5 December, 2013 – India vs South Africa in Johannesburg.
The first match of the ODI series at the 'Bullring' witnessed a spectacular passage of play. Chasing a mammoth 359 for victory, India needed an explosive start from their best ODI batsman of the year, Rohit Sharma. But he was up against the venomous, poisonous Dale Steyn armed with a shiny new ball.
On a flat Johannesburg wicket, Steyn consistently pitched the ball in and around the off-stump and moved it away. Rohit, stood bedazzled, clueless and tentative. The opener played out 15 dot balls that did not even touch his bat before finally laying bat to ball on the 16th delivery and a leading edge getting him his first runs on the 17th.
It might be the guile, tenacity, persistence and magic of Steyn, but Rohit or the 'Hitman' as he is popularly known now, isn't an unconquerable force. The Australians, though, have been scratching their heads right from the time he smashed a spectacular double hundred against them in 2013 and have still not managed to find a way past the Indian opener in limited overs cricket.
Take a glance at these mind-boggling numbers:
Twenty-eight matches, 1,593 runs, an average of 66.37, a strike rate of 97.73, highest score of 209, six hundreds and five half-centuries.
This is Rohit's ODI record against the mighty, world-conquering Australians. Not since Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman has a batsman toyed with the Australian bowling so much. Not one player, with more than 500 runs, save the Mumbaikar, has an average of 60-plus against Australia in ODIs. Rohit boasts of 66.37.
Rohit's T20I record against Australia, however, seems like a blip. An average of 29.33 in 13 matches with three half-centuries does not evoke much awe. But his ODI record speaks for itself. Only Tendulkar has more hundreds than him against the Aussies in this format (nine as against six). And in the five-match ODI series that ended last week, the 'Hitman' made 296 runs in five matches with an average of 59.20 and a highest of 125 in the final ODI. His scores in the last three matches read 71, 65, 125.
With this kind of form spurring him on, historical numbers take a back seat when the T20Is get underway on Saturday. The dreaded 'Hitman' has arrived and the Aussies have no place to hide. It's either break past him or be humiliated. As the Australian management erase previous plans and chalk out fresh ones for the Mumbai Indians skipper, here are a few options they need to explore and a few others they need to steer clear of:
Get him early or pay the price
"Rohit is really batting well. He bats well in Indian conditions. He is a great player. The first 10 balls to him are important. You need to try and get him out in the first 10 balls. We will probably look to bowl the glory ball. He is one of those players who kicks on if he gets past 20," South African bowling coach, Charl Laangveldt had told reporters during an ODI series in 2015.
The former Proteas seamer is spot on with his assessment. Rohit struggles against the new, shiny, seaming, swinging ball and it is during these early minutes at the crease that he is the most vulnerable. The Aussies need to expose him then and there, in the first few balls he faces.
To plan this out better, they need to make sure that the right bowlers are on when Rohit steps out to bat. The ODI opener's batting position is bit of a conundrum given that he bats at No 4 for the Mumbai Indians in the Indian Premier League (IPL). India also have KL Rahul at their disposal to partner Shikhar Dhawan at the top and Rohit at No 4 for the Indian team cannot be totally ruled out.
Either way, Australia cannot afford to veer off their plans against the batsman with silken touch. A symbol of class, elegance and flair, Rohit is vulnerable in the first few balls he faces. Australia need to entrust Nathan Coulter-Nile with the task of pitching the ball up and finding swing to trouble the champion batsman. Coulter-Nile is a shrewd customer with the ball and can extract enough purchase from most surfaces with a brand new ball. If he can land the ball in the right areas, Rohit will be put to test early on. As Steyn showed on a dewy Johannesburg night four years ago, swing the ball at pace and you witness a Rohit Sharma in trouble.
Short balls are a no-no
Sub-continental batsmen are generally considered poor at handling the short stuff, but if the Australian team management have done a bit of home work, they would know that bowling short to Rohit is inviting trouble.
