success had come as far down as No.6. where he averages an impressive 54 in twenty-five innings. His attempts to bat any higher usually ended in acute disappointment: he averages just 29 at No.5, 21 at No.3, and a symmetrical 4 at No.4.
However, judging by his impressive century against South Africa today his red ball luck is finally beginning to turn. Thrust into an opening spot because, a bit like Roy in the Ashes, his team’s brain trust thought he might be the least terrible option available, Rohit survived the early onslaught of Kagiso Rabada and Vernon Philander and soon began to establish himself.
He was finally dismissed for a fantastic 176 off 244 balls. Not a bad effort even by Sunil Gavaskar’s or Virender Sehwag standards, let alone for a so called white ball batsman.
Yes this innings comes with a couple of caveats. Firstly the pitch at Visakhapatnam is particularly flat. When Faf du Plessis lost the toss he looked like he’d lost a loved one. Secondly, if white ball batsmen are ever going to succeed at the top of the order then India (or possibly the UAE) is probably the place to do it.
Having said that, success at the top of the order in test cricket is never guaranteed even in apparently benign conditions. England asked Moeen Ali to do it in Abu Dhabi in 2015 without success. And their gamble on turning Ben Duckett into a test opener the following year in Bangladesh proved an equally fruitless sports bet. You can’t expect any old Mo, Ben, Dick, or Harry to flourish against international quality bowlers with a new ball in hand.
It remains to be seen whether Rohit Sharma can continue this fine form but one thing nobody can doubt is his pedigree. Sharma is one of the best batsmen to watch in the world. And there’s nothing particularly wrong with his technique either by modern standards. If he was English then I can almost hear Ed Smith’s words now:
“He only averages 39 (in Tests) but that is beside the point. Overwhelmingly we felt a player of his unique gifts, what he brings to the team as a destructive batsman, as a fantastic competitive presence, as a dynamic athlete, as someone playing with such confidence and flair, we all felt this was the right time to reintroduce him to the Test team.
“It is the whole package with him. It is what he is capable of, what the opposition know he is capable of, and what he brings to the side beyond merely batsmanship. The decision has been made with eyes wide open. We feel it is the right thing to do at the right time with the right player.”
Remember these words? Smith used them to justify Jos Buttler’s test recall in 2018. Every word could equally apply to Rohit Sharma now. Although I doubt the latter will ever hide away down the order ever again.
Written in collaboration with Redbet
Join our mailing list
The problem with Smith’s assessment of what Roy brings to the team is that it’s based on a successful time for him as England one day opener. He’s only ever known success there and naturally communicates this to his team mates.
What happens when he fails and his confidence drops. What does this communicate to an already struggling batting line up, as we lose initiative early in every innings. In turn how much pressure does this put on our bowlers to restrict opponents to small totals in order to give us a realistic chance of winning.
As we saw with Roy it was even affecting his fielding towards the end and it must have been obvious, even to dullards like Smith, that his mere presence had become a liability to morale.
It will be interesting to see if he can rekindle his one day form in New Zealand, or if his traumatic red ball experiences will continue to blight him.
All the above said, I must admit I was for giving him a couple of tests to see if he could make the adjustment, merely because there was no obvious replacement at the time. With Roy it was more a question of temperament than technique, could he grind it out or would he go chasing it. Butler, being a less volatile individual, had managed some sort of adjustment. I just feel we stuck with him too long. By then the Ashes were gone.
I too argued, reluctantly, that it might be worth a go. I think the problem with Roy was his defensive method. He really thrust his hands at the ball with his hands way in front of his pad / body. Such a technique was never going to work because the best test batsmen usually play the ball late and under their eyes. I don’t mind attacking intent, as that’s what he was there to do one assumes, but I did find it alarming that those who have watched him up close (in the nets etc) thought he might actually succeed.
There were a couple of glimpses of him clearly having being worked on as he resisted his natural instincts and let the ball come to him, sometimes even leaving it, though you were never really confident he knew where his off stump was. It was just a bridge too far for such an instinctive batsman as the red duke behaved in manner totally foreign to its white ball counterpart.
A few thoughts:
First, Sharma absolutely wasn’t picked because he was the least terrible option available. India’s opener situation now is nothing like England’s. Even without either Sharma or the two long-term openers that they’ve dropped for good in the last year, India still have Lokesh Rahul (five years younger than Sharma and, despite being wildly inconsistent in Tests, still possessor of an average that England would kill for in an opener at the moment; he’s scored as many hundreds as all English openers other than Cook combined in the same period, in less than half the matches). They also have two of the most exciting young batsmen in world cricket in Gill and Shaw, one of whom is in the squad for this test (Shaw is still banned for misreading a packet of cough mixture).
Second, Sharma is on a different level to Roy–or indeed anyone not called Kohli–as a ODI batsman. His career average hides a pretty mediocre first half of his career. Since Oct 2013, he averages 61 with a hundred more often than once every five matches. Only Kohli is within seven runs of this average and only seven more batsmen are above 50; I can only find four other players who have a century rate of much less than double Rohit’s, and one of those has played a lot fewer matches.
This might provide some pointers as to why they’ve had different experiences opening (so far–of course it’s early days, and it’s true that Sharma in tests has a much, much worse record outside India.) Of the players you cite, James, Sharma’s average is six runs higher than Roy’s in ODIs (or 19 better during Roy’s career) and his f-c average is 16 runs higher than Roy’s was when he was picked. The equivalent figures for Warner are three and eight. (For comparison, Bairstow’s are five and five).
So it might be that they’re simply better players full stop. I disagree with you, Marc, that Roy has only known success in ODIs. What stands out for me are that he’s gone through two fairly deep troughs of around ten games each (in a career of around 80 games): in the second quarter of 2017 before he was dropped and in the first half of 2018 after his big hundred in Australia.
Completely agree with you that Rohit is a much better player than Roy. However, India looked short of good openers in England last year, and it was undoubtedly a gamble to open with Rohit as he’d never previously had success above No.6.
Calling a player like Rohit ‘the least worst option’ was possibly a little harsh (perhaps a bit of a stretch in my attempt to find comparisons) but Roy was an incredibly influential player for England in the World Cup, and therefore I think the psychology of the respective selectors in experimenting with Roy / Rohit at the top of the order in tests was similar.