‘It's quite simple, KL (Rahul) and Rohit have been performing at the top of the order for us and those two would start. And if Rohit takes rest or Kl has a niggle or something Shikki (Shikhar Dhawan) obviously comes back as a third opener. The starting composition, Rohit and Rahul will start.’
For someone generally renowned for vehemently concealing what the team composition would look like, Kohli essentially relegating a senior campaigner like Shikhar Dhawan to the bench, a day ahead of the series opener, was a bolt from the blue. It felt odd, unusual and uncharacteristic. As it turned out, though, the Indian skipper was just playing an evil prank.
Of course there was an easter egg in his words. Journalists and publications rushed to write, “Rahul and Rohit will open in the first T20I, confirms Kohli”, while conveniently ignoring a very important detail in the quote. At the toss on Friday, Kohli ensured that he made a whole bunch of journalists - and a billion fans - look like lamebrains. He pulled off the ultimate prank by revealing that ‘Shikki’ and Rahul would open owing to Rohit being rested. How did anyone not see it coming?
That’s a debate for later. For now, though, let us shift our focus to Rohit Sharma. Kohli revealed at the toss that the management had decided to give a rest to Rohit for two matches and confirmed that, in the Mumbaikar’s absence, Rahul and Dhawan would be the openers. Now some might argue that the decision ‘backfired’ because India lost comprehensively but that’s ridiculous. Even minus Rohit, India had Rahul, Kohli, Pant and Pandya in their team, so there really can be no excuses for posting 124/7 off 20 overs.
And Rohit, it goes without saying, deserved a rest. He has pretty much been inside a bubble since August - barring all but one week - and has been playing non-stop. He has also encountered injuries and setbacks so it makes complete sense to not let him feature in all 8 white-ball matches in the tour, for there’s a taxing, two-month long IPL starting a fortnight post the conclusion of the England tour.
But it is worth debating if India chose the right moment, and picked the right format, to rest him. There’ll be varying views on this, but logic says that they didn’t. And no, it has nothing to do with the fact that they were dusted aside effortlessly by England on Friday.
It is first important to understand the implications of Rohit being rested for the first two T20I games. Assuming that he’s actually been ‘rested’ and not made to sit out because he is carrying a niggle, chances are that Rohit will not just feature in the last three T20Is, but also the ODIs. 50-over cricket, it goes without saying, is Rohit’s favorite format and the ‘Hitman’ last played an ODI more than a year ago, so given the hiatus, there are high chances that the vice-captain might feature - if not lead the side - in the ODIs. Rohit, mind you, could very well be still rested for the ODIs, but if the plan is to make him sit the 50-over matches out, then it really does not make logical sense to deprive India of a full-strength side in the T20Is. So it is fair to assume that this rest has been provided to not burn him out or overwork him prior to the ODIs.
There is, however, a major drawback in this logic. While Rohit sitting out half the T20I series will help him heal his body, it will ultimately still not relieve him from the burden of spending life inside a bubble. This would not have been a cause for concern had India had considerable time off post the England tour, but the players, after just a week’s break, will then be immediately getting into another two-month long bubble for the IPL. What this would essentially mean is, should he get picked for the ODIs, Rohit would end up spending 10 straight months either rehabbing or inside biosecure bubbles. If players’ words and testimonies are to be believed, it is borderline inhumane.
The pragmatic solution, instead, would - and it is still a possibility, mind you - have been to let Rohit feature in the T20Is and send him home for the ODIs. Not only would this have ensured India having a full-strength batting line-up at their disposal for the T20Is, it would also have, in Shastri’s words, helped Rohit burst the bubble. A complete rest from the ODIs would have enabled Rohit to spend two weeks outside the bubble and be fresh - both mentally and physically - heading into the IPL, a scenario he might have benefited from. It could still yet be possible, but the chances now look slim.
But the decision to rest Rohit from the T20Is - and potentially play him in the ODIs - has consequences not just for the Indian vice captain, but also the team. ODIs, at least for the next 12-18 months, are inconsequential for India as, unlike other teams, they do not have to qualify via the ODI Super League. Unlike an England - who have won only 50% of their ODI Super League games thus far - India will qualify for the 2023 World Cup even if they lose every single game in the ongoing Super League cycle - owing to them being hosts; automatic qualification - and thus there is no real need to put out a full-strength side, particularly in the midst of a crammed, taxing schedule.
The situation is starkly different in T20Is. India have a World T20 to play in 8 months’ time and, in buildup to that, any practice - let alone 5 matches against the number side in the world - would prove to be invaluable. By not opting to field a full-strength side, however, the Men in Blue are risking heading into the World Cup with their strongest possible XI just not having played enough games together.
Kohli, on Thursday, said that he sees Rahul and Rohit as the first-choice openers, but if that is the case, the question needs to be asked - why then miss out an opportunity to field a top three of himself, Rohit and Rahul together, particularly with India playing only just over a handful of games prior to the WT20? Remarkably, and flabbergastingly, since the start of 2019, Kohli, Rohit and Rahul have featured in the same XI in only 7 of the 28 T20Is India have played in this time period. Understandably, injuries and rests have played a part in the same, but the fact remains that they are not really a trio well-versed batting with each other in the shortest format - yet.
At this point in time, India are banking on all of Rohit, Kohli and Rahul to strike instantaneous chemistry everytime they bat together, and history suggests that, regardless of how they’re paired, all three men will do that with elan. But that might prove to be a dangerous assumption. Across T20 cricket, both Kohli and Rahul have seen their strike rates considerably drop over the last 12 months, while Rohit has struggled to build any form or rhythm owing to lack of continuity. Each of them have evolved in their own merry way, and are categorically different from who they were 12 months ago.
There exists a genuine fear now that India have stacked their Top 4 with accumulators - particularly with Rahul’s new-found, more conservative approach in T20s - and hence these five T20s versus England could have proved to be the ideal test to assess the challenges the team might face; who needs to take up what role in which situation etc. There is yet an opportunity for the same - should India not rest Kohli for the last 2 or 3 matches - but, by opting to rest Rohit, India passed on an opportunity to know how good they exactly are, and learn more about themselves.
This rant, no doubt, is premature. It could very well be possible that India rest Rohit for the ODIs and it could very well be possible that Rohit, Rahul and Kohli bat flawlessly and indomitably every time play together, henceforth. But, given the recent turn of events, it is hard to not think that India, perhaps, in a World Cup year, are not taking T20Is as seriously as they should be.