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India vs Cricket Australia XI Practice Match: One Mumbaikar’s loss could be another’s gain

Prithvi Shaw, center, is carried by support staff after rolling his ankle while attempting a catch during their tour cricket match against Cricket Australia XI in Sydney
Prithvi Shaw, center, is carried by support staff after rolling his ankle while attempting a catch during their tour cricket match against Cricket Australia XI in Sydney Prithvi Shaw hurt his left ankle while trying to take a catch near the boundary in the warm-up game against CA XI. (Source: AP)

As unfortunate as Prithvi Shaw’s injury was—for both the team and the young opener—it could have unburdened the team from a selectorial dilemma. As who to chose between Murali Vijay and KL Rahul to pair

Shaw. In normal circumstances, it could have been a straightforward enough decision—the old pair would be reforged—but these are more intriguing times.

True that reverting to them is the easiest fall-back alternative, it was the reason three specialists were picked in the first place. But KL Rahul’s recent form begets concern, and his outing against Cricket Australia hardly allayed the fears. Vijay, axed after two Tests in England, has been in reasonable touch, since then he has rekindled his form with 430 runs at 43, with a hundred for Essex and four other half-centuries, the latest coming in New Zealand. But he didn’t bat in the first innings against Cricket Australia, and he could not get a hit if the Australians don’t oblige to declare or are dismissed. Hence, it could be risky to go with two rusty batsmen in the first Test. Against Mitchell Starc and Co.

The big question is then who? Rohit Sharma could be one, though such a suggestion sounds radical, if not outrageous. But why not Rohit? Recently, he’d conveyed his willingness to open the innings in Tests. “Look, I have never been offered yet but I am open to anything as in whatever the team management wants. I never thought I will be an opener in ODIs when I started playing but I ended up being one,” he had said during a promotional event earlier this year.

If such a seemingly outlandish decision is brewing, it’s better that he opens in Australia and not South Africa or England. For bounce and pace are not the demons Rohit fears. It’s the hemming ball that hassles him, like in England and South Africa, where the tendency to play from the crease and the temptation to flash outside the off-stump could imperil him. Australian surfaces are more forgiving that way, a reason perhaps Australia had produced attacking openers like Matthew Hayden, David Warner and Michael Slater. Even the usually cautious Justin Langer embraced a more attacking brand of game after pairing Hayden at the top. Also, Rohit is a natural, if not one of the most assured, players of pulls and cuts. And he tends score runs at a fair clip, which should squeeze into Kohli’s concept of batsmanship.

Moreover, Rohit has looked in sumptuous touch in the T20Is and the warm-up game, and with his Test career afforded a rare shot of redemption, he would be extra motivated to make a good fist of this break. After all, he was excluded from the team just when he seemed to have got a measure of playing Test matches abroad—the 47 in Centurion was a classy knock on a tacky pitch before he perished.

Among Rohit’s backers is former England skipper Michael Vaughan, who tweeted: “ I personally would replace him with Sharma at the top of the order. He is far too good not to master Test Cricket.” It’s an opinion few would dispute, but equally undisputed is Rohit’s struggles in Tests. An enigma, if there was one.

It also solves a middle-order puzzle. For drafting Rohit straightaway at the expense of Hanuma Vihari, who has admirably transitioned into Test cricket, would have been harsh, and could have been easily misconstrued as another example of Virat Kohli’s penchant for chopping and changing team combinations. The last thing he would want is another Karun Nair like episode to resurface in an important series as this.

But opening with Rohit is not a guaranteed masterstroke—for the quality of Austalia’s new-ball pair will be as lethal as any he has faced in his career. Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell are high-class new-ball operators. The latter could bruise him with pace, he’s an easy candidate for the late-swerving the late-swerving bend-backer and the former could tie prey on his patience him down with unrelenting accuracy. Or they could unleash the quickest of them all—Pat Cummins. It could be a test of his discipline as well as skill, the lack of former trait often considered the reason for his chequered Test career.

A couple of failures could infuse a sense of insecurity, could see him dropped maybe to point of not being reconsidered for selection any sooner. One thing, though, is sure, Rohit wouldn’t shirk away from the challenge. Not when his Test future hangs on a thin rope.