Not his position in the team, not by any stretch, but Rohit Sharma’s pride definitely was at stake. He had become Kagiso Rabada’s bunny — six dismissals against the fast bowler on this tour, coming into the fifth ODI at Port Elizabeth on Tuesday. He might have got used to living with the Test underachiever tag. But white-ball cricket is his domain. An average of 10 after the first four ODIs here had been threatening his reputation. A response was due and it came today though his maiden ODI century in South Africa — 17th overall.
In the process, he also helped India to notch up a 73-run win and clinch their first-ever ODI series victory in South Africa. After a forgettable outing in Johannesburg in the last match, wristspinners Kuldeep Yadav (4-57) and Yuzvendra Chahal (2-43) shared six wickets between them while all-rounder Hardik Pandya accounted for the dangerous AB de Villiers and JP Duminy as South Africa, chasing 275 to stay alive, folded for 201 in 42.2 overs. The chief architect of the win, however, was Rohit.
“It was a long time coming,” said Rohit after receiving the Man of the Match award for his 126-ball 115, an innings that nearly tripled his ODI batting average in South Africa — from 11.45 to 20.08. “It’s always a good feeling when you score a hundred and your teams wins. You’ve got to keep yourself in a good frame of mind, and that’s what I’ve been doing. I knew I don’t have to change a lot and the runs will come. It was my day today.
It wasn’t a quintessential Rohit innings. Far from it. But he showed gumption and got the monkey off his back. Lateral movement is Rohit’s bugbear. But this St George’s Park surface, despite the green tinge, offered very little sideways movement. Overcast skies could have assisted swing, but the South African quicks — Rabada and Morne Morkel — are basically hit-the-deck bowlers. This is not an effort to undermine Rohit’s hundred. A batsman of his limited-overs pedigree deserve some rub of the green to go his way.
Some credit goes to Shikhar Dhawan too as he played a big role upfront to help his struggling partner settle down. On what would gradually become a sluggish pitch, the new ball was India’s best chance to make a slick start. The in-form Dhawan took on Rabada. The fast bowler was working up good pace, but Dhawan’s exhilarating cover drive somewhat neutralised him. Then, the left-hander pulled another short ball from the pacer for a four followed by a streaky boundary to third man.
The best part of Dhawan’s batting during that period was the way he shielded Rohit from Rabada. The latter hustled Rohit a few times with his pace. But the opener slowly into the groove and an audacious six over long-on was his first statement of intent. Rabada made the next delivery jag back sharply and struck Rohit on the box.
Dhawan, at the other end, was enjoying himself. He romped to 30 off just 21 balls, hitting three fours in a Morkel over. His dismissal was sort of an anti-climax — a pull straight to deep square leg off Rabada. The bowler waved a ‘goodbye’ and it was time for Rohit to step up. He did it admirably.
The Mumbai batter made full use of the loose deliveries from Lungi Ngidi. Back-to-back fours off Duminy — a cut and a back cut — were sheer poetry. A single off Tabraiz Shamsi, in for the injured Chris Morris, took him to his first half-century of the tour.
Rohit marched along in company of his skipper, who didn’t look like getting out save a mid-pitch mix up. Unfortunately from India’s point of view, that was precisely what happened and Virat Kohli departed for his lowest score of the series — 36. His series average came down drastically: from 411 to a still celestial 120.
Looking back, maybe Rohit would rue the fact that he contributed to the run-outs of Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane. Rohit’s innings was a mixed-bag, a nervy start followed by some glorious shots, but it was his running between the wickets — his occasional indifference to his partners’ calls to be precise — that affected the team’s momentum.
India were 148/1 after 25 overs. Both Rohit and Kohli had been dominating the opposition bowling, run-rate was touching six per over and a 300-plus total had been there for the taking. The 26th over started with Kohli beautifully steering Morkel fine to the third man boundary. Two balls later, the India captain was gone. Rohit dabbed a back-of-a-length delivery and made a start. Kohli responded and reached almost the good length area in a flash. By then, however, Rohit had decided he won’t be going for the single. Kohli had no chance of making it back and the most precious Indian wicket fell to an underarm throw to the bowling end from JP Duminy.
South Africa had been presented with a jackpot. The double whammy was served, when Rohit’s ball-watching accounted for Rahane’s scalp. Rahane had played a Rabada delivery with soft hands to Morkel at mid-on, South Africa’s slowest mover on the field. The call for a single was loud and clear and Rahane had been running to the danger end. He almost completed the run and almost the return as well. Rohit remained unmoved at the non-striker’s end. Rahane smiled in amusement before heading back to the pavilion. India’s customary middle-overs choke had started.
From 173/2 after 31 overs, India finished on 274/7 after 50. It looked about 30 runs below par that time, but the bowlers responded magnificently.
Between 41 and 45 overs India scored 10 runs, losing Rohit, Hardik Pandya and Shreyas Iyer. The run-outs affected Rohit’s composure. He upper-cut Rabada straight to Shamsi at third man and was relieved to see the fielder drop a sitter. Rohit was on 96 then. To rub salt into the wound, he reached his hundred with a couple off the chinaman bowler.
Rohit usually doesn’t perish easily after reaching three figures. He prides in staying till the end. But Ngidi, in his second spell, found his desired length and started to cramp the batsmen for room. He removed Rohit with a delivery that bounced a little more and seamed in off the deck. Rohit got a top edge to Heinrich Klaasen behind the stumps. Pandya was gone next ball, done in by a fast in-dipper that took the bottom edge to the ‘keeper. Ngidi’s double-wicket maiden took the wind out of India’s sails.
The young fast bowler dismissed Iyer in his next over. The pitch started playing slower as the match progressed. The ball became softer and hitting got difficult. MS Dhoni struggled to force the pace. An outside edge past the ‘keeper gave him a boundary but he was out next ball, with Aiden Markram diving forward full-length to take the catch off Ngidi. His Chennai Super Kings skipper’s scalp gave the burly Ngidi his fourth wicket. His final spell read: 5-1-29-4.