It must be odd being Rohit Sharma.
One day, you get a peach of a delivery from Morne Morkel first up that rattles the stumps before you could trouble the scorers — cue suggestions that Rohit's time as a Test batsman must surely be up. Another day, you tear apart (an admittedly inexperienced) Australian bowling line-up, making 171 runs at the Waca, Perth no less, helping your team to 309 in 50 overs but still end up on the losing side.
And add to that the fact that twice in the gap of a eight limited over internationals, a sensational Rohit Sharma century in the first innings has gone in vain due to the inability of the Indian bowlers to defend considerable targets — first in Dharamsala in the first T20I against South Africa (India made 199, thanks to Rohit's 106) and now in Perth against World Champions, Australia in the first of the five 50-over matches.
For Sharma, it is becoming a case of damned if you don't, defeated if you do.
The first ODI century by an Indian batsman in Perth was an innings of complete control. Right from the moment he on-drove Josh Hazelwood for an elegant boundary in the very first over, Rohit looked in imperious touch. Except for the loud LBW shout off an inswinging yorker from Joel Paris' first ball in international cricket and an uncomfortable pull that he top-edged over 'keeper Matthew Wade early on, Rohit never looked like getting out. With an equally imperious Virat Kohli for company, Rohit vindicated Dhoni's rather surprising, but ultimately right, decision to bat first under overcast skies.
What followed was Rohit's third score of 170+ in ODIs (tied with Sachin Tendulkar for the most by an Indian) and his fourth ton against the Australians. The innings surprisingly never exploded, so to speak. In fact, after a quick-fire start where he raced to 23 in his first 19 balls, Rohit's strike rate never crossed 100 even once in the innings till the 50th over when he took the debutant Scot Boland to the cleaners. But the strike rate never once dropped considerably either - this was Rohit pacing his innings to perfection. There was no dropping off at the end of the innings after the breaking of a big partnership, like we saw in Dharamsala or many other occasions before. Rohit, Dhoni and Ravindra Jadeja together scored an impressive 66 runs in the last 33 balls after Kohli was dismissed nine runs short of a deserving century.
Later in the day, once it became evident George Bailey and Steve Smith will chase down the target with ease, there were murmurs of whether India were short of 20-25 runs, of whether Rohit and Kohli should have accelerated earlier. But that's revisionism at its best. Flat track or not, a score of 309 batting first was impressive, if not sensational. It's the bowling - and occasional poor fielding - that lost India this match, without any doubt.
It didn't look bad to begin with, mind you. Debutant left-armer Barinder Sran struck early blows to send both Aaron Finch and David Warner back in the hut. From 21 for 2, with Dhoni's favourite middle-phase of the innings with his spinners yet to begin, India were favourites. But Bailey and Smith had other ideas.
The 19 completed overs from the spinners cost India 140 runs, with a return of two late, ultimately meaningless wickets for Ravichandran Ashwin. Bailey and Smith, after weathering the initial storm, took on the spinners from the word go. Rohit's first and only over (yes, Dhoni threw the ball to Rohit ahead of both his frontline spinners) went for 11 runs, Ashwin's first two overs went for 17 and first five went for 48, Jadeja's first four went for 23 runs. The two Australian batsmen who are especially fond of taking on Indian bowlers in all formats never let Dhoni take control of the game with his spinners — a control that he craves, a control that he more often than not enforces, even overseas. (Remember the Champions Trophy in England?)
Ultimately, Ashwin's uncharacteristic bowling of regular boundary balls and the inability to apply any kind of pressure on Bailey and Smith proved the difference in the end. That the fielders missed at least three clear-cut run-out chances and Bailey's knick to Dhoni off his very first ball was not given out, didn't help India's case either (DRS, anyone?). That young Sran was the most impressive of Dhoni's five bowlers, despite conceding at six runs an over, tells its own story.
"When I was speaking about sharing the load before the match, I was speaking about when the fast-bowlers don't have a very good day, then I will have to use the spinner. I never thought it will be the spinners who will have a very bad day and the others will have to share that responsibility," Dhoni said after the match.
"If the batsman hits you over long-on and long-off, fair enough, it is always a good shot, and with a bit of risk involved. You have to make sure with the field restrictions that you don't get hit in an area where you don't have a fielder. That is something we will have to avoid," he added.
This was a case of Dhoni's ace up the sleeve getting snatched away from him, brutally so, by the calculated aggression of Steve Smith and George Bailey. Dhoni does not have the services of a potent seam-bowling all-rounder, as he has made abundantly clear in the press conferences recently, but whether he will persist with the three seamers-two spinners combination for the rest of the series remains to be seen.
And what he decides to do with that might just be the decisive factor in determining who emerges on top, Down Under.