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
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