Nothing can provide context to the most insignificant match of a most inconsequential bilateral ODI series. Not even Rohit Sharma at his free-flowing best. But what he certainly can do—and did at the packed VCA Stadium in Nagpur on Sunday— is to make you lean back in your seat, hands behind the head, and say: what the heck!
Coming into the fifth and the final match against Australia, India already had the series in the bag. To further erode its importance, they fielded a full-strength side, not giving Mohammad Shami and Umesh Yadav a second chance after Bangalore. They also left KL Rahul on the bench. The already manufactured No.4 debate became even more meaningless. Where was the big picture to look at?
The beauty of Rohit’s batting lies in the simplicity of what it achieves: he isolates the mind from the past and the future and brings it right back into the moment. The Chennai, Kolkata and Indore victories, the Bangalore defeat, the 243-run target, the 2019 World Cup… everything faded into the background as he leaned a bit and drove one past Pat Cummins for a four to get off the mark off the 15th ball he faced. For the next 94 balls and 34 overs, the cuts and pulls, the flicks and drives flowed from his bat as Rohit brought up his 14th ODI century to ensure India’s victory. It was also his sixth one-day hundred against Australia.
Defined by opposition
Some players come to be defined by their opposition – Sunil Gavaskar and West Indies; Virender Sehwag and Pakistan; Sachin Tendulkar and Australia. Like Sachin, whose mantle he was tipped to assume from a young age, Rohit also relishes the challenge the men from Down Under pose. Against this opposition, he has scored 1,593 runs in 28 matches at 66.37 runs per innings – the best average of all batsmen against the team that is considered the gold standard in cricket. Since the ODI series at home against the same opponents in 2013 – which marked Rohit’s transformation as a batsman – his numbers against the Aussies are scarcely believable: 1,400 runs at 93.33 in 18 matches.
“I would love to have such a record against all the teams. I’ve always loved playing against this Australian team — they are very competitive, they never give away anything easily,” Rohit said after the match.
Australia, too, knew which wicket they most wanted if they were to defend 242 – 30 to 40 runs short of what they had looked set to achieve at the outset, but for the Indian spinners. Having seen off the initial overs, Rohit began to build a partnership with Ajinkya Rahane. Adam Zampa came closest to dismissing the man, finding his inside and outside edges in one over. His inaccuracy meant these chances were few and far between. Off-spinner Travis Head, too, created a few problems early on, but Rohit danced down the track to smite him over long-on before creaming him through cover and extra cover to disrupt his line and length.
Unlike his earlier avatar, where he would often throw his wicket away after getting his eye in, this Rohit has a propensity to post big scores: mighty big ones. Australia are aware of this, too, better than most teams. Three of the top 10 individual scores against the Aussies have been posted by Rohit, including a double ton. Smith and Co’s shoulders began to slump.
That, for all its effortlessness, it wasn’t an easy knock was evident as the three-figure mark loomed. It was a hot evening, and Rohit had begun to hobble between the wickets. Nathan Coulter-Nile was bowling pinging cutters at short of a length, and the batsman was finding it difficult to connect. Rohit missed and edged a few as he tried to heave across the line. Then he sat back a fraction of a second extra for one such delivery and flat-batted it straight back.
Usually, such a shot needs powerful hands and shoulder muscles to take it past the boundary line. But with Rohit, it was all sweet timing. The ball sailed over the hoardings and Rohit raised his hands heavenwards in celebration. “Initially, batting was tough. They (the Australians) came on to the stumps as compared to the first few games, and the wicket wasn’t playing too good either. Once I got my eye in, it was just about rotating and staying ahead of the run rate all the time,” he later said.
Rohit’s effort complemented a superlative performance by India’s spinners, in particular, Kedar Jadhav. Sometime in the middle of the Australian innings, when the visiting team had stuttered against spin after a promising start, the broadcaster flashed the outcome of a quick poll: ‘Is Kedar Jadhav turning into a full-time bowler?’. Eighty-one per cent of the respondents concurred, and their assessment was further validated by Kohli as he afforded the off-spinner a full quota of overs for the first time since he made a name for himself as Indian cricket’s man with the golden arm in the home series against New Zealand a year ago.
Jadhav gave away 48 runs and walked away with the prize scalp of Steven Smith. Together with left-arm spinner Axar Patel, who took three wickets for 38 runs, Jadhav broke the momentum openers David Warner and Aaron Finch had given the Australian innings. Their effort also gave death-bowling exponents Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar the perfect platform to restrict Australia to what looked like a par score. Rohit then made a short work of it.