Will Rohit Sharma play the India-Australia 3rd Test in Sydney?

The 2020-21 Border-Gavaskar Trophy is beautifully poised at 1-1 with two Tests left in the four-match series. Albeit premature, India had been written off following the damaging defeat in the day-night Test at Adelaide Oval. Losing two of their clutch players (captain Virat Kohli to paternity leave and premier fast bowler Mohammed Shami with an arm injury) left them depleted personnel-wise and the perception was they might not find the resolve to bounce back from the lowest low of 36.

But boy, didn’t the Ajinkya Rahane-led India prove to themselves, and their critics, what they are capable of? The eight-wicket win in Melbourne will be spoken about for ages but also, for the immediate future, gives India a psychological edge with Australia now the team under pressure and with selection issues to brood over.

India’s victory at MCG came at the expense of losing Umesh Yadav to a calf injury which has ruled him out of the rest of the Test series, with left-arm pacer Thangarasu Natarajan replacing him in the squad.

Rohit Sharma is the other player returning to the squad after completing his two-week hard quarantine. He joined up with the squad on New Year’s Eve and been named the vice-captain for the remainder of the series.

The question is obvious but significant nonetheless: will Rohit Sharma feature in India’s playing 11 for the third Test starting on Thursday (January 7)?

Opening batsman Mayank Agarwal’s aggregate of 31 runs in four innings is a cause for concern for India, who could potentially go into the Sydney Test with neither of their first-choice openers (Agarwal himself and Prithvi Shaw, who gave way to Shubman Gill) meriting a spot in the playing 11.

Hanuma Vihari is another player whose place in the XI for the New Year’s Test is up for debate.

The prospect of Rohit opening the batting at SCG is mouthwatering. An accomplished backfoot player who holds a prolific white-ball record in Australia, Rohit hasn’t opened in an overseas Test match yet.

In six Test innings as an opening batsman, each of which has been in home conditions against South Africa and Bangladesh (India’s first pink-ball Test), Rohit has 556 runs with two hundreds and a double-hundred, at an average of 92.66. Rohit’s strike rate as an opener of 75.95 is almost 17 runs better than his Test career strike rate and indicates he relishes batting against the hard, shiny new ball with the opposition bowlers on the attack.

Those performances raised expectations of Rohit, the Test opening batsman, ahead of India’s tour of New Zealand in early-2020. However, a calf injury during the limited-overs leg of the tour ruled him out of the two-match Test series.

In a video posted on the BCCI social media handles, on Friday (January 1), Rohit batted against gentle throwdowns. He has since had regular net sessions and been part of fielding drills too, suggesting he has built up his fitness to be considered for selection.

The Indian think tank has five days and potentially a handful of practice sessions to assess Rohit’s readiness for the third Test in Sydney.

He could take the spot of Agarwal and partner Shubman Gill, or replace Hanuma Vihari and bat either as an opener or in the middle order.

India batting legend Sunil Gavaskar, speaking on Sony Sports Network after India wrapped up the series-leveling win on day four in Melbourne, said: “I would be keeping Mayank Agarwal. I know he’s not looked good but he’s a quality player. I would keep him in the side and open the batting with Rohit.”

“Despite the fact that Shubman Gill has looked so good at the top, I’d look to bat him at No.5,” Gavaskar said, before adding: “The rest of the team should remain [the] same and obviously if Gill bats at five, Vihari goes out automatically.”

Rohit will play his first Test since November 2019 if he proves his fitness and the team management feels a fresh batsman, without the mental scars from low scores in the first two Tests and a suddenly susceptible batting technique, could help the team more than the struggling Agarwal and Vihari.

Rohit averages 26.32 with the bat and has five fifties (with a top score of 79) in 18 overseas Tests. He has had a stop-start Test career which is asking for reignition again. The stage is Australia and Rohit potentially playing as an opener in an overseas Test for the first time. If that isn’t mouthwatering, then what is?

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