India cricket analysis: Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma unable to replicate ODI successes in Tests
Poor returns from the Newlands Test has put even more pressure on the batting duo, who have forged one of the most destructive opening partnerships in the limited-overs formats, but have struggled in the long form
Not long after India were beaten by South Africa in the first Test at Newlands on Monday questions were being asked about the logic behind the selections of Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma.
They were for a good reason: both players had flopped with the bat in both their innings in Cape Town, with Dhawan scoring a pair of 16s and Rohit 11 and 10.
At least Rohit took a catch. Dhawan dropped one – that of Keshav Maharaj. On nought at the time the tailender went on to get 35 runs, helping South Africa to a 40-over-par total of 286. In hindsight it is the home team’s first-innings total that proved most decisive in the context of the game.
Fair enough India’s seamers were responsible for giving away those extra runs, but at least they learnt their lessons quickly and made amends in South Africa’s second innings to give their team a chance to win the Test.
But none of the specialist batsmen grabbed this opportunity, and it was left to Kohli to defend them.
Kohli justified picking Dhawan and Rohit, two players who have forged one of the most successful opening partnerships in one-day internationals but have been unable to make their places in the Test side foregone conclusions.
His explanation? They were both scoring heavily in recent times.
"We decided to go on current form," Kohli said shortly after their 72-run defeat. "Rohit had scored runs in the last three Test matches that he has played, and he was batting well, even in the series against Sri Lanka [late last year].
"We did that similar thing in the past with Shikhar as well.
"Look, these things can always be looked at in hindsight - thinking what if or what if not. But we decided to go with this combination, and current form was definitely the criteria."
Indeed, after a successful Test series against the Sri Lankans, Rohit had pushed his case even further when he hit an unprecedented third career double-century in one-day internationals, followed by a second Twenty20 international hundred a few days after. Never mind that both match-winning efforts also came against their battered neighbours, at home and in different formats.
Aside from sounding a touch defensive, Kohli made the mistake of comparing apples with oranges.
Scoring runs at home or away against a weakened Sri Lankan Test bowling attack was never going to have any bearing when facing the likes of Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel and Kagiso Rabada on their turf.
So, far away from the placid tracks of India, neither Dhawan nor Rohit were capable of rising to the occasion while facing a more fearsome attack.
For Dhawan it was his inability to read the admittedly variable bounce the pitch offered, seen from the way he got out in the second innings. In Rohit's case his temperament failed him once again as he played rash shots when India needed him to stay after the fall of Kohli's wicket.
While neither batsman can be blamed for staking places in the side just before this tour, in doing so they managed to keep out of the XI two players undoubtedly more suited to the seaming conditions in South Africa: Lokesh Rahul and Ajinkya Rahane.
Granted Rahul did not get enough match practice in the long format during the run up to the tour, while vice-captain Rahane was frustratingly out of form during the past few weeks. They nevertheless deserved to play at Newlands based on their track record outside the subcontinent.
One cannot ignore the fact that both players have got Test hundreds in Australia. In fact Rahul did it in just his second Test.
Compare this to the batting record of Dhawan, whose only notable outings beyond the subcontinent came as far back as 2014 when he scored 115 and 98 in Auckland and Wellington. He may have collected the majority of his Test runs outside India, but the bulk of them have been in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh - hardly benchmarks for Test quality in recent years.
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As for Rahane, South Africa was where he established himself as one of India's premier Test batsmen when he scored 47, 15, 51 not out and 96 during the 2013 tour.
Back then Rahane's gain was Rohit's loss with the latter, long touted as the next big thing in Indian cricket, losing his No 5 spot in the five-day game to his longtime Mumbai teammate.
In a recent piece, this writer had remarked that Rohit had once again the opportunity to rebuild his Test career and justify his immense batting talent. The same could also be said about Dhawan, whose Test stats pale in comparison to his record in the shorter formats.
But defeats tend to produce fall guys, and knowing Kohli's proclivity to make changes after nearly every game, one or both of Dhawan and Rohit may find they have run out of rope.
Updated: January 9, 2018 06:42 PM