A month and a half back, the head of the two-member Committee of Administrators had proclaimed that one of Ajinkya Rahane or Rohit Sharma would lead India in Afghanistan’s maiden Test, in Bangalore from June 14, in Virat Kohli’s absence. Vinod Rai has been proved half-right; Rahane it is who will discharge captaincy duties, but there is no Rohit in the 15-man squad. Whatever else the CoA may or may not be doing, it is at least not involved in the selection process, yet.
On another day, the exclusion of Rohit from the red-ball squad might have triggered a more voluble debate. After all, contrary to conventional wisdom and even without the benefit of hindsight, he was at best a contentious choice ahead of the more pedigreed if out-of-form Rahane for the first two Tests in South Africa, before being given the heave-ho at the Wanderers. In the space of one Test match and three months, Rohit has gone from above-Rahane to below-Nair in the pecking order. Not for the first time, his red-ball career is at the crossroads. Which path will he take now? Jettison Test aspirations (cluck, cluck, the connoisseurs are already going) and focus on white-ball cricket, which is his unmitigated strength? Or knuckle down with the much-hyped khadoos Mumbai attitude and show us all?
Rohit is a white-ball behemoth, a mellifluous amalgam of style and grace and elegance and timing to go with power and strength and fearsome ball-striking. He is a traditionalist of sorts in that he gradually gets into his groove, and then explodes with such effortlessness that the gap between the jaw and ground is eaten up at astonishing speed. No matter how many times you see him destroy the best attacks with a twirl of his magical willow. He is at home in limited-overs cricket, a picture of controlled, coiled aggression that springs to life with scarcely believable consistency.
Confronted with the colour that has adorned the cricket ball since the birth of the sport, however, he is less of an intimidating beast, and that has to be one of the great surprises, if not disappointments, in a game that is nothing without the attendant surprises. Admittedly, few have had unkind trysts with injuries like Rohit has, and at the most inopportune times, at that – not that there is any opportune time to pick up an injury. His Test debut was pushed back by three and a half years due to an ankle injury picked up on the scheduled morning of D-Day, against South Africa in Nagpur in 2010. When he finally did receive his Test cap, in Sachin Tendulkar’s farewell series in November 2013, he appeared on a mission to make up for lost time, with centuries in his first two outings.
And yet, four and a half years on, Rohit the Test batsman is still on the journey of self-discovery. A further 23 matches and 41 innings have yielded just one more hundred and nine other scores in excess of 50. An average of a tick under 40 is far from trifling. Those are the broad numbers.
But here is where it gets interesting.
In his last 12 Test innings, Rohit has struck five half-centuries and an unbeaten 102, on another comeback after 13 injury-fuelled months, against Sri Lanka in Nagpur. What to make of that? Do they count for nothing?
The first five of those 12 innings yielded scores of 35, 68*, 2, 82 and 51*, against New Zealand at home in September-October 2016. Finally, it seemed, on tricky surfaces against a quality attack, Rohit was starting to stack up the consistency in the longer format that hadn’t always been an ally. Then came the thigh injury in a One-Day International against the same opposition, an injury that necessitated surgery and forced him to miss the rest of a packed home season that included 10 further Tests. When he was ready, India weren’t ready to welcome him back into the XI. When he did finally convince the decision-makers to bring him back in November 2017, he responded with 102*, 65 and 50* against the Lankans. Case closed, right?
Right, and wrong. That consistent run, coupled with Rahane’s poor returns – 17 runs in five innings in the same series – tilted the scales in Rohit’s favour at the start of the South Africa Tests. After scores of 11, 10, 10 and 47, the pendulum came to rest on Rahane’s side, the revolving door cast Rohit out. And that’s where we stand now today, Rahane temporarily in charge and Rohit unable to even command a place in the squad despite the vacancy created by Kohli’s unavailability.
Are the selectors and the team management losing patience with Rohit? Is the move to bring Karun Nair back actually futuristic, or merely another cosmetic change in a low-profile game? If the idea was to restore Rohit’s confidence ahead of the Test series starting in England in August, it wouldn’t have been the worst idea to give him a shot against Afghanistan – who, however, might not be as pliant as expected if Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Ur Rahman hit their straps. With that not being the case, it must be presumed that Nair has surged ahead of Rohit in the Test selection stakes on his own steam, a surmise solidified by his appointment as skipper of the India A side to play Windies A and the England Lions in three four-day fixtures in July.
When the central contracts for the ongoing season were belatedly announced in March, Rohit found himself bracketed in the specially created A+ category of five, with an annual retainership of Rs 7 crore. One of the pre-requisites to be in A+, it was whispered, was that the player should be a certainty across formats. Rohit no longer is, it seems. Of course, it is another matter that only Shikhar Dhawan of those in A+ is actually in the squad for the Afghanistan Test. Kohli, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah are all missing for various different reasons, though none of them has been dropped.
Between the start of August and the end of January 2019, India play 12 Tests, nine of them in England and Australia. So much can happen in that six-month period; indeed, so much can happen between now and whenever the Test squad for the England series is announced, and which could yet have Rohit. There will be comings and goings, there will be changes in approach and attitude and composition and personnel. And amidst all the brouhaha, the jury will continue to be out on Rohit the Test batsman. Whether he is in the squad or not. It’s a cross only the unfortunate few have had to bear; this is one elite group Rohit would love to avoid, if he could. But he can’t now, can he?