Rohit Sharma wins weird game of selection and proves his temperament

Rohit Sharma became the 14th Indian player to score a century on Test debut © IANS

It was claimed that Rohit Sharma did not have the right temperament and did not merit a place in the Test side because of his showing in ODIs and T20s. This, in spite of his stupendous record in First-Class cricket. Arunabha Sengupta traces the strange way he made it to the Test team through tall scores in the shorter format.

Rohit Sharma has finally completed his long, and often frustrating, journey to the moksha of Test cricket. And looking back along the path he traced one is in two minds about the selection process in the country.

On one hand, the current brigade of wise men need to be heartily  applauded for refusing to bow to public pressure and write off this phenomenally talented batsman. However, looking at it from another point of view, there have indeed been strange selection procedures that Rohit has battled and has finally managed to defeat by playing the game according to the unbelievably weird rules.

With 108 One-Day Internationals (ODIs) under his belt, Rohit is the holder of the rather unenviable record of the highest number of ODIs played before Test debut. And the tragedy was that since the ill-fated tour of Australia in 2011-12, his claims to a Test berth had been repeatedly evaluated based on his ODI performances.

After injury prevented him from making his Test debut in South Africa, he was kept warming the bench even when the entire middle order failed again and again in the disastrous Tests Down Under. And then came the nightmare period in 2012 when he scored 79 runs in five matches of the Commonwealth Bank Series, and later had an even more horrendous time in Sri Lanka scoring 5, 0, 0, 4, 4.

It is easy enough to understand that in the aftermath of the low scores the fan-space would be riddled with Rohit jokes, branding him ‘No-Hit’ Sharma and being anguished and finding hilarity with his recurrent brain-freeze in shot selection. To the fan psychology which invests little in evaluation or analysis it might have been axiomatic that this person did not merit a place in the side for the longer format.

Yet, if the men in charge of selection also fall prey to this erroneous line of thought, it can be disastrous for Indian cricket. In spite of gaping holes in a batting line up recently vacated by a procession of giants, Rohit was not considered. The reason seemed to largely hover around his ODI failures.

No one even remotely familiar with the game can have any doubt that Rohit radiates potential — in the way he takes his stance to the immense time he gets while playing his strokes. The line toed by most of his detractors consisted of that t-word few can define without fumbling and faltering. It was pointed out that he had oodles of talent but lacked ‘temperament’.

Again, such opinions can be formed if one’s domain of awareness is limited to the brief forays in ODIs and Twenty 20 games, including the Indian Premier League (IPL). Fan-consensus is generally built around this combined amphitheatre.

Yet, the selectors are supposed to know more than that. They are supposed to understand that the test of suitability in the longer version is judged in First-Class cricket. They are supposed to keep track of the fact that since 2008-09, Rohit Sharma’s numbers in domestic cricket has been colossal.

In 2008-09, Rohit hammered 881 runs in eight matches at an average of 80.09 with four hundreds.

The following season, he hit 718 at 79.77 with 309 not out against Gujarat as his highest.

In 2010-11, his performance improved even further, and he amassed 768 runs at 96.00 with a hundred and a double hundred.

Before he left on the horrendous Australian tour in which he did not even play a First-Class game, he scored 175, 100 and 64 in the three Ranji Trophy matches that preceded his departure.

If the quick dismissals in Australia and Sri Lanka were supposed evidences of his diminishing concentration, he dispelled all such perceptions — albeit away from the eyes of the ODI and T20 devouring public. His eight matches in the 2012-13 domestic season brought 713 runs at an average of 60 with three hundreds and two fifties. He followed it up with 77 against the visiting Australians for the India A side in Chennai.

Perhaps I am being a bit too harsh on the selectors. After all they had enough faith in Rohit’s abilities to send him to South Africa for the India A side. There he hit 119 in Rustenburg in an innings win, his cricketing sense coming to the fore as he picked up two wickets during a phase of Protean resistance. The selectors also persisted with him in the ODI side, ignoring the public opinion which insisted on dumping him for good.

However, it does seem that Rohit took the only circuitous route available to him for getting into the Test side — by scoring mountains of runs in the ODI format.

Almost a 1,000 runs at 61.50 from the beginning of the ICC Champions Trophy 2013 was his way of turning the tables on this weird selection process. If his ODI failures had somehow stood in the way of Test selection, he ensured that his ODI successes would be stupendous enough to open the doors of the ultimate format of the game.

Did his feat of leading Mumbai Indians to the Champions League title have any bearing on his selection?  One certainly hopes that evaluation of Test credentials have not come down to T20 success, but if any doubts about his maturity and cricketing acumen persisted  they were laid to rest by the way he went about his job.

On Thursday against West Indies, he entered the arena just as the electric Eden Gardens seemed to have been switched off into silence by the dismissal of Sachin Tendulkar. At 82 for four, which soon became 83 for five, there was a sense of desperation in the air. Desperation for both India as well as for Rohit, his hard earned opportunity looking increasingly prone to crumble inside the surprise collapse.

However, the way he calmly fought his way out of trouble and constructed his innings showed no sign of panic or hysteria expected of a newcomer. There was a serenity that never deserted him as he drove and flicked nonchalantly. The strokes reverberated with class amidst the crisis.

On his way to his century on debut, he actually demonstrated a rare characteristic. A trait that can be summed up by that same t-word — ‘temperament.’

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twiter.com/senantix)