Rohit Sharma was destined for international cricket from a young age. Anyone who ever saw him bat came away impressed with the elegance of his strokes and the wiser minds always reminded us of the time he had to play them, indicating the sheer quality of his batsmanship. His first class record with an average in excess of 60 ranks among the best to have ever picked up a bat, and it wasn’t a question of if, but of when he would play Tests for India. As circumstances conspired, it was delayed by a few years but now he has found a spot in India’s middle order.
Sharma wore colored clothing before he would don the whites for India and the early promise in the 2008 CB Series in Australia made everyone, including Ian Chappell, sit up and take notice. However, his fortunes in the 50-over game for most of his time went from bad to worse and he was hanging by a tenuous thread, when against all conventional thinking, MS Dhoni, Duncan Fletcher and the selectors decided to stick with him and threw him a lifeline by making him an opener.
Sharma’s ODI average prior to his recent role as Shikhar Dhawan’s opening partner is a mediocre 34.2 (in 75 matches) with just two centuries, both scored in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, in 2010. His returns as an opener (32 matches) are study in contrast, with an average in excess of 45 runs per innings. In partnership with Dhawan since facing South Africa at Cardiff in the Champions Trophy last June, his average is 52.8 in 27 matches.
That should really put any questions over his recent ODI performances to rest. But it doesn’t. A slight digging through the numbers and his approach to opening the innings do not really provide great confidence especially with the World Cup to be held in conditions that might suit fast bowlers in Australia and New Zealand just 13 months away.
Dhawan comes across as a naturally attacking batsman, in Virender Sehwag mold, perhaps not in the same class of hand-eye coordination. Since his return to the Indian ODI fold in 2013, which coincidentally was in India’s opening Champions Trophy match, he is averaging a smidgen below 50 with strike rate approaching 100.
Sharma in his new ODI avatar almost always seems slow to get off the block, accumulating dot balls, while starving a stroke-maker like Dhawan of the strike. It is only after he has spent a considerable amount of time at the wicket that he begins to open up and pick up the slack in his scoring rate. This approach has multiple drawbacks. It puts the opposition bowlers in ascendancy early in the game, as was seen in the ODIs in South Africa, and puts the burden of keeping the scoreboard ticking along almost entirely on the shoulders of Dhawan.
Sharma’s career strike rate (after 115 games) is 78.6 runs per 100 balls, which is exactly the same rate at which he scores as an opener as well. While he was in the middle order, he struck at a marginally better rate of 79.92, which in the modern game with all its fielding restrictions is nothing much to write home about.
In the 27 opening wicket partnerships that Dhawan and Sharma have shared in the last eight months, Sharma strikes at 66 runs per 100 balls while Dhawan motors on at the rate of 96. The partnership has accumulated in those 27 innings, 1286 runs at the rate of 80 runs every 100 balls. As can be seen, Sharma decidedly slows down the early output even with Dhawan firing away from the get go. In comparison, the opposing opening batsmen have a strike rate nearing 86, and the strike rate at the fall of first wicket (for the opposition) is 81.
The Dhawan-Sharma partnership has faced 1456 deliveries in all, with more than 53% (774) taken by Sharma. The fact that he scores at a rate of only four runs an over, while facing more than his due share of deliveries, doesn’t really allow India to get much away from the opposition.
As attractive a batsman as Sharma is, he has almost always seemed to be an odd fit in the ODI scheme of things and yet India have continued to persist with him. Of course, as was seen in conditions where there has been assistance for the seamers, his propensity for extravagance outside the off stump has proven to be his downfall, with the misery being compounded by the fact that his scoring rate is quite poor.
With Yuvraj Singh out of favour, Suresh Raina out of form, and Ajinkya Rahane slotted in to the middle order, India seem to be over reliant on Virat Kohli to provide bulk of the scoring, and to his credit, he hasn’t disappointed. The Indian management might well be satisfied with Sharma’s performance in terms of the average but there ought to be concerns, with an eye on the none-too-distant Cricket World Cup.
A possible solution is to allow Cheteshwar Pujara to open the batting with Dhawan, with Rohit Sharma sliding down the order. Former Indian opener Aakash Chopra believes it is the right time to try Pujara considering his ability play the horizontal bat shots. Pujara’s List A average of 54.57 (with nine centuries) is nothing to sneeze at. After all, it’s only the third highest of all time.
Pujara has performed admirably and a lot of the times outshone his peers even in the limited overs format. Yet, he has been labeled –wrongly I might add - as a batsman suited only for the longer version of the game. In the NKP Salve Challenger Trophy in 2012-13, Pujara scorched his way to 361 runs in just three innings, piling on two centuries, all the while striking at excess of 107 runs per 100 balls.
With India performing well in ODIs in the last eight months, and due credit to Sharma for capitalizing on the opportunity extended to him, it may not seem like an obvious issue. As the saying goes, why fix it if it ain’t broken? But it might be too late for India, if they don’t see the signs.