On 2nd March 2008, two seemingly unrelated events happened 6000 kilometres apart with two different protagonists of Indian cricket. A 19-year-old Virat Kohli lifted the Under-19 Cricket World Cup trophy for India at Kinrara Oval, Kuala Lumpur. At the Sydney Cricket Ground, a 21-year old Rohit Sharma - who also played the final of the previous edition of the Under-19 World Cup - batting at number 5 scored a crucial 66 and shared a match-winning partnership of 123 with Sachin Tendulkar to win the first of three finals of the Commonwealth Bank Series in Australia. Fast forward to 2013, both these players became the mainstay of India cricket in limited-overs format five years down the line. Both of them were in the list of top 5 run-getters in ODIs in 2013. Though Rohit had a rocky journey to the top compared to Kohli, he still remains the proverbial ‘the most talented batsman of India who has not done justice to it in all forms of cricket’.
As it happens with most youngsters, in cricket, Rohit lost his mojo after initial success in 2008. In and out of the team, in the five years between 2008 and end of 2012, he just scored 1978 runs at an average of 30 in ODIs. Luck plays a vital role in every athlete’s life. Navjot Singh Sidhu’s stiff neck provided an opportunity for Tendulkar to open in ODIs. Murali Vijay who was the preferred opening partner for Shikhar Dhawan and played two warm-up matches in the ICC Champion’s Trophy in 2013 was sidelined by captain MS Dhoni. Rohit was asked to open in the first match against South Africa just a day before the match. In an interview to the YouTube show - Breakfast with Champions, Rohit admits that he was not even looking to be part of the playing XI and was preparing for training instead. He did not even care to know who the opposition was in the first match. In his first outing as an opener, he scored 65 and put up a 127-run partnership with Dhawan. Since then there has been no looking back for him.
More effect than impact
Describing Ian Chappell the player, the famous BBC's Test Match Special cricket commentator John Arlott said, “Chappell is a cricketer of effect rather than the graces”. Rohit can be called a “cricketer of effect rather than the impact”. Since 2013, Rohit is second to Kohli in the list of top run-scorers in ODIs and way ahead of the other openers in the format. As an opener for India, he is closing in on Virender Sehwag and Sourav Ganguly in terms of runs scored in ODIs. Rohit does not create the ‘shock and awe’ impact what his predecessor Sehwag brought to the game. But he is extremely effective in the end. No other opener in the history of ODI cricket has scored 3000 runs with an average above 50 and a strike rate above 90. Statistically, he has been the best ODI opener India has ever had, even ahead of his idol Tendulkar or possibly in the history of ODI cricket. We will keep that debate for some other day but let’s examine where Rohit stands among India ODI openers. Amongst Tendulkar, Sehwag, Ganguly, Dhawan, Gautam Gambhir and many others.
Best ODI Opener for India?
A particular stat that is astounding and shows how effective he has been for India’s ODI success is – Rohit and Kohli have played 126 ODIs since the ICC Champions Trophy in 2013 winning 79 (63%) of them. India has lost all the three matches where each of them has scored less than 10. One against Sri Lanka in West Indies and other two are the ICC Champions Trophy final against Pakistan in 2017 and World Cup 2019 semi-final against New Zealand. The graph below depicts the gulf between Rohit (58.11) and other openers from India in terms of batting average.
The next best after Rohit is KL Rahul (50.5) who has scored just scored 808 runs compared to Rohit’s 7148 runs as an opener. In terms of strike-rate, Dhawan (94.02) is marginally ahead of Rohit (92.27) while Sehwag (105) is a clear winner. But they fall short on average by scoring 13 and 21 runs fewer than Rohit per innings respectively.
Contribution to wins
Openers play the most crucial roles in a team’s success in white-ball cricket. They have to face the best opposition bowlers with a new ball on a fresh pitch. Their success and contribution mostly provides a direction in which the innings is headed. The chart below shows the contribution of Indian openers in wins and non-win matches.
Rohit’s contribution in wins is almost 10 runs more than Tendulkar with a mammoth average of 70.15. Even in losses, Rohit has an average close to 40. Among regular openers, Tendulkar, Dhawan and Sunil Gavaskar are ones with an average in the 30s in losses and others are below 30. The huge difference (30.84) in Rohit’s average in win and non-win matches provides an indication of how Rohit’s success is closely entwined with his team’s success.
Performance in different match conditions
Rohit as an opener has performed way ahead of his counterparts when it comes to batting in different situations of the game. Rohit is the only opener with a 50-plus average in both home and away games.
While setting a target or chasing it, Rohit is way ahead of the pack and he is the only opener to have an average of 50-plus in both innings. Not only he is ahead of his counterparts, but the gap he has maintained with greats like Tendulkar makes him stand out.
Make hay while the sun shines
Gavaskar while commentating on cricket keeps advising players - when you are in good form accumulate runs as much as you can for the days when you will have a loss of form. If you have got a start, make it big, go for a hundred. If you have got to a hundred, make it a daddy hundred. Mumbai batsmen have mastered this skill. In ODIs, Rohit has taken this mantra to a new level. Rohit has scored three double hundreds and eight 150+ scores (both are world records). He has achieved all these while opening the batting.
In innings of 50-plus scores, Rohit averages a gigantic 132 in 58 fifty-plus innings. Tendulkar with 120 fifty-plus innings has an average of 113. Both Rohit and Tendulkar's median score after scoring a 50 is 91. That exhibits the high chance of getting to a hundred after they go past the score of 50. Everyone is familiar with Tendulkar’s hunger for accumulating runs and especially hundreds. Rohit has converted 47% of his fifty-plus scores to 100s whereas Tendulkar has converted 38% of his fifty-plus scores to 100s. This should give us a drift, the direction in which Rohit is headed.
And the winner is
The above analysis clearly puts Rohit ahead of all the Indian openers including Tendulkar. Though he has to climb half a mountain to reach where Tendulkar has reached in terms of aggregating runs as an opener, in all other aspects he has gone way ahead of him. In an age where the T20 style of play is gradually seeping into the ODI format, Rohit is an old school conventional opener who takes time to settle in. But no other opener knows how to pace the innings better than Rohit. As he admits himself, ‘that is the template’ I play. “Once you cross the three-figure mark, batting only gets easier. Unless you make a mistake, you will not get out. It can happen if you get a good ball, but eight out of 10 times you will not. I am not someone like AB de Villiers, or Chris Gayle, or MS Dhoni for sure. I don't have that much power. I have to use my brain to manipulate the field,” he said while explaining his approach to innings building. No wonder his strike-rate in the last 10 overs is 203, the highest amongst all openers who have been a part of the death overs in at least five innings.