The quest for the Sehwag replacement: Rohit Sharma puts his hand up and how
It was during the first innings of the Visakhapatnam Test that the mind raced back to the first Test of South Africa’s 2008 tour of India. Rohit Sharma and Mayank Agarwal were in the middle of a big partnership and breaking records at a rapid pace.
Agarwal became the first Indian opener since Virender Sehwag in 2009 to score a double century and the duo finally ended up with the third-highest opening stand by an Indian pair.
But one of the records they failed to go past was the highest run aggregate for any opening pair against South Africa. Virender Sehwag (319) and Wasim Jaffer (73) had aggregated 392 runs during the Chennai Test in 2008. That match was an interesting one purely because it showcased how Virender Sehwag could make people pay attention to even the dullest of games.
Batting first, South Africa put on a mammoth 540. To all of us sitting in the media box, the game was destined to be a draw. Indeed, it still was. But not before Sehwag somehow conjured up magic of the craziest kind.
When South Africa were bowled out in the last session on Day 2, India had to negotiate 21 overs. The batting conditions were good and Sehwag didn’t waste any time. By the close of play, he had sped away to 51 (his fifty coming off just 59 balls) and India reached 82/0.
The real treat was still to come. On Day 3, Sehwag got to his 100 in 116 balls, 150 in 171 balls, 200 in 194 balls, 250 off 225 balls, 300 off 278 balls and at stumps, he was still batting on 309. He made the South Africans nervous because this was a match that they thought they had no chance of losing but suddenly, this one man had changed all that in the space of a day.
Sehwag did this ‘trick’ many times, which is why he earned the tag of one of India’s greatest match-winner in Test cricket. It was one thing to produce the odd counter-attacking innings but the right-hander made it a habit. For India, he scored 8124 runs at an average of 50.14 and a strike-rate of 83.06. That strike-rate meant that when he was at the wicket, the match moved forward.
But Rohit is Rohit
Now, the reason we are talking about Sehwag is not that we think Rohit Sharma is the next Sehwag. Far from it, Sehwag is Sehwag and Rohit is Rohit. But the manner in which Sharma moved the game forward on Day 4 at Visakhapatnam suggested that he had the potential to do for Kohli’s India what Sehwag did for Ganguly, Dravid, Kumble and Dhoni. He can be that threat at the top of the order that makes the opposition uneasy.
The big question for Sehwag was whether he could do it away from home and to be honest, but for Australia (avg 46.81), he didn’t have a very good run in England (27.80), South Africa (25.46) or New Zealand (20.00).
And when Rohit Sharma does venture outside, he will face the same question too.
But what made Sehwag great was that he didn’t worry about the failures, rather he counted on playing that one knock that would help his team win matches. He was fearless and so must be the case with Rohit.
India's openers after Sehwag's debut (Nov 2001)
Toying with the bowlers
The table above makes interesting reading. Now, Shikhar Dhawan was a pretty aggressive batsman but his strike-rate is 66.94. Still pretty high by Test standards. But Sehwag’s strike-rate was 83.06. When the right-hander from Najafgarj got a start, India would take charge of the game.
He often played a game with the bowlers, toying with their lengths, forcing them to bowl to him and being unafraid to hit them for sixes. During his opening stint, he hit 88 sixes. India’s next highest is Murali Vijay with 33.
In Rohit, though, India has another batsman who hits sixes with ease. In his first two innings’ as an opener in Test cricket, he has hit 13 sixes. No one’s saying that he can do the same in every Test he plays but as his ODI career shows us, six-hitting comes easy to him.
Rohit’s batting moved the match forward at a rapid pace and Cheteshwar Pujara couldn’t agree more.
“It was a joy to watch him bat. Hitting sixes is his strength, he has excelled in white-ball cricket. The way he hits sixes is incredible and as a Test batsman, who wants to improve his ODI and T20 cricket, there is a lot to learn from him. Especially, when it comes to hitting the ball out of the park,” said Pujara.
This added dimension makes him the batsman that most teams will want to see the back of. In tougher conditions, surviving will be tougher but as Sehwag would so often do, Rohit too must learn to make the most of his starts.
A chance grabbed
If Rohit had failed, India might have gone back to KL Rahul or Prithvi Shaw at some point. But for now, he has ensured that he will be the opener for some time to come. A couple more good knocks will give him the confidence to back himself even more for Tests abroad.
Right now, he is in the best mental space he can probably be and big scores will be his armour against failures away from home. If Rohit can truly find his feet in Test cricket, India’s game will have a truly different vibe to it and essentially that is what it comes down to.
If India’s batting gets its act together, their bowling attack can help kickstart an era of domination. All of it may still be a pipedream but just as Sehwag spearheaded the charge once, maybe... just maybe Rohit might too.
The years away from Test cricket have hardened Rohit’s resolve to succeed and if he was truly seeking a template, he needs to look no further than Sehwag – a middle-order batsman who made the opening slot his own.