INDIA TOUR OF SOUTH AFRICA
Rohit Sharma, who had struggled in the ODI series, returned to form with a fine century in the fifth ODI © Getty
One game of the series dominates the memory of India’s top-order bonhomie more than any other. In Cape Town, Rohit Sharma was dismissed without scoring, in the first over of the game. As he trudged back to the pavilion, Shikhar Dhawan put an arm around him and offered a sympathetic pat on the back. If that gesture had subtitles, it would have read: ‘Don’t worry, we’ve got this. Your time will come.’
Dhawan went on to put 140 with Virat Kohli as India claimed a big win there. Rohit had another off-day at the Wanderers and came to Port Elizabeth under some pressure, even though he would say later that “it had been only three (four) bad games.”
When India lost the toss at Port Elizabeth, Dhawan offered to give Rohit some more time to compose himself in the middle and walked over to the striker’s end. This time, the gesture was worth so much more – 115 runs to be precise – as Rohit shrugged off his bad inertia with a crucial century that took India to a historic series-clinching win.
A blur of outrageous shot-making abilities with each batsman capable of switching roles effortlessly makes India’s top-three the envy of the ODI world. Unlike some other teams, they set themselves up in a way that one of the three attempts to bat through the innings. Kohli did that with two of his hundreds while Dhawan was the anchor around whom the batting revolved in Johannesburg. At St. George’s Park, it was Rohit’s turn.
That both captains had wanted to bowl on the wicket at the toss highlighted the enormity of the task at hand for the batsmen. With the ball nipping around under overcast skies, there was a rationale behind a circumspect beginning. But unlike a true wicket like the one at Wanderers, this one needed runs to be scored at the top with hitting through the line against a soft ball proving near impossible. Under these circumstances, Rohit managed 1 run off 15 balls to begin the innings. But such a slow start for him is considered normal even when he’s coming off a double hundred. He usually begins slow, steadies through the middle before unleashing himself on the bowling.
Because there was no time for both batsmen to be slow off the blocks, Dhawan led a thrilling takedown of the South African quicks. In the fifth over, he picked up a couple of boundaries off Kagiso Rabada before hitting three boundaries off Morne Morkel’s next, unafraid to take on the short ball along the way. So while Rohit was still finding his feat, India had 48 on the board from 7.1 overs with Dhawan blitzing eight fours in a 23-ball innings worth 34. It was an innings worth its weight in gold as it gave Rohit the time to settle, who then proceeded to do the same favour for Kohli.
When Rohit stepped out to hit nemesis Rabada deep into the long-on stands, he seemed to have transcended once more to a batting evolution above others – including Kohli, who despite operating at the height of his powers struggled early on to pick his gaps for singles. This synergy between a daintily skilled six-hitter and the world’s most renowned constructor of an ODI innings allowed India to hover around the 6rpo mark even while the Indian captain scored a run for every two balls he faced.
At the toss, Kohli had mentioned that the batsmen would have to make quick calls on what an ideal target would be. Rohit realised early that it was not a 300 track. But by reaching 114 after 20 overs with Rohit getting to a run-a-ball half-century, India had put themselves in the best position to reach a safe total. Even the fast bowlers returned bowling hard lengths with the softer ball. India took 35 off Rabada’s opening spell while the two spinners – Shamsi and Duminy – went for 49 in a combined eight-over first spell.
“It augurs well for the team… We always talk about batsmen batting through the innings. That is what we are trying to do. Top three have got the best opportunity because they get to play maximum balls. So our three’s responsibility is that if we are set then we have to try and play long,” Rohit said.
“We realized at one point after 20-25 overs that it’s not a 300 wicket because the pitch was getting slower and slower and shot making wasn’t easy. When you get in, you’ve got to make it count and unless you play a bad shot you don’t really get out,” he added.
It was just what South Africa didn’t do when it was their turn to chase 275. Not scoring briskly meant that they left themselves with too much to score through the middle phase of the innings, where the soft ball, the scoreboard pressure and India’s wrist spinners all combined to create an everest of a task ahead of them.
“We spoke about pacing our innings knowing that we have strength at the back, but we needed a good start,” Ottis Gibson conceded. “To be fair we were 50 for none and we lost a wicket with four balls to go in the powerplay to their best bowler – Bumrah. But we lost a couple more shortly thereafter and that set us back. Hash [Amla] tried to rebuild but every time we rebuilt we lost wickets. With the four bowlers, we needed our best six or seven batsmen to bat the bulk of the overs and they weren’t able to do that.”
Rohit completed his 17th ODI ton, and the fourth by an Indian batsman in the series, in the 36th over. Ideally that would have been cue for him to make it big. But today he had to be content with 115 only. When he was dismissed in the 42nd over, he admonished himself by using his bat to cut through the thin Port Elizabeth air with an angry swish. Batting 42 overs is not batting through. His dismissal exposed an untested middle-order and triggered a collapse and India had to settle for 275 when a total above 300 seemed possible.
But those extra runs were merely insurance, which the bowling attack didn’t need on the day. India had one another ODI and with it, the series. The win was a function of their top-order brilliance as much as it was of their spin strength.
Nothing exemplified it more than a little chant from the Indian section of the St. George’s Park crowd – “If Kohli doesn’t get you, Dhawan will. If Dhawan doesn’t, then Rohit will.”
They will, unless of course the three are busy running each other out.