No insecurity, no outside pressure; focus on role clarity and bench strength: Rohit lays out his vision

“I really can’t tell you anything about his place abroad and why he can’t find it or why he’s in the XI. I honestly have no idea as I wasn’t in the selection at the time so I can’t really tell you what happened there and why was he kicked out or why was it played and that sort of thing. India captain Rohit Sharma was responding after the Mohali test to a question about R Ashwin often not getting a place in the playing XI on away tours lately.

It was a clear line in the skipper’s sand, that he could not comment with reasonable clarity on such calls being made in Kohli’s time. About his own stint, Rohit made some key observations after his first Test match as captain. He said developing more strength from the team’s bench in all formats was going to be more important to him than winning games. And beyond developing that strength, it was also essential to keep those on the bench motivated and ready to perform when the opportunity presented itself.

Rohit is now nearly four months in charge, with the unenviable task of first identifying who could do well for the T20I team in Australian conditions at the World Cup in October. So far he has had to judge contenders based on home series against West Indies and Sri Lanka, and mostly on grounds where a straight six could be a trap for the midfielder at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Considering how questionable team selection also contributed to India’s debacles in the 2019 50-over and 2021 20-over World Cups, there is increased pressure on the team’s management to get the right combination, starting with Australia.

India captain Rohit Sharma, left, listens to head coach Rahul Dravid as they watch the players practice during a training session ahead of the first international Twenty20 cricket match between India and Sri Lanka in Lucknow, India, Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Surjeet Yadav)

“It’s absolutely difficult and it’s very, very important,” Rohit said of building bench strength.

“It’s not just about 11 players. It is also about those who sit outside, who want to take advantage of their opportunities. You rightly spoke about building that bench strength, which is what the future of Indian cricket holds. If you create that bench strength and start thinking from now, Indian cricket will be in good hands.

“It’s one of my challenges and one of my responsibilities. I have to take it upon myself to create as much bench strength as possible, keeping a lot of things in mind. The guys playing, it’s a relatively new team in all three formats. Two of our mainstays in Ajinkya (Rahane) and (Cheteshwar) Pujara are missing, (Wriddhiman) Saha is not there, Ishant (Sharma) is not there… Relatively a young and new team and that is the same in limited cricket that well, a lot of youngsters are coming. That will be my biggest challenge more than winning games.

So far, Rohit has led nine T20Is, three ODIs and a Test since Virat Kohli stepped down at the end of the 2021 T20 World Cup. And that’s naturally in the shortest format, with another Cup of the world to come, that he gave chances to the most players to date – 24. After the T20I series ended against Sri Lanka in Dharamsala, Rohit said he still wanted to understand the kind of strength of bench that was at his disposal.

India 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 also clarified that player tryouts cannot become a revolving door and that winning games is also necessary to maintain a positive atmosphere in the dressing room.

For example, Avesh Khan had an opportunity in the third T20I against West Indies and Sri Lanka, only after winning the series. Kuldeep Yadav made his return after July 2021 in the third ODI against West Indies and the third T20I against Sri Lanka, after those series were also won.

At the same time, Rohit may also want to use established players in different roles or give them additional responsibilities, so space will also need to be found for such moves, while giving youngsters chances. As Ravindra Jadeja was sent to the batting order in the Sri Lanka T20Is where he did a good job. Rohit admitted that he might not always be able to make such moves. “I hope I get the opportunity to use his (Jadeja’s) stick more in the future because we have a lot of young players that we need to see as well,” Rohit said.

During Mohali’s test, Rohit was seen sitting and chatting with Mohammed Siraj, who was not playing the game. It was an example of his stated desire to keep those outside of the XI informed and in good spirits. Through a combination of injuries and cap calls, Siraj had only played West Indies ODIs and a T20I against New Zealand under Rohit. But he was brought back for the third inconsequential T20I against Sri Lanka in Dharamsala to share the new ball with Avesh, as Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah were rested.

“For me, what’s important is how I approach these guys who are sitting outside and how I can put them in a good frame of mind,” Rohit said. “When they get the chance, they have to be very clear about what they want to do and achieve. It will impact all of our performances whether we win or lose games. You can’t just say you you have to win games. To win games, there are a lot of things you have to do: create strength on the bench, give clarity to people, create a good environment so that it is a pleasant and happy atmosphere where the people want to go out there and do their job.

It’s a break from the previous team’s management line of thinking, where winning could be, and often was, the all-consuming goal at all costs. Insecurity was no doubt used to boost performance or was an inevitable, but acceptable, by-product of chasing victory.

Rohit instead said he didn’t want to pile any more pressure on his part than was already on the shoulders of the average Indian cricketer. His argument that bench strength development and ambiance is more important than winning matches can also be based on the fact that the general quality of Indian cricket is so good that you end up winning more than by losing.

“They shouldn’t feel too much pressure. Of course, when you play international cricket, the pressure is there. But that external pressure shouldn’t be there, the internal pressure is good,” Rohit said. “As team management, we want to create a healthy, positive atmosphere where guys go out and do what they’re supposed to do. We will try to support them as much as possible so that at the end of the day, when they go home, they say to themselves: “I had my chance, 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 this procedure is in place, we will keep ourselves in good shape.”