Cricket World Cup 2019: Rohit Sharma, India’s man for all seasons, delivers again
Virat Kohli termed Rohit Sharma‘s 122* as the batsman’s best ODI hundred. © AFP

SOUTHAMPTON: The ball from Chris Morris pitched on a length, suckered Rohit Sharma half-forward and then whizzed past the outer edge of his bat. Almost as one, the fans at the Rose Bowl let out a collective gasp. It didn’t matter where allegiances lay, this was a ripper of a ball that beat arguably the best opener in ODI cricket today.

Rohit turned and took a few steps toward square leg, collected his thoughts and took guard to face Morris’ next delivery. Overhead, the smattering of grey clouds appeared to inch closer, as if enamoured by the contest unfolding below.

This ball was shorter in length and surprised Rohit again. Almost pre-meditated in his movement, he was hurried into his press forward and looked on as the ball thudded into the shoulder of his bat and ballooned over the fielder at backward point. Again, oohs and aahs from the fans packed into the Rose Bowl. A single to Rohit, getting him off strike.

Those who didn’t see this match could look at the scorecard and say it was a low-scoring match lacking intensity. It would be misplaced judgement. India, chasing a target of 228 in their opening match of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019, were not quite sailing smoothly. Kagiso Rabada – left to lead South Africa’s bowling attack in the absence of Lungi Ngidi and Dale Steyn – and Morris were trying their best to turn that the runs on the board into something far more.

(ALSO READ: Kohli hails Rohit’s 122* as best hundred of his ODI career)

It was a situation, felt Sachin Tendulkar, that required the approach of a Test match. In his words, India’s openers needed to refrain from hurrying into the chase and instead assess the amount of movement off the pitch, see what type of bounce Rabada and Morris could generate up front.

Dhawan departed for 8, put out of his misery by a red-hot Rabada. Enter Virat Kohli, the top-ranked batsman in ODIs, who looked in good touch until, on 18, he got a ball from Andile Phehlukwayo that reared up. Quinton de Kock held a one-handed stunner and you thought, fleetingly, that South Africa could make a fist of this.

Rohit Sharma India vs South Africa World Cup
Rohit Sharma’s 23rd ODI hundred helped India chase South Africa’s 227. © AFP

But one man stood in their way. Rohit. He did exactly what Tendulkar said he would have to. He sussed out the surface, the bowling, the movement. He let the good balls go, and when he was beaten he didn’t let his mind get cluttered. He played as you’d expect Rohit Sharma to, and then some. Not disconcerted by the bounce early on, he emerged as the beacon of light that showed India the way towards victory.

(ALSO READ: Rohit Sharma’s 122* guides India to six-wicket win)

On another day, South Africa could have turned a total of 227 into something meatier. If Ngidi and Steyn had been fit, they could have, with Rabada, really put India under the pump. But on the day, Rohit’s calculated hundred kept them at arm’s length and took India to victory by six wickets.

His ability to counter the masterful bowling of Rabada and Morris with minimal fuss ultimately really hurt South Africa. The early passage cleared, Rohit unfurled a few delectable cuts and pulls. Imran Tahir was coolly picked off, with deft use of the crease. Tabraiz Shamsi, he of the telephone-dialling celebration after a wicket, wasn’t even allowed to get a dial tone. The threat of Phehulkayo – far less than Rabada or Morris – was negated with gentle dabs and nudges.

(ALSO READ: Kohli applauds game-changer Chahal and disciplined Bumrah)

What was most laudable about Rohit’s innings was his skilled placement and rotation of the strike. He didn’t have to force the pace as the KL Rahul also squandered a start, because he was in control. This allowed MS Dhoni to take his time. This kept the run rate in control. This kept South Africa searching for breakthroughs. The sight of Rohit dropping the ball in front of midwicket of pushing into the covers, deflecting just wide of point or fine leg, gnawed away at South Africa.

Moments after Rohit got to his 23rd ODI hundred – putting him at third in India’s all-time list – David Miller dropped a sitter at cover. It wasn’t South Africa’s day.

After the match, Kohli was moved to term Rohit’s unbeaten 122 off 144 balls as the best innings he’s seen from the batsman. That’s high praise. And this is a man who has three ODI double-centuries, mind you.

“I think in my opinion this is by far his best ODI innings because of the kind of pressure the first game brings from a World Cup point of view. And then I know, as a batsman, when you go in and a few balls bounce like that, it’s not easy to gather yourself again and play in a calm manner,” said Kohli. “A lot of times batsmen tend to hit their way out of the situation. But he was very composed, he was very — he’s played so many games, we expect a lot of maturity and a lot of responsibility from someone like him.

“In my opinion, of all the brilliant innings I have seen him play, I think this, for me, was the top of the pile because of the way he compiled his innings and at no stage did we feel like, or he felt like he is going to throw it away.”

Indeed, Rohit’s century stood tall on day dominated by the bowlers. And it has laid down the marker for India’s batting in the World Cup.