126 runs at an average of 11.45 was all Rohit Sharma, the ODI maestro, had to boast of in South Africa after 11 innings in the country. For all his heroics across the globe, South Africa seemed like Waterloo for the Hitman for he hadn't quite stamped his mark in the country despite getting enough opportunities.
With his shot selection and temperament coming to the fore in the first four matches, critics were all over Rohit with Kepler Wessels, the former South African cricketer, going to the extent of stating that his technique wasn't good enough to survive in these conditions.
“He will always struggle to score runs in South Africa because of his footwork. He plants his front foot across to the off-side and in South Africa, the pitches always seam and bounce a bit. This is the reason that he averages around 10 there. He’ll always struggle there because of his technique. It doesn’t affect him in India, and even in Australia, because the ball doesn’t seam there, it just bounces, but when you have seam and bounce, with that technique, he’s got a problem,” Wessels had told The Times of India.
That Rohit was committing to his front foot too much was seen as a major hurdle to his aim of scoring runs here. But at Port Elizabeth, he showed a completely different side of his batting. The Rohit we know of is a prolific striker of the ball off his front foot; his lazy elegance and amazing bat swing resulting in some eye-pleasing shots in front of the stumps.
On Tuesday, he cut out his extravagant shots in the “V” to the extent that his sole plan was to wait for South Africa's bowlers to land it short. He rocked onto his back-foot for anything marginally short and bombarded the shorter square boundaries with flat-batted hits.
Nothing illustrates this more than the fact that all but one of his boundaries till he reached his half-century came square of the wicket and off the back-foot. The sole boundary that came through long-on — a savage strike over the fence off Kagiso Rabada, who has had the better of him six times in eight innings on this tour — was off a shortish delivery that he greeted by walking down the track.
There was a conscious effort from Rohit to open up his stance to avoid being trapped in front of the sticks off the ball angled into him, his nemesis in South Africa thus far on this tour. The opened up stance not only gave Rohit an opportunity to work the ball coming into him better but also allowed him to take on the short balls with much more conviction, a point proven by his spectacular pull shot for six off Lungi Ngidi.
Having watched the Proteas bowlers, he knew that he would get enough freebies from a shorter length as Rabada, Morne Morkel and Ngidi prefer to hit the deck hard. With no Chris Morris, the host’s bowling attack was one-dimensional and lacked the bite to exploit the early movement on offer.
The intention was evidently to back his horizontal bat shots as playing on the up had resulted in his downfall right through the series. This is further emphasised by the sheer strike rate he had at Port Elizabeth through the square boundaries as opposed to those in front of the wicket.
— The Cricket Prof. (@CricProf) February 13, 2018
Through mid-wicket and square leg he struck at a rate of 181.81 and 200 while through third man and point it stood at 133.33 and 111.11. The strike rate took a dip down the ground with runs coming at a rate of 62.5, 25 and 87.5 through cover, long-off and long-on.
This is very much in sync with his career strike rates as shown by CricViz hence nailing down the fact that he evaded going after the full balls while backing his strengths on the back-foot on Tuesday.
With a profound weakness off fuller length balls, particularly when the ball seams about, Rohit resorted to nudging and manipulating the field off such lengths. That he wasn't bogged down is evident if you notice that his half-century came at run a ball, once again slightly out of character for a batsman whose gameplay revolves around starting slowly and then going for the big shots.
Once the Mumbai Indians skipper crossed his fifty, he was more confident to take on the fuller balls and thumped Shamsi and Duminy through cow corner off disdainful, authoritative shots off the front foot.
A moment of recklessness saw him run Virat Kohli out, the seventh time a run-out has ensued in the time the two bat together. This was followed by him running out Ajinkya Rahane as well much to the horror of Indian fans.
But it was the case of a set Rohit just refusing to leave the crease. The run outs just spurred him on. Even when Rabada managed to induce a false shot from Rohit, Tabraiz Shamsi grassed a regulation catch to let him off on 96.
The Mumbaikar latched onto the life gifted and completed his maiden ton in the country and 17th in ODI cricket. He could not quite carry on and make a daddy hundred as he is known to do once settled down at the wicket but after 126 runs in 11 innings in South Africa, he nearly managed to match the total runs he had made here in one single knock, one which would give him the much needed confidence to rack up runs in any conditions.
He was criticised for everything from his technique to his temperament and composure but as has been the case right through his career, Rohit managed to ignore the din and compile a hard-working century sans the flamboyance you usually associate with the Hitman.