MUMBAI: Limited-overs batting stalwart Rohit Sharma will have another chance to resurrect his stop-start test career, but this time as an opener, when India kick off their three-match home series against South Africa at Visakhapatnam on Wednesday.
India axed struggling opener KL Rahul after he went 12 test innings without a 50-plus score and struggled on the recent tour of West Indies where India won both the matches to top the World Test Championship table.
Rohit, 32, has cemented his place at the top of the batting order in the Twenty20 and 50-over formats and finished with most number of runs in the World Cup in England recently.
The only player in the world with three double hundreds in one-day internationals, the right-hander bats in the middle order in the longest format but has never really flourished as a test batsman.
Despite his World Cup exploits he was not able to break into the side as a middle order batsman during the two tests in the Caribbean, leading former players and local media to clamour for Rohit to be tried as an opener in tests.
With regular opener Prithvi Shaw, who is currently serving a doping ban, not available for selection Rohit is all set to walk out to open the innings on Wednesday with Mayank Agarwal in his 28th test for India.
“We want to give Rohit Sharma an opportunity to open the innings in tests,” chief selector MSK Prasad had said after naming India’s 15-member squad for the series.
While opening is the only shaky spot in an otherwise settled Indian batting order, the top-ranked test side in the world were dealt a body blow when their pace bowling ace Jasprit Bumrah was ruled out of the series with a stress fracture in his back.
India will also have to choose between experienced wicketkeeper Wriddhiman Saha, who was recalled after being out injured for more than a year, and the young Rishabh Pant for the wicketkeeper’s role.
While Saha is considered a better glovesman, Pant has been earmarked as the successor in all three formats to Mahendra Singh Dhoni but has been short of runs with his temperament and shot selection under the lens.
The onus will be on India’s slow bowlers to deliver the goods on spin-friendly tracks for the hosts with off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin and his left-arm colleague Ravindra Jadeja expected to inflict maximum damage on the South Africa batsmen.
Ashwin and Jadeja took 54 wickets between themselves in India’s 3-0 win in the four-test series the last time the Proteas toured the country.
The South Africans, who spectacularly lost at home 2-0 to Sri Lanka in their last series, will have to find a way to handle India’s spinners if they are to make a strong start to their World Test Championship campaign.
“It’s a tough start... playing India in India but I don’t think the South Africans would have wanted it any other way ... take the big dogs in their home ground,” experienced fast bowler Vernon Philander said.
“All of us are looking forward to this challenge and there are a lot of player-to-player challenges as well. Can’t wait to get going.”
The Faf du Plessis-led side have included three uncapped players - paceman Anrich Nortje, wicketkeeper Rudi Second and all-rounder Senuran Muthusamy - in their squad as they begin life without retired veterans Dale Steyn and Hashim Amla.
The touring side will have interim team director Enoch Nkwe in charge after the decision not to renew the contract of West Indian coach Ottis Gibson following a disappointing World Cup campaign for the side.