When he was injured and when Ajinkya Rahane was scoring runs at the top of India's ODI batting line-up, Rohit Sharma insisted he wanted to come back as an opener. Luckily for everyone involved, when Rohit came back to full fitness, it was time for Shikhar Dhawan to rest, and the returning opener announced his comeback with his second double-century in ODI cricket. Rohit at top and Rahane at No.4 went well for India in the World Cup except for the odd innings when Rahane struggled to turn the strike over in the middle order. Overall though, India had gone the conventional way: give your big century-maker enough balls to attempt that century.
Not surprisingly Rohit wanted to continue opening for Mumbai Indians, but there had been resistance. While he has been opening for India in T20 internationals, Rohit had opened only twice for Mumbai before the start of this season. The think-tank still wanted him to bat in the middle, the modern way of wanting to give an explosive batsman only a certain number of deliveries lest he get confused. Rohit, who backs himself as better than just an explosive batsman, insisted he wanted to open. Being the captain, he had his way, and scored an unbeaten 98 in their first game of this IPL. The trademark Rohit explosion, though, came too late. Mumbai lost comfortably.
You couldn't blame Rohit, though: batsmen around him kept getting out, and the other big hitters - Aaron Finch, Corey Anderson and Kieron Pollard - had struggled until this game. After the defeat to Kings XI Punjab, coming into the Ahmedabad game, the think-tank seemed to have convinced Rohit against his instinct. Admittedly it wasn't the most auspicious of starts for this new experiment with Finch getting retired hurt on 10, but by then a slow platform had already been laid. Parthiv Patel and Unmukt Chand, both sent in ahead of Rohit, didn't do much better either.
Without using the hindsight of Rohit's failure in this innings, he finds himself in an unusual situation. Unlike India, where other batsmen can pick up the slack if he falls early or even if he falls without making up for a slow start, this team is mostly Rohit or Nohit. Pollard and Anderson came good, but a bit like Harbhajan Singh's fifty the other night, it shouldn't have come to that, and once it did the rescue came too late.
More importantly he will be asked to play a game that doesn't come naturally to him if he asked to bat at No. 4 again. Or rather he has now scented a position that he feels is even better for him than the No. 4 where he has been pretty successful as a T20 player.
When Rohit opens, especially in T20s, he gets just enough time to suss the conditions before cutting loose. Here Mumbai are sending ahead two batsmen, at least one of whom is there only to see out a few overs so that Rohit, Anderson and Pollard don't have too long to bat.
This is one of the modern theories. Like sneaking in an over from a part-time bowler just after the Powerplay, some teams consider it a success if a lesser batsman can see off a few overs and score at a run a ball. Sometimes it works - it used to with Parthiv and Chennai Super Kings - but by doing so you are not giving yourself the best possible chance to succeed; you are bringing luck into it. Luck is not getting a reprieve because the bowler overstepped - as it happened with Anderson today - luck is when Parthiv keeps slashing and edges keep falling safely. Mumbai didn't have much of it in Ahmedabad.
While Mumbai are the latest to encounter it, this is not an issue new to T20 and modern ODI cricket. Delhi Daredevils tried the same with Yuvraj Singh and JP Duminy. There is no definite strategy that will work: Kings XI succeed with best batsmen in top slots, Super Kings by holding a big hitter back. Mumbai don't have a straightforward answer either. This is not looking a batting line-up in form, and their bowling has weakened significantly from the time they won the title. One thing is for sure, though: wherever they use Rohit, they can't afford to waste their best batsman.