Is Rohit Sharma the answer to India's opening woes in Test cricket? Former captain Sourav Ganguly is strongly in favour, and believes India should try their ODI opener in place of incumbent Test opener KL Rahul, whom he feels has got a long rope yet "flattered to deceive."
Ganguly's suggestion to open with Rohit comes on the back of Rahul's failure to once again convert watchful starts in the recently concluded two-Test series in the Caribbean which India won 2-0. Rahul started confidently in both innings in the first Test in Antigua, scoring 44 and 38, but could not carry on.
In Jamaica, West Indies captain Jason Holder made him to play at a ball that moved away viciously, but in the second innings Rahul's struggles became more pronounced as he struggled for 63 balls to make 6.
"After the World Cup, India embarked on the tour of West Indies with few areas to be figured out and also the role of few cricketers," Ganguly said in his Times of India column on Thursday. "The opening still remains an area to work on. Mayank Agarwal looks good and will need a few more opportunities to thrash out his game. But his partner is the area to be looked into. KL Rahul flattered to deceive and has not come off and that leaves with an opening at the top."
Although Virat Kohli became the most successful Test captain for India after the series win, the inability to find a pair of openers who can offer consistency is bound to be a concern. It has been India's weakest suit in the past two years.
Since 2018 India have tried out seven openers in Tests including Rahul, M Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan, Parthiv Patel, Prithvi Shaw, Agarwal and Hanuma Vihari. In this period Rahul has got the most opportunities - 13 Tests and 23 innings - and averages 22.31 with a solitary century and four fifties.
Watching Rahul closely in the Caribbean was another former captain and one of the best openers in Test cricket, Sunil Gavaskar, who was a commentator during the series. Gavaskar summed up Rahul's struggles as stemming from the fact that he was not sure where his off stump was.
Ganguly's suggestion to open with Rohit is not whimsical. As soon as Rohit finished the World Cup in England as the leading run-scorer and an unprecedented five centuries, Ganguly had immediately suggested that he should be tried as an opener in the Caribbean.
"I had suggested earlier about trying Rohit Sharma as an opener in Test cricket and still believe that he needs to be given an opportunity because he is too good a player to be left out in the cold. After a fantastic World Cup, I believe he will be itching to grab the opportunity to open in Test cricket. With [Ajinkya] Rahane and Vihari nicely settled in there is not much chance to tamper with the middle order."
Incidentally, last year while India were playing the Test series in England, Rohit had said he was open to playing the role if given the opportunity despite having opened only thrice in first-class cricket. He averages 63, but those innings came in the early stages of his career, between 2009 and 2012. Rohit said he was confident only because he was never a specialist opener even in ODIs, where he is now one of the modern-day greats.
"Look, I have never been offered [to open the innings in Tests] yet but I am open to anything, as in whatever the team management wants," Rohit said last August during a promotional event. "I never thought I will be an opener in ODIs when I started playing or when I was playing for India. But it happened along the way, so I [want to] keep my options open. No option is shut for me, so if the opportunity comes, I will take it."
The pressure on Rahul will not cease soon. Even VVS Laxman, former India batsman, felt Rahul has failed to deliver.
"There were lots of positives for India [after West Indies tour], but question marks hang over the batting," Laxman wrote in his column in the Times of India on Thursday. "Cheteshwar Pujara must be disappointed at a modest start to a new season, but the greater concern is over KL Rahul. His ability is never under question, and he is no longer a newcomer to Test cricket. He has got numerous opportunities, but he has often flattered to deceive. India will look to more from him."
India's next Test assignments include a three-match home series against South Africa in October, followed by a one-off Test against Bangladesh later in the year. India's next overseas Test series will be in New Zealand in February-March where they play three Tests.
It remains to be seen whether the selectors and the team management would bring youngster Prithvi Shaw back into the fold as soon as his doping ban ends on November 15, or whether they will want him to play in the Ranji Trophy, which starts in December.
The one other option for the opening slot could be Vihari, who Kohli said was the "find" of the West Indies tour. Vihari got his maiden Test century in Jamaica and backed it up with a half-century in the second innings while finishing as the leading scorer in the series on both sides.
In his short Test career, Vihari has already opened once, with Agarwal during the Boxing Day Test last year against Australia. Although he made just 8 and 13, India survived the first hour with the new ball confidently. Overall, in first-class cricket, Vihari has opened in four matches, and has two centuries at an average of 71 in five innings.
However, Laxman feels Vihari's calm approach is an asset in the lower order. "I can say that batting at No. 6 is not an easy task. But Vihari has been at home, enhancing his reputation as a Test batsman with every outing. He is very calm and mature at the crease, looks to dominate the spinners with exemplary use of the feet, and is assured against fast bowling. I look forward to greater things from him."