One of the challenges of modern day cricket is the requirement of adapting to the various formats of the game. While Tests, which are spread over five days would test the technique and temperament of a player, the limited overs versions - both one-dayers and T20 matches - place focus on the capacity to improvise and innovate. It is not always possible for all players to adjust to the demands of all these formats with aplomb. Many a talented youngster has fallen by the wayside unable to unravel the riddle of finding the perfect mix, which would enable success in all formats.
During the first two decades after limited overs cricket came into existence, it was considered as a poor cousin of its longer duration version, with a few matches being played between countries. The only event that attracted attention of the larger public was the World Cup, which used to be initially of 60 overs a side duration and had no fielding restrictions. It was only from the 1990s that limited over matches gained momentum and started attracting the same amount of focus as Test cricket. This change came about on account of two factors - larger spectator support and the entry of private agencies into telecasting of games involving national sides. With the advent of T20 cricket and tournaments such as the Indian Premier League (IPL), Test cricket has been firmly pushed into the background as shorter duration matches have occupied the centerstage of the game.
If, in the 1970s and 80s players like Sunil Gavaskar found it difficult to adjust their technique to the requirements of shorter duration matches, presently the challenge is the other way around. Cricketers of the new generation are brought up playing more limited over matches and their skillsets are groomed accordingly. Hence they are often found wanting when confronted with the demands of Test match cricket and only very few have shown the dedication required to make the required changes in attitude and approach to be successful in all formats. One batsman who has been struggling for long to make to overcome the challenges posed by the various formats of the game is Rohit Sharma, presently the vice-captain of national side in limited overs cricket.
It can be stated with authority that Rohit is one of the most talented batsmen in Indian cricket today. He holds almost all the important records in batting in limited overs cricket. He has to his credit the highest score – 264 - in One-Day Internationals and is the only batsman to have scored three double centuries in this version of the game.
He recently achieved the landmark of becoming the first batsman to score four centuries in T20 Internationals. He is the only player to score more than 150 runs in an innings in ODI on seven occasions and also holds the record for hitting maximum number of sixes (16) in an innings. He has taken over the mantle of leading the national side in limited over matches whenever Virat Kohli is not available and shown a flair for captaincy. Rohit is also one of the most valued players of the IPL where he has led Mumbai Indians to triumph on three occasions.
The above achievements would stand as strong evidence supporting the statement about talent and potential of Rohit. However, one thing that is missing here is absence of any notable achievement in Test cricket, where he made his debut in November, 2013, a good six years after starting to play for his country in limited overs matches. He had a spectacular start in Test cricket scoring centuries in the first two matches, played at home against the West Indies. However, in the 23 matches that he has played since, he could reach the three figure mark only on one occasion. Even more frustrating has been his inability to come to terms with batting on pitches outside the Indian subcontinent, which offer more help for the bowlers. Hence, it was not surprising that eyebrows were raised when he was included in the Test squad for the upcoming tour of Australia.
The records that he has set not only highlight the oodles of talent that Rohit is blessed with, but also showcase his Bradmanesque appetite for scoring runs. He started out as a middle order batsman, but moved to the top of the order in limited overs cricket since 2013. Like Sachin Tendulkar before him, this move to the opening slot paid rich dividends and he has evolved into one of the best batsmen in contemporary cricket in this version of the game. His capacity for clearing the ground with his powerful hits and capacity to improvise mark him out as a dangerman for the opposition, which is also reflected in a strike rate of 88.67 in ODIs and 138.36 in T20Is.
This would bring us to the question as to why his record in Test match cricket has remained lustreless after the brilliant start. It could probably be attributed to the long period of six years spent on the sidelines of the national side in this form of the game waiting for a slot to open up in the middle order. It was not his fault that the early part of his career coincided with the phase when India had the strongest middle order line up in its cricketing history with legends such as Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, V V S Laxman and Saurav Ganguly straddling the scene. He was forced to wait patiently for this quartet to depart before he could stake his claim for a regular place. This period (2007-13) that he spent on the fringes was also the time when T20 cricket established itself firmly on the cricketing landscape. So it was natural that he placed more attention in this form of the game, a move that paid handsome dividends as his records in the shorter duration formats show. The flip side of this was that by the time he got an opportunity to play in Tests, his technique and temperament had been moulded into that of a batsman playing only limited overs cricket. He has not been able to get out of that mindset till date, which explains his low output in Tests.
There is also the issue of not being motivated enough in the longer duration version of the game. For one, Test cricket is watched by fewer spectators and only few die hard enthusiasts of the game follow the developments taking place in this format closely. Monetary rewards are also substantially lower and it is nowhere near what a player gains from doing well in ODIs or the IPL. Moreover, the efforts required to undo even partially the skillsets developed over the years into becoming a top order batsman in limited overs cricket and replace them with the necessary adaptations in technique and attitude might appearing daunting at this stage in his career. There might also be the lurking fear that such attempted changes could lead to losing the expertise he has acquired in the shorter version without being able to transform into a Test batsman, thus ending up losing in both fronts. All this would have contributed to Rohit not being able to translate his immense potential to performance in Tests in the manner he has done in other forms of the game.
Tough place to tour
The tour of Australia offers him one last chance to redeem his career as a Test cricketer. A series against the Aussies on their home turf is never an easy one and the hosts can be expected to subject the opposition to severe pressure, complete with mind games and sledging. One can be certain that even the smallest glitch in the armoury of a player would be probed relentlessly. However players who have survived this ordeal have invariably evolved into great players. Dilip Vengsarkar and Virat Kohli are two names that come readily to mind when one talks about batsmen who cut their teeth down under and went on to become leading batsmen.
It would be a great shame if Rohit does not do full justice to the immense talent he has been endowed with. All he needs is one big innings in a difficult situation against a worthwhile opposition to lift himself out of the woods and emerge convinced that his natural place as a willow wielder is among the top echelons, irrespective of the format of the game he is playing. One hopes that the forthcoming series provides Rohit with the opportunity for discovering his niche in Test cricket as well.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)