It was a noisy Saturday morning, thanks to the rush on the pathway outside the Melbourne Cricket Ground’s outdoor nets. The crowd poured in not to watch the mundane cricket practice, but for a dose of tennis at the Australian Open qualifiers.
It was another world in the basin-like area reserved for the nets. A steely calm descended once the India team was out. Selectors Roger Binny and Vikram Rathour, sent to keep a tab on the team policies, stood at the far end and observed as various battles were fought. The World Cup is less than a month away, but the wobbly form of India’s regular ODI openers --- Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma --- continues to hurt the team.
Ajinkya Rahane, the reserve opener, has been impressive. Sent in the middle order or asked to battle the new white ball in ODIs, he has displayed supreme confidence. Those are positive signs for the team, but also spell insecurity for the out-of-form Rohit and Shikhar.
When your captain decides against openly backing you on the eve of an important ODI, the team’s tri-series opener against Australia at the MCG, insecurity can only grow.
“You will have to wait and see,” was MS Dhoni’s curt response to a query on who would lead India’s charge at the top on Sunday.
On India’s last appearance at the MCG, during the third Test last month, Rahane looked like a player especially crafted for overseas tours. A sublime first-innings century won him many admirers. Shikhar’s prolonged struggle in the series led to his omission from the final Test while Rohit was already warming the bench.
While red-ball cricket demands different skills, Rohit’s eagerness to keep his opening spot came through on Saturday.
Like was the case on Friday, he was the first to take strike at the nets. Before the rest could even pad up, he was facing the pacers. Spinners, pacers and throw downs, he wanted them all. He had a point to make, one that would not go unnoticed by the selectors, Dhoni and coach Duncan Fletcher.
The trend of late has been to send batsmen for a hit in the nets according to the batting order. But it was different on Saturday. Apart from Rohit, the middle order had the first go. Shikhar took strike only after the first hour and Rahane came in later.
Rahane looked the most composed, handling Mohit Sharma, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Umesh Yadav with ease during the half-hour stretch. Shikhar’s stint was brief in comparison. He negotiated the pacers before finding a way around off-spin, one of his weaknesses, from R Ashwin and the part-timers.
Rohit has been vocal about his desire to open.
“I am India’s opener and I will open for the country,” he had thundered in October while recovering from an injury that had kept him out for two months. He had backed his words with a mind-boggling 264 in the fourth ODI against Sri Lanka at Eden Gardens.
No matter who walks out to open on Sunday, the task will be ominous. With the colossal ‘G’ (local term for MCG) looking down, even the most secure can feel goose bumps.