The idea of getting Rohit Sharma to open the batting in Test cricket wasn’t a sudden one. According to India captain Virat Kohli, the plan had been brewing among the team management “for a long time”.
Rohit has only played four of India’s 17 Tests since the start of 2018, a period when he has competed – at various points – with Ajinkya Rahane, Hardik Pandya and Hanuma Vihari for one middle-order slot. The thought of making him open was prompted by the desire to give him a sense of clarity about his role in the team.
“This has been discussed for a long time now,” Kohli said on the eve of the Visakhapatnam Test against South Africa. “We felt like down the order, it was about finding a spot wherever possible, which wasn’t working both ways. For Rohit as well, I think clarity of role and knowing that, you know, you have to play in a certain position also is very crucial for a player.
“And for us and the management together, the communication happened a long while back. But we could not see a situation where that could happen in the match. But now we have a situation where the opportunity is there. So we thought it’s the ideal time to go ahead with it because we have spoken about it.
“And in one-day cricket, it was the same. He played in the middle order, but then suddenly, opening conversation happened and within six to eight months, he was opening the innings. And you know what happened afterwards. So look, it’s very exciting for him, for the whole team, if he can do what he’s done in one-day cricket at the top and then obviously, it’s a great thing for him and Indian cricket.”
Kohli said India would not expect instant results from Rohit and give him space and time to find his feet as an opener.
“Look, we’re not looking to rush him at all. It’s about him finding his game accordingly because in India is it’s going to be a different practice that you follow, abroad is going to be different. So opening is a slot where you have to give a player space to understand his own game. So yeah, as I said, we’re in no rush. He’ll be given space to find his own game and come into his own.”
The move from No. 6 to the top of the order would require more of a mental change from Rohit than a technical one, Kohli felt, given that he has the experience of facing the second new ball while batting in the middle order.
“In Test cricket, even I started at six initially, then came up to four. I think it’s more of a mental change,” Kohli said. “The moment you convince yourself that, yes, I’m good enough to do this, and once you put that thought in your head, then your game follows accordingly.
“Rohit’s in a good space. Playing at number six also requires you to play the [second] new ball every now and then when you walk in. The good thing with opening is that you know you’re going to face the new ball. So it’s not [if it will be] old ball or new ball. So I think that much clarity the opening slot provides you and as I said, it’s about finding your game at the top of the order with the red ball.
“So he’s up for the challenge, and we’re pretty confident that he will find this game sooner rather than later at the top. And as I said, once he’s in his zone, then he can do great things for the team. So that’s what we’re looking forward to.”
India aren’t expecting Rohit to bat in any particular manner as an opener, but Kohli said he had the ability to score quickly and put bowling attacks under pressure in the manner of Virender Sehwag.
“In Test cricket, it’s about finding your game in different conditions,” Kohli said. “Sometimes in India, playing on pitches, say on day one, you know the pitch is good to bat on, you might be playing more shots than you would in say, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, England. But having said that, we are not looking at a certain kind of display of batting from Rohit, it’s about him finding his game at the top.
“And yes, his strength is to take the game forward. So if he [can bat] like someone like Viru bhai used to do for the team for a long period. So it’s not like someone would have told him, you need to go and attack, or you need to get hundred before lunch. Basically, his natural instinct took over. Once he felt comfortable with his game, he would demolish attacks and really put the team in pole position.
“So I’m sure in time, as Rohit grows into that role, he will be able to do that, because he definitely has the ability to do that. And as I said, we are rushing him in no way to do that from innings one or innings two. It’s about him feeling comfortable as to when he can do it. And that’s been his strength, you won’t see Rohit following the template of a [Cheteshwar] Pujara whose strength is totally different.
“It’s about finding your own balance, finding your own game, we’re not necessarily looking forward to one kind of mode from him at the top, it totally depends on the situation. If the wicket is challenging and we are three down and he is still in, obviously you won’t see him smashing the ball all over the place. [He] is a mature cricketer, is smart enough to understand what the situation demands. But yeah, he and the whole team is looking forward to him playing his natural game whenever he feels absolutely comfortable in that spot.”