Cardiff: Playing South Africa for the first time in a league-stage match in the ICC Champions Trophy - the previous two times had been semi-final fixtures in 2000 and 2002 - India made it a hat-trick of wins over this opposition with a 26-run triumph at Sophia Gardens on Thursday. The opening match of the 2013 tournament - and final instalment - saw India post 331 for 7 after AB de Villiers opted to field, thanks predominantly to Shikhar Dhawan's maiden ODI hundred and a welcome 65 from Rohit Sharma, and defend that with relative ease once a century stand for the third wicket was snapped.
In what was their first ICC ODI tournament without Sachin Tendulkar since 1987 - they were also without Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and Yuvraj Singh - India were lifted by their makeshift opening pair. The team came into the tournament with warm-up wins over Sri Lanka and Australia, but there were concerns over the form of Dhawan and Rohit in conditions more suited to pace bowling. Those doubts were significantly dispelled as the pair laid the foundation for victory with a 127-run opening stand, with Rohit scoring a solid half-century and Dhawan a stroke-filled 114 off 94 balls.
South Africa fielded four fast bowlers and opted to field but the Powerplay overs consisted off a steady feed of short-pitched bowling which Rohit and Dhawan cashed in on. India's first boundary came in the fourth over, with Rohit beating mid-off with a push off Lonwabo Tsotsobe. That opened up the gates for Rohit, who proceeded to drive Tsotsobe for six, pull Morne Morkel past short fine leg and slap Rory Kleinveldt for two fours in his first over. The fifty came up in the tenth over courtesy three runs from a firm drive by Dhawan, who then pulled the erratic Kleinveldt for two fours. The second of those was a chance at fine leg, except Morkel completely misjudged the catch. That over ended with Rohit punching Kleinveldt past cover for four more.
Dhawan then trained his focus on left-arm spinner Robin Peterson - incidentally the only survivor from the last India-South Africa Champions Trophy match in 2002 - and drove him for consecutive fours, each shot essayed with a big stride forward and clean follow-through. Rohit was the first to fifty - his 14th in ODIs - in 63 balls; Dhawan followed to the landmark in 44 balls, a suitable reply to his doubters in his first ODI for almost two years.
Relief came for South Africa in the 22nd over as Rohit (65) pulled Ryan McLaren to deep square leg, but it was momentary. Tsotsobe returned to bowl the 24th over and was hit for four and six by Dhawan; Kleinveldt was swatted over square leg for four more and when Tsotsobe dragged short again Dhawan slammed him over midwicket. Dhawan needed just seven deliveries to move from 90 to his century, which came up in 80 balls with another pull off Kleinveldt for four. Immediately after, de Villiers fluffed a simple stumping off JP Duminy.
Virat Kohli (31) helped add 83 in 13 overs before he too fell pulling out to the deep, and from here four wickets fell for 50 runs. Dhawan swept Duminy to square leg; Dinesh Karthik, in his first ODI since August 2010, was unable to carry his strong warm-up form into the real deal; and Suresh Raina (9) and MS Dhoni (27) fell in the pursuit of quick runs. With this collapse the mind moved back to Nagpur in March 2011 - incidentally the last time these two teams met in 50-over cricket - when India crashed from 267 for 1 to 296 all out, but a rot was averted by Ravindra Jadeja who larruped 47 not out off 29 ball to get the score past 300.
South Africa did well to take five wickets for 113 runs after Rohit fell, but needed their batsmen to really fire. Instead, their makeshift opener Colin Ingram (6) failed to make an impression, edging Bhuvneshwar Kumar's seventh delivery to Raina at second slip. Hashim Amla, the third-most experienced player in a line-up missing Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis, also fell cheaply as he nicked Umesh Yadav to Dhoni for a 15-ball 22.
This was followed by an excellent 120-run stand between Peterson and de Villiers, which kept India sweating. Peterson, promoted to No. 3, eased to a maiden ODI fifty with crisp, proper cricketing shots all around the ground. Having failed with the ball, he made up with a busy innings in which he targeted the quick bowlers. De Villiers was his usual self, taking on the bowlers with shots dripping with authority: a rasping square-drive off Ishant Sharma and a gentle push back past the stumps off Bhuvneshwar were breath-taking shots.
When the stand was reaching a seriously threatening level - the asking rate was almost on par - Jadeja produced a brilliant piece of fielding at midwicket to run out Peterson for 68. Jadeja then removed Duminy (14) with a typically quick and straight delivery, but the biggest blow was when de Villiers (70) top-edged Yadav to Jadeja in front of square leg. Moments later, David Miller was run out for 0.
These wickets set back South Africa, and the chase petered out once a breezy 50-run stand between Faf du Plessis (30) and McLaren was snapped by Ishant in the 38th over. Ishant added Kleinveldt and Jadeja got his second when Tsotsobe missed a swipe. McLaren collected a career-best 71* as South Africa finished on 305, with Bhuvneshwar yorking Morkel with the last ball of the match.