Final session on day four of the third Test between India and West Indies at the Daren Sammy Stadium: India had begun their second innings and were looking for quick runs. Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s stupendous spell had given them a sniff of victory earlier in the day and the second innings was going as per plan. But the dismissal of the in-form KL Rahul, followed in quick succession by Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli, meant India were only 89 for three after 26 overs, much lesser than what they might have expected to score.
Rohit Sharma then walked in, and was looking uncomfortable against Roston Chase’s off-spin. All of a sudden, he went for his trademark lofted shot over long on. It wasn’t timed to perfection, but flew past the boundary rope, just about escaping the outstretched hands of the fielder. And though he didn’t get enough bat on it, the six was effortless. And more importantly, it was the first sign that India were looking to accelerate.
Rohit went on to hit two more sixes, looking a lot more fluent in his 59-ball knock once he decided to be aggressive. It helped his side too, as Rohit and Ajinkya Rahane putting on 85 runs, and the visitors had a lead of 285 runs by stumps. Rohit’s charge was in keeping with what Kohli had professed at toss on day one: “He can change Test matches in a session once he gets going.”
Indeed, it was a stunning move to include him in the XI, and it raised many questions. In four innings before this Test, against South Africa at home, Rohit had scores of 2, 23, 0 and 9. He scored an unbeaten 54 in the first tour game in St Kitts, but was that enough to get him a look in? If so, how did he move ahead of both Cheteshwar Pujara and a fully fit Murali Vijay?
Also, in order to have Rohit Sharma in the side, India had to rejig their entire batting order, which was again surprising. On day one, he was out for nine, failing to cope with the moving ball and India were struggling at 130/5 at one stage. Batting coach Sanjay Bangar came for the press conference post that day’s play.
When obviously asked about this change, he replied, “The great thing about this team is that players don’t have a fixed batting spot. They are willing to bat wherever they are asked to. It is great to have this flexibility.”
His words found resonance in the explanations given all through 2015, when Rohit was asked to bat at No 3, first in Sydney in 2014-15, and then in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. It didn’t work out, so they shifted Rahane up the order in Colombo, in search of an applicable combination. There was no way the same “sacrifice” could be made here again, and so, it was Kohli himself who had to bat at No 3.
That Sri Lanka series is a great reference point in this revisit to the batting-order conundrum the team management faces again. Rohit scored two counter-attacking half-centuries in the second and third Tests there, highlighting his best role. Which means he cannot bat anywhere else than No 5 at the moment. And the come-from-behind win in St Lucia has nicely papered over shaky proceedings on day one. It also suffices to say that the team management are convinced about Rohit’s inclusion — and utility — to the Indian batting. At what cost though?
Pujara too had a great outing in Colombo last year, scoring a stunning 145 not out on a green top at the SSC while opening the batting. It was a marker of his ability; dissimilar to what the other Indian batsmen can or cannot do. It showcased how his judging standards are a whole lot different from this current lot. Subsequently though, he had a disappointing outing against South Africa — 202 runs in 6 innings at 33.66.
And it was a throwback to his past sizzle and fizzle ways. Here in West Indies too, he has short-changed himself, throwing away starts in both Antigua and Jamaica, the latter raising a storm about strike-rate. But since when is scoring 46 runs off 159 balls on day two of a Test match unreasonable? Perhaps tropical storms are to be blamed for this paradigm shift in thinking, especially when they wash off 90-plus overs and thereafter a five-bowler attack is unable to take six wickets on a day five pitch.
The underlying point here being that the draw in Jamaica prompted Kohli to do something unusual. He responded with two changes to his bowling attack: Ravindra Jadeja for Amit Mishra was the expected call, and bringing in Bhuvneshwar Kumar was the captain’s prerogative as per his reading of pitch and conditions.
Putting Rohit into the spotlight, meanwhile, was a massive gamble. When he had to walk out to bat at 77/3 in the first innings on day one, any passionate fan’s heart ought to have gone out for him. The burden of expectations, a demand to justify his selection, a floundering Indian innings, and the moving ball — Test cricket isn’t merciful.
Never mind Rohit’s failure in the first innings then, and also overlook Kohli’s twin failures in the match. It was a brave call for the skipper to come afterwards and claim that he has no problem continuing to bat at No 3. Or that the Indian batting will continue down this path in the near future. He is right, of course, for it would be stupid not to, on the basis of just one Test.
But most importantly, by backing Rohit, Kohli has reconfirmed the faith Indian cricket has previously shown in him. At the same time, by accommodating him in the batting order, and shuffling others, the skipper has also thrown down the gauntlet. But this must be Rohit’s last chance to make good on the promise of consistent performances he has held for so long, and done little about.