Nothing More Important Than Rohit Sharma Batting At No 5

Published: August 11, 2016 14:58 IST
All change, said Virat Kohli after dropping Cheteshwar Pujara for the third Test, and the whole Indian middle order moved up a place. Leading by example, Captain Kohli kicked himself up to Number 3. Ajinkya Rahane followed his lead to No 4 and Ravichandran Ashwin, given his marvellous century in the first Test, found himself at No 5. 

No, wait. 

Ashwin stayed where he was. Kohli and Rahane, India's two most reliable Test batsman, left their settled places in the batting order to vacate No 5 for the returning prodigal, Rohit Sharma. Sharma is a specialist batsman in a very special sense of that term: he can only bat at No 5. There was no question of him replacing Pujara at 3. The last time he batted at No 3 was last year in Galle, and he scored 9 and 4 in two completed innings. A total of 13 runs. It was a sign: 3 was an unlucky number for Rohit. K.L. Rahul can bat at No 3, Pujara can be made to open the innings, Kohli can be moved up the order, Rahane has to take what he's given, but Mistah Sharma? He jive at five. 

Or six. Six is the other slot he likes. He scored back-to-back centuries in the first two innings of his career as a Test batsman batting at No 6. But once Kohli decided to play five specialist batsmen in Tests against weak sides, the optics of 6, of taking guard after Wriddhiman Saha or Stuart Binny or Ashwin, weren't good. How would it have looked if he had followed Ashwin, who, till this series, was walking in at 8? Bowling All Rounder is how Cricinfo describes Ashwin. To have a Bowling All Rounder preceding a Specialist Batsman is against the natural order of things. Good as Ashwin is, the fact that he has two hundreds and a fifty in three Tests doesn't mean that he has the technique or the temperament of a Specialist Batsman...that's what Sharma brings to No 5. 

Rohit Sharma made a century on debut in 2013, becoming the 14th Indian to do so in Test cricket

And, of course, the ability to change a Test in a session (henceforth ATCATIAS). That gift can't be quantified and it can't be learnt. Kohli saw it at once. It's what separates plodders like Pujara from dashers like Sharma. Pujara can bat the whole side into a hole with his blocking; Sharma buoys up the team by breezing through the bowling. A batsman who has two double hundreds in ODIs is just a knock away from setting a Test on fire. Contrariwise Kohli is certain that a man who averages 10 in ODIs at a strike rate under 40 (as Pujara does) will never impose himself on the opposition...or change a Test in a session. As someone who was the best ODI batsman in the world well before he became a Test batsman to reckon with, the skipper knows that Sharma's Test match time will come. 

Weirdly, Kohli's critics have begun to harp on Murali Vijay's exclusion, suggesting, even, that he could have come in to replace Pujara. That would have meant making Rahul bat at No. 3 immediately after scoring a century as an opener. Vijay might be fit, but he is, at best, a defensive opening batsman, a grinder. His comfort with the longeurs of Test cricket has made him India's most reliable batsman against fast bowling but he lacks that certain something, that ATCATIAS that defines Sharma. 

Rohit Sharma created history, becoming the first man ever to smash two double centuries in ODIs (November 13, 2014)

The reason that Kohli's critics and Sharma's haters (there's no kinder way of describing the obsessive hostility that Sharma provokes) don't understand the logic of Sharma's inclusion at Pujara's expense and, arguably, Vijay's, is that cricket's fans and pundits are empiricists, obsessed with numbers and a quantifiable cricketing state called 'form'. They point to career averages, recent innings, even age to deny Sharma's promise. Thus the fact that Ashwin's batting average is better than Rohit's after playing twice as many Tests is seen by these literalists as an argument against Rohit's inclusion. It's pointless explaining to these dullards that specialist batsmen are icebergs, their visible scores mere glimpses of a massive submarine talent. Class, to coin a phrase, is permanent.

The other line of attack is even more intellectually embarrassing. Rohit Sharma doesn't deserve a place in this team because in his last four Test innings he scored 2, 23, 1 and 0. What these book keepers fail to grasp is that Test cricket at the highest level is a matter of essences, not numbers. You are either a Middle Order Batsman...or you aren't. There is an ideal type of the MOB; the question the discerning critic (or captain) has to answer is, does this player or that correspond to that archetype, does he have the talent to grow into the perfect MOB? The answer he returns will be based on intuition not accountancy. This answers, in passing, the argument about Murali Vijay. It is absurd to try to shoe-horn an Opening Batsman (OB) into an MOB's place. 

Rohit Sharma has only one double-digit score in his last five Test innings

I have even heard it argued that to pick Rohit Sharma on potential and to drop Pujara on performance is wrong because not only is Pujara's batting average higher, he's also younger than Sharma by a year. The argument from averages is meaningless because Pujara's average has been in secular decline. The argument from age is silly because age isn't a matter of biological time at this rarefied level in sport, it's a question of attitude. To watch Pujara bat, squinting and careworn, to watch him run between wickets on those dodgy knees, is to see age in action. On the other hand, Sharma at the crease, flashing outside the off stump like a happy cavalier, is youthfulness personified. Even when he spills catches at slip, he spills them with the nonchalance of youth. Kohli wants team mates who'll be young at forty, not old at twenty eight. 

That Sharma scratched about for 9 in the first innings is unimportant; the game-changing knock that Kohli is looking for will come. It'll come in the second innings of this Test or the next Test Sharma plays or the one after that. It must. It's inevitable because Rohit Sharma isn't just a player, he's an immanent Idea, whose time has come. 

Mukul Kesavan is a writer based in Delhi. His most recent book is 'Homeless on Google Earth' (Permanent Black, 2013).

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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