Back in 2004, with the Indian middle order packed full of legends, Sourav Ganguly decided he wanted Yuvraj Singh to open the batting in Test cricket. It was a decision that didn’t make sense in theory. Singh, at his best, was flamboyant and explosive, but that isn’t exactly what you’re looking for in someone who will be facing the new ball in the longer format.
The experiment with Virender Sehwag had worked, but wasn’t that exactly why you needed someone with a calmer head and tighter technique at the other end? What were the odds of Viru-Yuvi becoming the Kaluwitharana-Jayasuriya of Test cricket?
Not great, as it turned out. Singh’s career as a Test opener lasted just one match (against Australia), in which he scored 15 runs in two innings.
However, while the move didn’t make sense in theory (and definitely didn’t work in practice), there was a logic to it. “Yuvraj is a class act," Ganguly had said at the time. “A person of his stature and ability should not be kept out of the team. I think there is a slot for him as an opener."
Or, as a member of that team once said during a casual conversation, “Forget his one-day record, captains want to pick him in Tests just based on his form in the nets!"
As India prepare for a tough year on the road following a long and successful home season, Virat Kohli finds himself in a similar spot—this time, the “class act" that “should not be kept out of the team" is Rohit Sharma.
Sharma is coming off a spectacular year in One Day International (ODI) cricket—1,293 runs in 21 matches at an average of 71.83, with six three-figure scores capped by the double hundred in Mohali. This was his third double hundred in one-dayers, which is kind of ridiculous when you consider that only four other batsmen have reached that mark in ODI history.
Also, in November, he marked his comeback into the Test XI after over a year on the sidelines with a century against Sri Lanka in Nagpur.
It’s not just the numbers—much like Singh, there’s the factor of how he scores his runs that makes it so hard to drop him. When on song, players like them don’t just win you matches, they break the opposition’s spirit.
Sharma can turn a game on its head in a session, there’s little doubt about that, and unlike the Singh conundrum, it does seem like a bit of a no-brainer to play him at No.6.
There is a flip side though. His performances in away Tests have been more than just ordinary—averaging under 27 in 14 games away from home, compared to 85-plus in nine home matches.
Also, how much of an impact can he really make at No. 6? If he comes in on the back of a collapse, he’ll probably take the team from 50-odd for four to 250-odd. When the top order fires, the batsman at No.6 does become slightly less relevant.
Plus, picking Sharma will probably mean leaving out Hardik Pandya, the only all-rounder in the XI and provider of balance, and the other breakout star of 2017. So which mercurial talent and potential game changer do you go with?
Given his recent form—both on the field and probably in the nets—it’s hard to see Kohli dropping Sharma. It will still be interesting to see how the Rohit-in-Tests story pans out over the next few months.
Deepak Narayanan tweets at @deepakyen