Rohit Sharma's Test captaincy faces its first huge test

Since becoming captain in February 2022, Rohit has played only two Tests, and now Australia stand between him and a World Test Championship final

Rohit Sharma contemplates, India vs New Zealand, WTC final, Day 2, Southampton, June 19, 2021

Rohit Sharma's Test captaincy faces its first big test  •  Getty Images

It's been a little over a year since it officially began, but has the Rohit Sharma era as India captain really begun at all?
It's made a spluttering sort of start in Test cricket: Rohit missed three of India's five Tests since he became their all-format captain. Injuries, in fact, have forced Rohit to miss eight of India's last 10 Test matches. He was Player of the Match in India's last Test before this stretch of games, a landmark victory that took them to a 2-1 series lead in England, months after they had beaten Australia 2-1 in Australia.
Since then, India's world-beating aura has faded somewhat - they lost Tests they could have won in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Birmingham, and won one they could quite conceivably have lost in Dhaka - and Rohit has mostly been an absent figurehead.
He has had more of a chance to make an impact as a white-ball captain, and his overall results have been fantastic. Rohit has the best win-loss ratio of any India ODI captain who has led at least 10 times in that format, and only Hardik Pandya, who has only captained in 11 matches, sits above him on the corresponding T20I list.
Reaching the semi-finals of the 2022 T20 World Cup a year after exiting the same tournament at the group stage could be seen as a significant achievement for both Rohit and Rahul Dravid, who took over as head coach after the 2021 tournament. But it wouldn't be lost on either of them that, for all the gains India made as a T20I side between the two tournaments, particularly in terms of batting approach, the same failings cost them in both 2021 and 2022.
Dravid knows from experience that tournament results end up defining captains, and that one bad tournament can cancel out the goodwill earned via bilateral results, especially in white-ball cricket. He could be remembered as the captain who turned India into a world-class chasing team in ODIs, but it's likely that far more remember him for leading India to a group-stage exit at the 2007 World Cup.
Process dominates cricket discourse far more in Rohit's era than it did in Dravid's, but results - specifically results in "big" games and tournaments - eventually come to define the tenures of captains, coaches and selectors.
That Rohit succeeded Virat Kohli was itself, in part, down to a sense that he would be a big-tournament captain, and India had been starved of big-tournament titles since 2013. At the time he took over the white-ball teams, Rohit had just won his fifth IPL title as Mumbai Indians' captain, and there were three ICC trophies up for grabs in the next two years.
Tournament results are, of course, heavily dependent on how good a team is relative to the competition, the format - one or two bad days are enough to send a strong contender out of the T20 World Cup at the group stage than they are to prevent one from reaching the IPL playoffs - and luck.
When teams win, though, the complicated story of their success is often simplified, and retold with the captain cast as some sort of all-knowing, benevolent mastermind. In the media, this premise is usually backed up with player testimonials - it's a fresh surprise each time players in winning teams say good things about their captains, no doubt - rather than any analysis of how this superhero captain's decision-making differed from that of other captains in similar situations, and no one ever asks whether the same team, filled with so many other winning ingredients, could have just as easily won with a different captain.
For whatever it was worth, then, Rohit came to the India captaincy with something of an aura. Now, just over a year since becoming all-format captain, there are threats to his leadership in every format.
In T20Is, the threat has a name. Hardik has captained India in every T20I they've played since the World Cup semi-final against England in November. Rohit scored a scratchy 27 off 28 balls in that match, and he hasn't played a T20I since. Now this is mostly because India are building up to an ODI World Cup and are looking to rest their senior players from T20Is, but it's not inconceivable that one or more of the young top-order contenders who are now getting their chance could make themselves exceedingly difficult to leave out by the time T20Is become top priority again.
The future of Rohit's ODI captaincy, meanwhile, could hinge on whether or not India translate their status as favourites for this year's home World Cup into actually winning it. It's an unfair amount of pressure, but it is what it is.
His Test captaincy, of course, has barely begun at all.
It's against this backdrop that Rohit will lead India in one of Test cricket's highest-profile contests. The 2016-17 Border-Gavaskar Trophy was perhaps the greatest Test series India has hosted this millennium - yes, arguably even greater than 2000-01 for the range of quality performances from both sets of players - a series where Australia made them reach into their deepest reserves of skill and stamina to complete a 2-1 comeback win.
The Australia of 2022-23 could be an even better collection of players than the one that toured in 2016-17, and could be an even better team if they address one key structural issue - the seeming lack of a quality second spinner.
India will, as ever, begin the series with a formidable spin attack and, despite the absence of Jasprit Bumrah, a group of quicks who are often deadly in home conditions. The batting will give them a few more headaches: India will be without Rishabh Pant's genius and - for the first Test at least - Shreyas Iyer's counterattacking flair against spin. This is a worry because they've been India's best batters in subcontinental conditions since the start of 2021, a period in which Cheteshwar Pujara has averaged 34.61 in Asia and Virat Kohli 23.85. Rohit's red-ball rhythm, meanwhile, is a bit of an unknown, since he hasn't played a Test match since March 2022.
For all that, India should still be favourites, but if you're an India fan and your normal pre-series anticipation is tinged with a sense of nameless dread, it could be because of this: R Ashwin is 36; Rohit, Pujara and Umesh Yadav are 35; Kohli and Ravindra Jadeja are 34; and Mohammed Shami is 32. Ishant Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane, both 34, may already have played their last Tests.
It's fallen upon Rohit to captain India's most successful generation of Test cricketers when they're ageing at the same time. Managing this transition could be an exceedingly tricky task, and quite a lot of it - what can a mere captain do, for instance, to unearth successors to all-time greats? - is beyond his control, but it's one other thing he'll be judged on, for better or worse.
The Rohit Sharma era, then, could be a short one. And if this series against Australia - upon whose outcome hinges India's qualification for the World Test Championship final - doesn't go to plan, it could threaten to end before it's even had a chance to properly begin.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo