"It's actually hard to see a player like Rohit sitting outside.": Ajinkya Rahane
"It's difficult for you to have a player like Rohit not start for you every time.": Virat Kohli
"He is too good a player to not be playing in any game.": Vikram Rathour, India batting coach.
As Rohit cut one to deep cover off Senuran Muthusamy to bring up his fourth Test century, against South Africa in Vizag, one could relate to those statements from Rahane, Kohli and Rathour. For the team management, Rohit was too special a talent not to be playing red-ball cricket. His start-stop career in Test cricket needed a reboot. So with the middle-order packed, they made an arrangement for Rohit's back door entry by handing him the opening slot and a chance to revive his Test career.
That trust from the captain and the team management was somewhat vindicated by Rohit in his first test in the new role at the Dr YS Rajasekhara Reddy ACA-VDCA Cricket Stadium as he hit an unbeaten 115 on Day one of the first Test.
Rohit Sharma V 2.0 was activated, in style.
The build-up to the Test series against South Africa was all about Rohit Sharma. The previews, analysis, press conferences, pre-match discussions, everything centered around the Mumbai batsman. Can he resurrect his Test career? Is he capable of handling the new and moving ball? What are his numbers as an opener in first-class cricket? Does he have the temperament to play the long innings?
All eyes were fixed on him in his first trial as an opener in the practice match for the Board President's XI against the Proteas. But he got out for a second-ball duck feeling for a full ball outside off, off Vernon Philander. No doubt that microscopic focus would have built pressure heading into the Vizag Test.
As he walked out to bat on the morning of Day 1, some nerves were palpable early on but slowly he got into his groove and then turned into a fire-breathing dragon which we have witnessed in the white-ball cricket. Rohit followed a very similar template to his white-ball cricket one during his century in Vizag.
A lot of his criticism in the past had been centered around Rohit's shot selection. His tendency to play a loose drive or push away from the body, and also his impatience where he would throw away his wicket playing expansive shots after getting a start or being set.
At the Dr YS Rajasekhara Reddy ACA-VDCA Cricket Stadium, he gave the first hour to the bowlers. With some movement available early on, off the air and from the pitch, Rohit left well, especially in the first hour. Kagiso Rabada and Vernon Philander constantly dangled the carrot outside off in the corridor of uncertainty but Rohit was cautious. There were a few nerves early on, especially against Philander, who had got him out in the practice match and was bowling a probing spell, but Rohit had a fair measure of where his off-stump was and left well, apart from the one delivery from Philander that hit the crack and jagged back in sharply to fly over the stumps. Though he didn't cut out his backfoot pushes completely — he cut the second ball he faced for a four through the vacant gully region — he had a fair amount of restraint and control over his shot selection.
Even in the ODIs, he's started leaving a lot more balls at the start of the innings in his continuous evolution as a white-ball batsman.
Coming into the Tests, one of Rohit's biggest challenges was the mental adjustment that he needed to bring with a switch in positions, having batted at six in Tests in the past.
He overcame that challenge by forging patience with the experience of opening in limited-overs cricket. He had a clear gameplan while walking out to bat.
"Of course, opening the batting is a different ball game in red-ball cricket," Rohit said after the day's play. "Mentally you have to train your mind more than anything else. At the same time, you do need to look into some technical aspects of batting but more than that you have to challenge yourself mentally to play the new ball and take the game forward.
"Those are the things I kept in mind when I went out to bat. There was no confusion about how I wanted to approach the innings."
In order to negate whatever little swing that was available, he used his feet against Philander and walked down the track to defend or leave which also prompted Quinton de Kock to stand up to the stumps to the South African medium-pacer.
It was an intriguing first half-hour where Rabada and Philander bowled impressive spells but Rohit and Mayank Agarwal negotiated that period well. Maybe the pacers missed out on a trick by not hitting the stumps more and bowling fuller lengths to make use of that movement.
"The red ball moves for a longer period of time and it will possess a lot of threat," Rohit said. " I was very clear in my mind what I wanted to do out there. In any conditions, the first few overs, the ball will do something. I was just focusing on the basics, playing close to the body and leaving the ball.
"We have played so much cricket in India. I know what happens after 7-8 overs once the shine is gone. It does not swing much thereafter. And from there on it is about playing your game taking the game forward. It is a slow and low pitch. So it is crucial for you don't get stuck at any time. I have played a lot of first-class cricket as well so I know the conditions. I know how tough it is to score once you get stuck with fielders standing inside the circle, so you've got to try and find those gaps. So, that's pretty much what I did today, tackling the new ball and then obviously sticking to my gameplan and backed myself to do that." Rohit added.
Rohit slowly started easing into his innings and then attacked the spinners. There were late cuts, pulls and powerful lofts over mid-on. He charged down to Keshav Maharaj on the first ball he was brought back for a second spell and lifted him over long-on for a six and handed the same treatment to Dane Piedt five overs later.
In the first session, he scored 19 from 47 balls off the pacers and 35 off 38 balls against the spinners. There was a moment where the nerves fluttered a bit while approaching his fifty. A top-edged sweep just eluded the diving fielder at short fine-leg off Muthusamy and raced away to the fine leg fence when on 48.
He had a clear strategy of not letting the spinner settle and constantly used his feet against them. On 81, he pummelled back to back sixes off Piedt and then guided one fine to the third man off Maharaj for a four, scoring 19 off 17 balls to reach his century. He continued his cruise mode with a six off Maharaj and a couple of fours off Philander to reach 115 before bad light and then rain forced early stumps. He's faced 174 balls in this innings so far which is the second-most he's faced in his six-year Test career so far, after the 301 he faced against West Indies in his 177-run innings in Kolkata.
For the most part of his innings, Rohit seemed at ease. There was also a period after lunch where he played out 14 straight dot balls but unlike the Rohit of the old, the frustration didn't creep in. There was a good mix of caution and aggression in his innings which is a vital part of the template he follows in the limited-overs cricket.
“We played few overs of the two spinners and we realised that the ball wasn’t turning much and there was not much bounce," Rohit explained. "We wanted to use our feet and get closer to the ball and then obviously those are my shots that I play and I wanted to back myself and back my game. And what you saw today what pretty much what I do, pretty much my batting. Sticking to my template was very important and that's pretty much I did today."
Getting a clear picture of your role, along with team management's assurance of a longer rope, space and patience always helps.
"The talk (of me opening in Tests) was going on for a long time. In the West Indies (in August), they told me clearly it is going to happen now. I was prepared for the past two years. At some stage, I was aware that I might have to open so I was ready," Rohit said.
As he completed his hundredth run, there were no wild celebrations, just a relieved look at the heavens and a casual raise of the bat and helmet as his captain stood up, smiled and applauded from the dressing room.
Rohit knows this is just the start of a new ride on different terrains. He's been there here before. His Test journey had started off with an adventurous ride with back to back tons and then lost its way. This time, just like in video games, he's got the option to hit the restart button and get his ride back to the starting point again. Consistency is what will define whether the ride will be smooth or not this time.
"Once he's (Rohit) in his zone, then he can do great things for the team," Kohli had said on the eve of the match.
At Vizag, Rohit is in his zone right now and it spells ominous signs for the Proteas.
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