New Delhi: A buzz followed Rohit Sharma when he was making his way to the top in the late 2000's. It was generated by the sheer talent he possessed and a seemingly unquenchable thirst for runs. The world got a glimpse of what those that followed Indian domestic cricket at the time were talking about when Rohit, coming in at number 4 with the team precariously placed at 33/3, took on the likes of Makhaya Ntini and Morne Morkel to score a fifty and win India the game in the 2007 World T20.
However, a combination of factors like the presence of proven performers and seniors in the Indian batting lineup coupled with inconsistent performances whenever he got chances meant that Rohit was on the periphery of the team for much of the first six years of his career.
It all came together in 2013; India needed a new opening pair and it was the Mumbai lad who was chosen as Shikhar Dhawan's partner. The centuries and double centuries followed and Rohit's status as an integral part of the limited overs side was cemented.
However, no such year came for him Test cricket. The Indian team management never quite figured out which position to put him in and rarely did he provide any assurance that he will be able to consistently perform from any of them.
However, it was only circumstances rather than form that led to Rohit losing out to Hanuma Vihari for a spot in the eleven for the Test series against the West Indies in August. Vihari had spent a significant amount of time in the Caribbean before the series as part of the India 'A' team and justified his selection by finishing it as the top scorer.
Rohit played a crucial role in India's win in Australia, which was the last Test series they played before the West Indies tour. Cheteshwar Pujara, Jasprit Bumrah and Virat Kohli may have grabbed the headlines but the shifts that Rohit put in as a no.6 in Adelaide and Melbourne ensured that India don't squander away the advantage on both occasions.
It is to be noted, however, that these performances or his pedigree as an opener says nothing about what he could in at the top of the order in Test cricket. In the era of T20 cricket where openers are required provide acceleration to the innings, one could argue that the skills required as an opener in Test cricket and in the shorter formats are almost polar opposites.
The Test openers go in with only theoretical assumptions about how the pitch could play. They have to deal with a brand new ball which asks all manners of questions and are delivered by fresh bowlers. The time spent by openers in the middle often matters more than the runs that they score. There are exceptions of course, and they have, in the past two decades, mostly been middle and lower middle order batsmen who were promoted and still somehow managed to remain just as successful, if not more.
For India, the best example of this can be found in Virender Sehwag. No wonder Virat Kohli is drawing comparisons to Saurav Ganguly for taking this gamble with Rohit, as the latter had done something similar with Sehwag. The fundamental difference between the two cases is that Sehwag had started opening in Test matches very early in his career, while Rohit is more than a decade into it.
It is for this reason that it feels strange to wonder if Rohit is as good as Sehwag. He after all has enough runs and experience in international cricket to be a benchmark of success himself. Ganguly himself reckons that it would be a shame to not give the Indian limited overs vice captain a go at the top of the order in long form cricket considering the ability he has.
"I had suggested earlier about trying Rohit Sharma as an opener in Test cricket and still believe that he needs to be given an opportunity because he is too good a player to be left out in the cold. After a fantastic World Cup, I believe he will be itching to grab the opportunity to open in Test cricket. With [Ajinkya] Rahane and Vihari nicely settled in there is not much chance to tamper with the middle order," he had written in a column for Times of India.
Rahane, the Indian Test vice-captain, has stated that it was difficult to see Rohit sit out in the West Indies. "I don't know yet if Rohit will open the innings. If he does then I'm really happy for him," Rahane said. "In West Indies also it's actually hard to see a player like Rohit sitting outside. He works so hard, he's been with the Test team for long now, so if he gets an opportunity I'll be really happy for him and I'm sure he will do well."
The fact that Rohit will be pairing up with Mayank Agarwal, himself a player who likes to get bat on ball, only emphasises how much of a gamble it is that India are taking. Even if this pair succeeds against the South Africans, there will be questions asked again when India leave for New Zealand where they will play two Tests in February and March. Rohit has played more Test matches away from home (18) than he has in India (9). His average at home is 85.44 but it drops to a measly 26.32 in away Tests.
In the shorter formats, Rohit has come to define the T20 era batsman in ODI cricket. His record of three double centuries (and counting) in ODIs takes some beating and he is having a merry time exchanging positions at the top of the T20I run scorers table with Kohli. His success as an opener in the longer formats would mean that India would be boasting a stable opening pair, something that is becoming increasingly rare in Test cricket. It would also be good news for Test cricket, for Rohit Sharma in full cry is a great advertisement for the game, regardless of the format.