At the recent awards function of the Sports Journalists Association of Mumbai, where he was the chief guest, Zaheer Khan succinctly spelt out the import of the new home season, in which India will play 13 Tests, beginning with the first against New Zealand in Kanpur today.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity for players to have so many matches in conditions they know well,” he said. “But that is also why it could be make or break for some.”
While Khan did not direct this at anybody in particular, Rohit Sharma, among the award winners that evening, would have found the former fast bowler’s words relevant. He is one of those players whose career hangs in the balance as this long season begins.
Since his debut in 2013, Sharma’s Test career has moved in fits and starts. While he has become a fantastic limited-overs batsman, questions about his ability in the longest format have not only persisted, but have grown louder.
Two centuries in his first two Tests had marked him out as an instant star, erasing the frustration of a wait in the wings for six-seven years. That these centuries came against a tepid West Indies side and in helpful batting conditions wasn’t seen as a tenable argument, given the quality of Sharma’s batsmanship.
He was all languid elegance, playing the ball late and with such magical timing that it made most other batsman appear pedestrian. The capacity to shift gears at will and explode into strokes of great power—orthodox or improvised—spelt him out as a match-winner.
But the script has played out differently since the heady debut. Though he has always been part of the Test squad in the past three years, Sharma has failed to hold his place in the playing side consistently.
Statistics, admittedly not always the best way to assess talent, tell an unflattering story. In the 18 Tests he has played intermittently, Sharma has scored 946 runs, averaging 32.62. This is modest by any standard, and is in stark contrast to his record in all first-class matches: 5,923 runs with an average of 53.84.
Such a wide difference in Test and first-class averages is unusual for a specialist batsman over a period of time, suggesting that Sharma, spectacular in One Day Internationals and Twenty20s, hits a mental block in the longest format.
Achieving batting excellence in the modern game has its complexities. Playing in three different formats requires nuanced adjustments—technical and mental—failing which a player can stand exposed in one format or the other. Only the best manage this without major stumbles.
In Tests particularly, temperament and robust ambition matter more than just ability. Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane have taken giant strides because they seem that much mentally tougher. So has K.L. Rahul, who has leapfrogged more established players within a few months this year.
Indeed, Rahul’s blazing form has in a way “unsettled” the settled Indian batting line-up, putting pressure on Murali Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan, Cheteshwar Pujara and Rohit Sharma. Add to this Manish Pandey and Sheldon Jackson, who are pounding hard on the doors of the selectors, and Gautam Gambhir, who seems to have got a second wind—all this makes for a competitive scenario for batting places in the team.
If Sharma is still in the squad, it is because people who matter—most importantly, captain Kohli and coach Anil Kumble—believe in him. But if Sharma has to survive the internecine challenge this season, he has to fight his own case: by making the big Test scores most believe he still can.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.