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India vs Australia: No fixed cast for India’s opening show – cricket

At the post-match presser – customarily given by the team captain but attended only by India’s coach in Melbourne – Ravi Shastri was ambiguous about Rohit Sharma’s return into the Test squad, first from injury and then from Australia’s strict quarantine rules.

“We’ll have a chat with him to see where he’s placed physically, because he’s been in quarantine for the last couple weeks. We’ve also got to see how he feels before we take the call,” said Shastri.

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That was December 29. On January 1, Sharma was named the vice-captain of the squad for the remainder of the Test series, indicating not only his immediate return to the playing eleven – a winning one, no less – but also perhaps to the opening slot; a position in which he has played his last five Tests, notching half his career centuries (three out of six) in that span.

If the new vice-captain were to indeed walk out to bat in the third Test (Sydney, from Jan 7) as an opener, the move will ensure a third different opening combination for India on the bounce – never a sign of stability, however sturdy the revolving door may be. While the team management may seem insouciant about the constant changes at the top, the question of who Sharma replaces will be the most pertinent of the hour.

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Will one-Test-old Shubman Gill be dropped – the Boxing Day debutant who brought back a sense of security to the post with 75 crucial runs at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, after having replaced Prithvi Shaw? Or will Sharma be switched in for Mayank Agarwal, a man who has been India’s opening mainstay since he too made his debut in Melbourne on the previous tour Down Under? At this point, few beyond Shastri and stand-in captain Ajinkya Rahane will know the answer.

Between Melbourne 2018 and Melbourne 2020, Agarwal is one of only three Indian players, along with Rahane and the erstwhile stand-in vice-captain Cheteshwar Pujara, to have played each of India’s last 13 Tests. A late bloomer (he was nearly 28 on debut), Agarwal has been a reassuring presence amid the heavy reshuffle of partners, until mid-way through the tour of New Zealand last year.

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Before the second and final Test in Christchurch, Agarwal averaged over 64, with two double hundreds to boot. Since Christchurch, that average falls to below 7, with scores of 5, 0, 9, 17, 3 and 7 in his last six innings. A run of just three Tests is perhaps not enough to axe him, even if a watertight argument of “successive failures in overseas conditions” could be made to justify it. But the same case could well be made to not include Sharma at all.

It is nearly impossible to deny Sharma his success since he leapfrogged from the middle-order to the very top of the batting order, in any format of the game. Six years after he found his calling as India’s opener in ODI cricket, Sharma rebooted his flagging Test career by facing fresh lacquer on the ball towards the end of 2019.

Prior to South Africa’s three-Test visit in October that year, Sharma averaged a shade under 40 over 27 Tests, spread sporadically over six years. Since then in five Tests, all as an opener, Sharma averages a Bradmanesque 92.66. It all started against the Proteas in Visakhapatnam, where he smacked a hundred in each innings. By the time the third Test of that series in Ranchi was completed, Sharma had his first double hundred – a breathtaking assault of 212 runs on a pitch which saw South Africa get bowled out twice for a cumulative total of 295 runs.

As incredible as those numbers may be, it was all registered in familiar home conditions. The real test was always going to be the Test series of New Zealand in early 2020, which Sharma missed in its entirety due to a calf strain. And thus the openers’ door began to revolve again, allowing in as many as seven different names between the two tours of Australia (eight, if we go a little further back to September 2018, when Shikhar Dhawan was still part of the Test roster).

Sharma has never played an overseas Test as an opener, but there is little evidence to suggest that he cannot overturn his career in away games as well, once he climbs to the top of the order. While his returns from overseas matches are middling – an average of 26.32 from 18 games – Sharma’s performances in those difficult conditions were on the rise before he left the previous tour of Australia with a Test to spare, for the birth of his child.

His 37 in the first innings in Adelaide was the second highest score after Pujara’s hundred, and his unbeaten 63 in Melbourne could have further ballooned had India not declared. India won both those matches. Then, Sharma’s unavailability for Sydney in 2019 gave the think-tank much to mull over, just as his availability for Sydney in 2021 has all over again.

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