Rohit Sharma, Pat Cummins set for a high stakes series

By, Nagpur
Feb 08, 2023 07:43 PM IST

Late bloomers in Test cricket, skippers Rohit Sharma and Pat Cummins have a lot riding on the upcoming series with the WTC title in the equation

There will be intense scrutiny on both the skippers in the India-Australia Test series starting at the Vidarbha Cricket Association Stadium here on Thursday. Rohit Sharma the opener versus Pat Cummins the pace spearhead.

India's captain Rohit Sharma, left, and Australia's captain Pat Cummins pose with the Border–Gavaskar Trophy ahead of their first cricket test match in Nagpur, India, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023. (AP)
India's captain Rohit Sharma, left, and Australia's captain Pat Cummins pose with the Border–Gavaskar Trophy ahead of their first cricket test match in Nagpur, India, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023. (AP)

Their careers too have taken a fairly similar path. Cummins, 29, missed five-and-half years of Test cricket after a cracking debut in 2011 due to back trouble.

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Sharma, 35, was hailed as a great talent when he broke into the India side in 2007. He struggled to establish himself until 2013, when his white-ball career took off after being asked to open. He could not really translate his white-ball form in Tests in the first decade of his career.

One of the redeeming features of Sharma the late bloomer in Tests has been his commanding show as opener. With the frequent switch between formats requiring constant technical adjustments, batting against spin on turning wickets and then dealing with the swinging Dukes ball pose a stiffer challenge to the modern Indian batter than facing the short ball on a spicy surface.

Sharma aced both the challenges. He was India’s top-scorer at home versus England in 2020-21 on turning tracks and also in the five-Test England series that finished last year.

While Sharma’s success as a Test batter ticks a vital column, captaincy hasn’t found momentum, frequently disrupted by injuries. Cummins recently said he was going to play the most crucial 10 Tests of his career. Having been made skipper only in 2021, Sharma could also say that about this series, and the World Test Championship (WTC) final, should India qualify.

Captains though avoid big talk on match eve. “We haven’t spoken too much about WTC. We just want to win the series and see what happens. It’s too far ahead and there is a lot of calculation,” he said.

Sharma has missed three of the five Tests since becoming Test captain. From the time he became an opening bat and cemented his place, he’s missed 12 of 30 – a couple to manage workload, a few after he got Covid and for all sorts of injuries – calf to hamstring to thumb.

While he’s been away, the team’s Test performances were patchy. They blew a chance to win a series in South Africa and survived a scare in the Dhaka Test. Amidst that, England have emerged with a spectacularly aggressive brand of Test cricket. Still, India are in with a chance to beat Australia – need to win the series by a margin of two – and earn the right to possibly challenge them again in the WTC final, having lost to New Zealand the last time.

Sharma’s claim to fame as an astute captain is on the back of his 5 IPL titles leading Mumbai Indians. Between the Australia series and a possible WTC final in June, he will lead MI in IPL. After last year’s T20 World Cup disappointment, questions have been asked about his T20I future. While he wants to continue, Hardik Pandya’s close on his heels and what happens in IPL could resolve the problem for the selectors.

India are set to go with a pitch tailored for their spinners. Lest it backfires, Sharma knows he and his batting group will have to be pro-active, like he was in Chennai in the 2021 series against England while scoring 161. “When the ball spins a lot, it is important to have a counterattacking method as well. That is how you will score runs,” he said. “You have to rotate strike, see what are the methods you can score runs off… sweep, reverse sweep, trying to use your feet and all those kinds of things.”

Cummins raised the stakes for himself as the Ashes will follow WTC final. Regardless of whether Australia win the title, the importance of the Ashes and the prospect of facing an England team that has embraced a successful new ethos on their turf won’t be lost on him.

With fast bowlers Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc missing the first Test due to injuries, Cummins, a rare bowling captain, is left with many problems to solve. Add the baggage of not having won a series in India for 19 years.

“This team is different to a lot of teams that played in the past,” said Cummins on Wednesday. “We don’t inherit the wins, we don’t inherit the losses. We know India are a really good side at home. We are excited and will give it our best shot.”

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    Rasesh Mandani loves a straight drive. He has been covering cricket, the governance and business side of sport for close to two decades. He writes and video blogs for HT.

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