Rohit Sharma’s good, they will allow. Really good white-ball player, sure. 8000-plus ODI runs, we’ll give it to him. Pretty good IPL player too, with almost 5000 IPL runs. Decent IPL captain, admitted, since he does lead the most successful IPL franchise in history.
Sure, Rohit Sharma is a good player, they say.
But is he a great? No chance.
They, being those who believe Rohit is a flat track bully who can’t play the moving ball. They, being those who believe that Rohit doesn’t have the discipline for Test cricket, that he plays too many loose shots. They, who feel that Rohit should be spending more time improving that waistline than threatening triple hundreds against hapless Sri Lankans.
They, being those for whom the colour white only matters if you’re wearing it, not if you’re facing it.
But even they might be slightly moved after Wednesday.
Kagiso Rabada is due for a bagful of wickets later in this tournament, for that is the only justice for bowling so well against India for little reward. He harangued the edges of the Indians with the homing instincts of a bee who has found honey, and many times, its sting. A fearsome opening spell accounted for Shikhar Dhawan’s bat first, and then Dhawan himself. Even Virat Kohli played him out ‘maturely’, giving the bowler the respect he earned.
Even Rohit waited. By the seventh over, he was on 5 off 22. Even for a batsman who traditionally starts slow and then picks up the pace, it was sedate. It needed to be. Because it was either sedate or out.
So Rohit did what was needed.
In his fourth over Rabada bowled his first slightly off-target ball. Short, angled in, not threatening the badge on the helmet, but more the chest. Rohit swivelled, jumped, bat face closing to keep the ball down but ball going for a disobedient six anyway. The next four balls saw two more boundaries, one a ferocious cut, once again played in the middle of a jump.
He waited when he had to. And then he pounced when he could.
Of course, he had his luck, during and after that Rabada inquisition. On his second ball, a top edge teased the slip fielder before landing cruelly short. And an LBW appeal from Andile Phehlukwayo was shown to be hitting the stumps, but Rohit survived thanks to a favourable umpire’s call. But in between those were judicious leaves. Determined defensive strokes. Intelligent match-ups. When Chris Morris was channelling his inner Glenn McGrath, Rohit played with soft hands, dulling the edges found. He instead went after Tabraiz Shamsi and Imran Tahir, the duo eventually going at a combined run rate of 5.9 in a 5.3 per over game.
After that, there was an inevitability to his century, living up to his reputation of scoring big when he gets in. But the fact that the chase of just 228 came down to a run-a-ball tells you that this wasn’t an easy pitch to bat on, even after surviving the new ball. The best way to read a pitch is to bat on it, and Virat Kohli had. He knew there was an element of extra bounce in the surface, a hint of seam movement through most of the innings.
It was the kind of pitch where you give even your third seamer two slips. And that was why Kohli called the innings Rohit’s best ever ODI hundred, “because of the kind of pressure the first game brings from a World Cup point of view. And 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.”
Rohit himself said, "I couldn't play my natural game. Certain shots that I love to play, I had to cut down and make sure that I play close to the body. I had to try and leave as many balls as possible in the initial spell. It was not a typical Rohit Sharma innings."
The reference to himself in the third person feels significant, almost as if the innings was an out of body experience. This was not Rohit Sharma, white-ball giant and devourer of runs on pitches where you can hit through the line. Because there were conditions that South Africa captain Faf du Plessis described as "the first hour of a Test match."
It was a day when mid-off was optional, and sightings of third slips and short legs were reported. It was a surface that divided captains, excited fast bowlers, and despite no visible streaks of green, it saw spinners be the most successful. It was an overcast, English summer day that means you won’t sweat, unless it’s over the two new balls which for once, favour the bowler.
It was these conditions in which Rohit made his 23rd ODI hundred, boosting his already impressive conversion rate. But more significantly, it might have converted a few hard opinions about how good Rohit Sharma really is.