Not so long time ago, Rohit Sharma was bogged down by inconsistency and lack of confidence. All this changed during the fourth ODI against England in Chandigarh in January 2013, chasing a 258-run target on a bitingly cold evening he was thrust into the limelight and asked to do something he wasn't accustomed to. But Sharma did what the ambitious do. He carved out a beautiful 83 and took India within 100 runs of victory.
And all of a sudden, captain MS Dhoni's decision to make an opener out of a middle-order batsman didn't seem out of place.
Not only has Sharma's utility nearly doubled in the last 14 months, but it has also contributed to the team's success. Fathom this: Sharma has 3,427 runs in 117 outings. He has tallied 1,980 runs in 81 innings as a middle-order batsman. Ever since that career-changing move, the right-hander has amassed 1,449 runs in 36 appearances.
But over the past few months, Sharma has been revisiting days of underachievement. The runs have dried up: he did nothing of note in the ODI series against the West Indies; he was all at sea in South Africa; the New Zealand sojourn did him no good and he flopped in the Asia Cup too. His strike-rate, too, took a hit. Which brings us to the question: Is it time do away with the Rohit-as-an-opener experiment for now? With the World T20 round the corner, it is imperative that he be allowed to bat in the middle order. Ajinkya Rahane should be the man partnering Shikhar Dhawan at the top.
The reasons are aplenty. In T20, power alone is seen as the byword for aggression. The likes of Rahane, Sanju Samson and Brad Hodge have shown that you can achieve a strike-rate of 135-plus or more with orthodox strokeplay.
Rahane has evolved as one of the most resourceful T20 players in recent times. His record for Rajasthan Royals — as an opener — speaks for itself. But now that Sharma occupies that slot in Team India, will Rahane fit into the middle order in the presence of Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina and Dhoni?
In a middle-order as crowed as India's, Rahane's restoration as opener seems inevitable. Perhaps, it is time to shelve the idea that Sharma will be effective only at the top. Versatile Sharma can give the team that much-needed dash in the middle and death overs.
An asking rate of 17-plus is not beyond him. Nothing is. He can win you matches with his wondrous brand of six-hitting. He's done that for the Mumbai Indians. But do you think it's unreasonable to expect Rahane to blast a 25-ball 50?
There were enough pointers during India's last Asia Cup tie against Afghanistan to suggest that Rahane is a sound option to partner Dhawan. Even though that was an inconsequential match, Rahane shaped up well against the Afghan quicks.
Also, India need an in-form batsman to be a guiding hand when Yuvraj and Raina are batting. It would be unfair to expect them to hit top form right away. Comebacks are never easy. And hence, Sharma's presence in the middle will be invaluable.
Former India batsman Pravin Amre used the word "handy" to describe Sharma and Rahane, two players he has worked with. "The advtage with Rohit and Ajinkya is that they can bat anywhere. Given the competition for each slot, it is important that they be prepared to bat wherever the team wants them to," he said. Pressed for an answer that could solve India's peculiar problem of plenty, he put the ball in the team management's court. "Ajinkya is a natural opener who bats in the middle order. Rohit is a natural middle-order player who opens. Let them decide," he said.
Incidentally, both Sharma and Rahane are training under Amre's watchful eyes in the city. He sure must be preparing them for both roles.