Rohit set to star in new opening gambit

New DelhiIndia’s search for a stable opening pair has forced selectors to drop KL Rahul and get Rohit Sharma to partner Mayank Agarwal in the three-Test series against South Africa, starting October 2 in Visakhapatnam.

Under-19 World Cup winner Shubman Gill, who has been scoring heavily in every format, got his first India Test squad berth as backup opener and middle-order batsman, said chairman of selectors MSK Prasad.

Sharma, who has been opening the batting in ODIs since 2011, has played 27 Tests in the middle-order with sparse returns despite having kick-started his career with consecutive hundreds in Sachin Tendulkar’s farewell series, against West Indies, in 2013. He scored one hundred after that.

Sharma will be India’s 11th opener since Virat Kohli took over as Test captain in the 2015 New Year’s Test in Sydney. Since then, Rahul has opened in 33 Tests, Murali Vijay in 30 and Shikhar Dhawan in 21. Other openers tried during this period were: Hanuma Vihari, Prithvi Shaw, Parthiv Patel, Abhinav Mukund, Gautam Gambhir, Cheteshwar Pujara and Agarwal.

Sharma will also captain a Board President’s XI for a three-day warm-up game, in Vizianagaram from September 26.

“We are definitely looking at him (Rohit) and want to give him an opportunity up the order. He is keen (on opening) and the selection committee as well as everyone (team management) is keen. We want to see where he stands and then take a call,” said Prasad after Thursday’s meeting of the selection committee here.

“He is opening in white-ball cricket for a decade now and I am sure he has the ability to bat up the order. We have seen that in white ball cricket and if he can replicate that in red ball cricket, nothing like it.”

READ | Wahab Riaz takes indefinite break from red-ball cricket

Gill’s appetite for daddy hundreds has been a standout feature since his age-group days. During his U-16 debut for Punjab, Gill had made an unbeaten double-century in the Vijay Merchant Trophy. In a first-class career spanning 14 matches, Gill has already scored 1443 runs at an average of 72.15 with four centuries and eight half-centuries. An unbeaten 204 in West Indies last month probably paved his way into the squad but the selectors are keeping an open mind on how to use his skills.

“With regards to Shubman Gill, we are looking at him as an opener as well as middle-order batsman. We are looking at him as back-up for both the slots. As he keeps playing more and more, he will get opportunities because he is a player for all three formats,” said Prasad.

‘Rahul’s form dipped’

Rahul’s inability to convert starts has been his bane. He has scored just one century, a fine 149 at the Oval, in 32 months now. During the four-Test home series against Australia in 2017, Rahul strung scores of 64, 10, 90, 51, 67, 60 and 51* but not converting even one of those into a century has probably hurt him the most.

“He is an exceptional talent. Unfortunately his form has dipped in red-ball cricket,” Prasad said.

“With Shikhar Dhawan and Murali Vijay gone, we can’t just keep changing both the openers in the side. Someone had to stick around. And probably with seniors exiting, KL got more opportunities. Unfortunately, he was not delivering consistently.”

All’s not lost for Rahul, said Prasad, giving the example of VVS Laxman. “When VVS Laxman was dropped from the Indian team, he went back to domestic cricket, scored 1400 runs in the Ranji Trophy and came back,” said Prasad.

But the road back to the Test team looks to be bumpy for Rahul purely because of the number of contenders involved. Agarwal has had a good start to his career, scoring fifties in Australia and West Indies; Sharma looks set to get a long rope as opener and Prithvi Shaw should be back in fray for February’s tour of New Zealand after serving his eight-month ban for doping violation.

Add to that the pool of openers the selectors are trying to create. “In the pipeline, Shubman is opening and we have Priyank Panchal and Abhimanyu Easwaran, who is doing extremely well. From the available lot, we will try and give them as many opportunities. Whoever gets an opportunity also gets a fair run. We have alternatives and back-ups,” said Prasad.

Pant or Saha?

Umesh Yadav and Hardik Pandya didn’t find a place in the squad as Prasad said only two seamers could play at home unless there’s a seaming pitch, meaning either Ishant Sharma or Mohammed Shami is likely to not be in the 11.

This strengthens the comeback chance of R Ashwin who was overlooked for both Tests in West Indies.

What is still not clear is how long the selectors will persist with Rishabh Pant as first-choice wicket-keeper. He has been impatient with the bat and there is no doubt Wriddhiman Saha is a better wicket-keeper.

“Let’s see. Rishabh definitely to begin with but we will see how the team management thinks on those lines. Let’s leave it to them. We need a keeper with some more skills while playing at home,” said Prasad.

Test squad: Virat Kohli (captain), Mayank Agarwal, Rohit Sharma, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane (vice-captain), Hanuma Vihari, Rishabh Pant, Wriddhiman Saha, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Kuldeep Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, Ishant Sharma, Shubman Gill.



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