“I really can’t tell you anything about his overseas place and why he doesn’t find it or why he is in the XI. I honestly have no idea as I wasn’t part of the selection at that point so I can’t really tell you what happened there and why was he left out or why was he played and those kind of stuff.” India captain Rohit Sharma was responding after the Mohali Test to a question on R Ashwin often not getting a spot in the playing XI on away tours in recent times.
It was a clear line in the sand from the skipper, that he couldn’t comment with any reasonable clarity about such calls that had been made in Kohli’s time. About his own stint, Rohit made a couple of key observations after his first Test match as captain. He said that further developing the team’s bench strength across all formats was going to be more important for him than winning games. And beyond developing that strength, keeping those on the bench motivated and ready to perform when the opportunity came was also critical.
Rohit is now almost four months into the leadership, with the unenviable task of firstly identifying who could do well for the T20I team in Australian conditions during the World Cup in October. So far, he’s had to judge the contenders on the basis of home series against the likes of West Indies and Sri Lanka, and mostly on grounds where a straight six could be a catch for deep mid-on at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Considering how questionable team selection also contributed to India’s debacles at the 2019 50-over and 2021 20-over World Cups, there is increased pressure on the team management to get the combination right, starting with Australia.
India’s captain Rohit Sharma, left, lens to head coach Rahul Dravid as they watch players train during a practice session ahead of the first Twenty20 international cricket match between India and Sri Lanka in Lucknow, India, Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Surjeet Yadav)
“It’s absolutely challenging and it is very, very important,” Rohit said about building bench strength.
“It’s not just about 11 players. It’s also about those sitting outside, wanting to get their opportunities. You rightly said about creating that bench strength, which is what the future of Indian cricket will hold. If you create that bench strength and you start thinking from now, Indian cricket will be in good hands.
“This is one of my challenges and one of my responsibilities. I have to take it upon me to create that bench strength as much as possible, keeping in mind a lot of things. The guys who are playing, it’s relatively a very new team in all three formats. Two of our stalwarts in Ajinkya (Rahane) and (Cheteshwar) Pujara are missing out, (Wriddhiman) Saha is not here, Ishant (Sharma) is not here … Relatively a young and new side and it’s the same in limited-overs cricket as well, a lot of youngsters are coming in. It’s going to be my biggest challenge more than winning games.”
So far, Rohit has led in nine T20Is, three ODIs and a Test since Virat Kohli stepped down at the end of the 2021 T20 World Cup. And it is understandably in the shortest format, with another World Cup coming up, that he’s given chances to the most number of players yet – 24. After the end of the T20I series against Sri Lanka in Dharamsala, Rohit said he was still wanting to understand the kind of bench strength that was available to him.
India’s captain Rohit Sharma plays a shot during the first test match between India and Sri Lanka in Mohali, India, Friday, March 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
He’s also clarified that trying out players cannot become a revolving door, and winning games is also required to keep a positive atmosphere going in the dressing room.
For instance, Avesh Khan was given an opportunity in the third T20Is against both West Indies and Sri Lanka, only after the series had been won. Kuldeep Yadav made his comeback after July 2021 in the third ODI against West Indies and in the third T20I against Sri Lanka, after those series had been won as well.
. . ! 👏 👏@ImRo45 begins his Test captaincy stint with a win as #TeamIndia beat Sri Lanka an innings & 2⃣2⃣2⃣ runs in the first @Paytm #INDvSL Test in Mohali. 👌 👌
Scorecard ▶️ https://t.co/XaUgOQVg3O pic.twitter.com/P8HkQSgym3
— BCCI (@BCCI) March 6, 2022
At the same time, Rohit may also want to utilise established players in different roles or give them added responsibilities, so space will also have to be worked out for such moves, alongside giving youngsters chances. Like Ravindra Jadeja was sent up the batting order in the Sri Lanka T20Is, where he did a fine job. Rohit acknowledged he may not always be able to make such moves. “I hope I get the opportunity to use his (Jadeja’s) batting more in the future because we have got a lot of young players who we also need to see,” Rohit had said.
During the Mohali Test, Rohit was seen sitting and chatting with Mohammed Siraj, who wasn’t playing the game. It was an instance of his stated desire to keep those not in the XI in the loop and in good spirits. Through a combination of injury and selection calls, Siraj had played only the West Indies ODIs and a T20I against New Zealand under Rohit. But he was brought back for the inconsequential third T20I against Sri Lanka in Dharamsala to share the new ball with Avesh, as Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah were rested.
“For me what is important is how I approach those guys who are sitting outside and how I can get them in a good mindset,” Rohit said. “When they get an opportunity they should be very clear as to what they want to go out there and achieve. That will impact all our performances, whether we win or lose games. You can’t just say you have to win games. To win games there are a lot of things you need to do: create bench strength, give clarity to people, create a good environment so that it’s a nice and happy atmosphere where people want to go out there and do their job.”
A special start to his Test captaincy 👌🏻
Upward and onward from here on 🔝@ImRo45 | #TeamIndia | #INDvSL pic.twitter.com/gw199braki
— BCCI (@BCCI) March 6, 2022
This is a departure from the previous team management’s line of thought, where winning could be, and often was, the all-consuming single-minded goal at any cost. Insecurity was either arguably used to drive performance, or was an unavoidable, but acceptable, -product of the pursuit of winning.
Rohit instead said that he did not want to pile on more pressure from his end than there already exed on the shoulders of the average Indian cricketer. His point about the development and vibe of bench strength being more important than winning matches can also be premised on the fact that the general quality in Indian cricket is so good that you anyway end up winning more than losing.
“They should not feel too much pressure. Of course, when you are playing international cricket, pressure is there. But that external pressure shouldn’t be there, internal pressure is fine,” Rohit said. “We as a team management want to create a healthy and positive atmosphere where guys are going out there and doing what they are supposed to do. We will try and back them as much as possible so that at the end of the day when they come back home, they feel, ‘I got my opportunity, if I didn’t do well I’m still happy as long as the role was given to me, there was a lot of clarity.’ As long as that procedure is put in place, we will hold ourselves in good shape.”