Even at Pat Cummins' pace, Rohit's amazing hand-eye coordination allows him ample time to get on top of the bounce and pull the ball away. Short stuff delivered at lesser pace is bread and butter stuff for the opening batsman.
Australia had consistently tried to plot Rohit's downfall in the series with short-pitched deliveries but this obviously isn't working as they would like it to. They might have found the top edge and snapped up the big man once or twice but you run the risk of helping Rohit get off to a flying start by bowling short at him.
Leggie with a googly
If the Australians had been closely following the IPL in 2017, they might have observed that the Mumbai Indians skipper had a profound weakness against leg-spinners and their wrong 'uns. Of his first 11 dismissals in IPL 2017, five were against the wrist spinners.
Imran Tahir, Samuel Badree, Amit Mishra, Rashid Khan and Rahul Tewatia troubled him right through the season with their bag of tricks and if anything, this should provide the visitors with an ideal template on how to breach the defence of the 'Hitman'.
They have a talented young leg-spinner in Adam Zampa and although he was clobbered in the ODIs by a rampant Hardik Pandya, he showed enough promise to warrant a place in the T20Is. His experience with Rising Pune Supergiant in the IPL will also stand him in good stead.
In fact, Rohit's whole record against leggies in the IPL isn't one to be proud of. Batting at No 4 for Mumbai, Rohit more often than not had had to deal with spinners right from the word go and had evidently failed to adapt to this well enough.
"I was trying to play with the spin, which is what we're taught, but these [leg-spinners] were bowling googlies, so I had to play against it," Rohit said about his approach to leg spin after an unbeaten 40 against Gujarat Lions in IPL 2017. "I decided to not play in the 'V'. I know it sounds stupid to not to play in the 'V' but that's how it is now."
While he might have devised a tactic to counter this, Australia could still gamble on Zampa if India decide to spring a surprise and delay Rohit's arrival at the crease.
This brings us to a couple of other aspects in Rohit's batting that the Aussies could exploit.
Pace off the ball and the part-timer adventure
Any opening batsman loves pace on the ball. It allows them to focus on timing and placement as pace compensates for any loss of power. Rohit's game plan is built around steadying himself at the wicket early by getting a feel of ball on bat and then fine-tuning his rhythm by caressing the ball through the gaps.
In Cummins, Coulter-Nile and Kane Richardson, Australia had a plethora of fast men in the ODIs, aiming to set the pace gun exploding while they ran in at Rohit. But this has clearly not worked and a move in the other direction – deprive him of all pace on the ball – may not be a bad idea.
Marcus Stoinis managed to dish out some cutters and slower balls to pretty good effect in the ODIs, but Steve Smith's conservative captaincy meant that the all-rounder wasn't encouraged enough with the right fielders or proper plans.
But against the rampant Rohit, this tactic could be worth a try. It is bizarre that Stoinis isn't in the T20I squad despite being one of the few to impress in the ODIs for Australia, but they do have other dibbly-dobbly bowlers to put off the ace Indian batsman.
Dan Christian used his slower balls and cutters quite well in the IPL and this played a big role in taking Rising Pune Supergiant to the final of the 2017 edition of the IPL. Christian is a veteran bowler and has enough experience and guile to mix up his pace and bamboozle batsmen into false strokes early on and is a potent option upfront against Rohit.
Moises Henriques, with his seemingly innocuous seam bowling or Travis Head, with his sharp off-breaks are other options the Aussies could try against the Mumbai batsman. The opener loves to front up against the pace bowlers and pushing in someone like Head or off-spinner Glenn Maxwell with the new ball could put off the Mumbaikar.
All said and done, the outstanding batsman is in the form of his life and any amount of tactics or plans ranging from A-Z may not be sufficient enough to get him back in the hut. But the Australians have tried little and only fuelled his strengths in the ODI series. They will not want to make similar mistakes when walking out for the 20 over clashes.