Rohit Sharma's inclusion in the Test squad for Australia underlines how India are desperate to find a solution to their overseas woes
Nearly a month ago, Praveen Kumar retired from all forms of cricket. His was a glowing career, even if not a long one and not rich enough in terms of trophies and money. But in Kumar, the Indian team often found a workhorse for many situations, particularly as it sought to come to terms with Zaheer Khan's injury-prone latter years.
Of course, he received rich tributes, particularly one from Rohit Sharma, wherein he mentioned how the duo had begun their journeys nearly at the same time. Reading Sharma's tweet, one's mind wandered back to the 2007-08 CB series in Australia. Kumar, with the white ball, produced magic in the tri-series final, as did Sharma with the bat, playing second fiddle to Sachin Tendulkar and making a mark for the Men in Blue.
Ten years have passed since then. Did you even notice when Sharma completed a decade in international cricket — in June 2017? India were busy playing the Champions Trophy in England then. In five matches of the Champions Trophy, Sharma smacked 350 runs, including a century and two fifties. It was a quiet time for Indian cricket, mired in an off-field controversy regarding their captain Virat Kohli and the then coach Anil Kumble.
Kohli too completed a decade in international cricket (August 2018) recently. Taken together, it has been some time when two batsmen of notable ability have completed such milestones in close proximity to each other. Obviously then, it makes for a comparative reference point.
Let us begin with simple facts. Sharma has 11,140 international runs across all formats. Of these, a staggering number have come from white-ball cricket — he has scored 7,454 runs in ODIs alone, while another 2,207 runs have come from T20Is. In the longer format, his struggles are well known - a mere 1479 runs in 25 Tests.
The turning point in Sharma's career was an obvious one. Back in January 2013, the then skipper MS Dhoni decided that Sharma needed to bat up the order and thus was promoted to opening with Shikhar Dhawan. Despite instant success against England at home, that spot wasn't confirmed until the Champions Trophy later that summer, when Murali Vijay was ruled out and the Sharma-Dhawan combination got another go. The rest, as they say, is history.
In that sense, Sharma's career graph — in white-ball cricket — can be segregated into three parts. First, pre-2013, in which he scored a mere 2,065 runs from 88 ODIs at average of 30.82. This was a period where he struggled with grave inconsistency, quite a few injuries and serious competition for his spot in the playing eleven. Yet, the team management thought to persist with him and this paid off in the second stage.
From that 2013 Champions Trophy until the 2016 World T20 (in India), Sharma scored 2,943 runs in 60 ODIs at an average 56.59. If he were an adolescent kid, this would be the 'growth spurt' stage of his career, given how Sharma scored eight centuries during this period and two of them were record-breaking ODI double hundreds.
That run of form leans into this current third stage, almost as if Sharma is kicking into high gear. 2,446 runs in 45 ODIs at an average of 66.10, including 11 hundreds and another double hundred, tells you of a batsman who knows his game inside out. This is also where the Kohli comparisons come into play — since that 2016 World T20, the 'world's best batsman' has scored at a staggering average of 97.41 in 45 ODIs (3,020 runs).
And yet, the cumulative difference between Sharma and Kohli is less than 600 runs. It sheds light on how Sharma has slowly come into his own, stepping out of Kohli's shadow and has today become a pivotal cog in India's limited-overs' plans.
Sample this. Since the 2016 World T20, Sharma averages 88.84 in India's ODI wins, with the Men in Blue happily crossing the finish line 18 out of 20 times when he has crossed 50. The top-order dependency also comes into effect here — India have only won nine out of 22 ODIs when Sharma has failed to cross 20 runs in an ODI innings.
It bears a striking resemblance to how valuable Kohli is for the Men in Blue. Since April 2016, India have won 19 out of 25 ODIs when Kohli has crossed 50. When he has failed to cross 20, they have only won four out of 10 matches (40%) — this is similar to Sharma's aforementioned statistics (40.90%). This begs the question: are the Men in Blue today as dependent on Sharma as they are on Kohli?
The answer is in affirmative when you consider this final piece of an intriguing jigsaw: since April 2016, when Kohli/Dhawan have failed to get going and Sharma has crossed 50, India have won nine out of nine ODIs (as well as four out of five T20Is). In conclusion then, while the middle order has been cluttered for some time now, India's top order — and Sharma therein — has helped share Kohli's burden and in turn has become a behemoth in white-ball cricket himself.
It isn't nearly the same aura as Kohli when Sharma is at the crease. Instead, there is a remarkable self-assuredness that has a calming influence on the dressing room. It doesn't matter if he falls behind the average scoring rate, because Sharma's hitting is so clean that he inevitably catches up, and sets the pace in the latter stages of his big knocks. With 12 out of his 21 ODI hundreds being 130-plus scores, Sharma's propensity to accelerate later on is invaluable considering how the fielding rules of ODI cricket have changed recently.
At the end though, a question remains: that of Test cricket. For the umpteenth time, his limited-overs form has bought him another life in the longer format. That Sharma has been included in the Indian Test squad for Australia underlines how the team management is desperate to find a solution to their overseas woes in 2018, and have turned once again to someone who is a sure-shot winner, albeit only in limited overs.
Whether Sharma can grasp this final lease of Test life, it remains to be seen.
Last Updated 16, Nov 2018, 4:20 PM IST