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India vs South Africa: Rohit Sharma and India’s opening puzzle

The tour game against South Africa was expected to help Rohit Sharma gain confidence in his new role in red-ball cricket, but it has only added to the suspense of how the Mumbai batsman will measure up to the challenge of opening in Test cricket.

In one of the most talked-about decisions in Indian cricket, the batsman, team management and the national selectors have a taken a big gamble with the decision to switch Sharma from the middle-order to the top, and everyone has their fingers crossed. It has been made amply clear that he will be given enough time to settle down in the most challenging role in the game, but Sharma hasn’t done much to calm the nerves.

On Saturday, the Board President’s XI skipper was out for a second-ball duck in the drawn warm-up game against the Proteas, consumed by new-ball champion Vernon Philander. He fell to his old weakness against the moving ball, nicking behind the stumps. In the third T20 match in Bengaluru also he was out early, fishing outside the off-stump. In the two Tests Sharma played in Australia last December, he showed signs of settling down in the middle-order, scoring a crucial half-century in the third Test in Melbourne. He is an accomplished opener in white-ball cricket, but facing a new red ball will be mainly about covering for the swing.

It is an area South Africa have targeted him earlier, and indicated on Saturday that they will again do that in this series. He is up against one of the most potent pace attacks in the world with Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi partnering Philander. In the 2018 series in South Africa, he faced a tough time against the SA pacers with Rabada claiming his wicket thrice and Philander once. He was then dropped for the final Test at Johannesburg.

To be fair, the conditions in 2018 were challenging for batting, compared to what will be the case in Visakhapatnam, venue of the first Test, Pune and Ranchi next month. In 2018, Sharma had come to grips with the challenge by his fourth innings in SA, scoring 47, the highest score of India’s second innings in the second Test. But India lost to concede the series and it was not enough to regain the confidence of captain and coach and he was dropped and Ajinkya Rahane recalled.

MISSING LINK

There is not much missing in Sharma’s game from establishing himself as a good Test player, but whether batting coach Vikram Rathour can fix the missing aspects and Rohit adapts remains to be seen. He has all the shots in the game, but is a predominantly back foot player. To cover for the swing, coaches advise batsman to move towards the ball leading with the shoulder. Sharma likes to hang on a bit more before reacting. It gives him extra time in his back foot game to unleash those breath-taking whips to square-leg on one leg, or play powerful pull shots.

But batting great VVS Laxman, who didn’t enjoy his role as Test opener before achieving great success after dropping down the order, explained in an interview to former Test stumper Deep Dasgupta that even a minor tweak can result in one’s tested game getting affected. That’s why cricketers don’t trust or take any tip to change easily.

Laxman explained his own experience, urging Sharma to be conscious of setbacks. The concern is whether opening will force a change in mindset, and affect the timing of Sharma’s outstanding range of shots on the leg-side, which is helped in turn by hanging back a bit longer.

“If you tweak your natural game too much, then you will not get the results as your mind gets cluttered and you tend to lose rhythm. I can admit that my flow was affected when I opened. Rohit is a rhythm player and if his touch gets affected, then it will be difficult,” Laxman told Dasgupta on his YouTube programme, Deep Point.

Laxman was just four Tests old when the team management asked him to open. He never felt comfortable and decided he will only bat in the middle-order, or sit out. “I believe the mistake I made while opening the innings (1996-‘98) was to change the mindset that had got me a lot of success as a middle-order batsman, whether it’s batting at No.3 or 4,” he said.

“I also tried to change my technique. As a middle-order batsman, I always had (an initial) front-foot press and then went towards the ball, whereas talking to seniors and coaches, I went back and across (as opener) as I had to face Curtly Ambrose (1997 away series), who would generate steep bounce from length. This huge change affected my batting. Rohit shouldn’t do it.”

WHITE-BALL PHENOM

Sharma’s approach has made him a world beater in white-ball cricket, and a simpler solution would be to forget red-ball cricket and completely focus on limited-overs. But his performances at the World Cup were so special—five centuries—it has put everyone under pressure, from captain to coach to the selectors, to fit him in the Test eleven. Besides, everyone knows Sharma will be a surefire match-winner if he brings his ability to convert starts into big scores in white-ball cricket to the longer format.

At the interviews for the batting coach held last month, the national selectors asked almost every candidate their views on getting Sharma to open in Tests. Rathour is in a good position to understand the challenge Sharma stares at. He had the same issues against South Africa’s fast bowlers as an opening batsman on the 1996 tour, their sequence of scores were also similar with Rathour scoring 7, 2, 13 and 44 in his four innings against Allan Donald and Co. A brilliant player in the subcontinent, he had struggled to counter the extra movement on offer on South Africa pitches. As a coach, he has spent a lot of time understanding the science of batting at BCCI’s programme for coaches at the National Cricket Academy. It should hold him in good stead while working with Sharma.