Watching Rohit Sharma open for India might evoke various responses and emotions. But the connoisseurs of the game on Mumbai’s maidans only sigh and wonder if he will suffer the same fate as Dilip Sardesai.
Like Rohit, Sardesai was a delight to watch, in the 50s and 60s. Pace or spin, the technically perfect Sardesai’s movements were precise. His duels with Erapalli Prasanna were fascinating. He admitted that only S. Venkatraghavan could tie him down to the crease.
He was a typical No. 4 batsman who would relentlessly attack bowlers. At a time when specialist openers were failing frequently, he was impressive facing the new ball.
The selectors asked him to open against the New Zealand attack of Bruce Taylor and Dick Motz in 1965 after he had done exceedingly well in the 1963-64 series against England batting in the middle order and later against Australia in 1964 when he scored an impressive half-century as an opener.
Taylor and Motz weren’t easy to tackle but Sardesai paced his innings so well that he scored an unbeaten double hundred followed by another hundred in the next Test.
The move to make Sardesai open was hailed by everyone and the selectors were praised. He too was happy because he didn’t have to compete with M.A.K. Pataudi, Chandu Borde and Hanumant Singh in the middle order. What no one could see was that the batsman who relished playing strokes was curbing his style, becoming inhibited.
The role reversal put him under tremendous pressure. What followed was a string of failures and Sardesai was dropped. The selectors did not take responsibility. Fortunately for him, captain Ajit Wadekar was given an option by the selection committee to choose between Borde and Sardesai for the 1971 West Indies tour and he preferred Sardesai.
Called the ‘renaissance man’ of Indian cricket, Sardesai was brilliant in the middle order. But even with Wadekar’s help, he didn’t last long. In 13 years of his first class career he ended up playing only 30 Tests. He had the capability to play more Tests.
Since Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir are out of favour with the selectors, it does seem Rohit is being groomed as an opener. A batsman who plays on the rise will have to change his style. He has oneoption: politely decline to open in Tests which is what Vengsarkar did in 1983-84 against Pakistan at Bangalore and was promptly dropped. However, he came back strongly in the middle order.
Compromise and suffer
With the competition youngsters face today, no one will opt to sit out. Like Sardesai and Ashok Mankad, they are prepared to bat at any position. Players know what their strengths and weaknesses are. But they compromise their positions and suffer.
It is one thing to open in ODIs and T20s, but opening in a Test is a specialised job.Sunil Gavaskar rarely batted in the middle order even in a club match.
If Rohit agrees to open in Tests, he should open for Mumbai too. One move can make or break a career. It’s now for the selection committee and Rohit to decide his future as a Test batsman.