Three quick wickets after a steady start brought two Mumbai batsmen together on the crease. One was the pioneer of the new-age one-day batting, who was considered the gold standard for batsmanship, while the other was a talented new kid on the block. Sachin Tendulkar would go on to torment the old foes with an unbeaten century that night, but that would not have been possible without the classic strokeplay of a 20-year old, by the name Rohit Sharma, at the other end.
Rohit's timing and ability to hit the ball on the up was on display that night. He was already a world champion, having been part of the WT20 winning team of 2007, and was being touted as the next big thing of Indian cricket. But that was not to be, just yet, Rohit's inconsistent form meant he missed the bus for the 2011 ICC World Cup and it was the Delhi boy Virat Kohli, who overtook him in the race to become Indian cricket's new heartthrob.
India won the World Cup on home soil and Virat Kohli went from strength to strength from then on. Rohit was in the mix, getting his opportunities because the selectors knew his potential, but the breakthrough moment that would cement his place in the team had not come yet.
Sachin Tendulkar's retirement and the subsequent failures of Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir meant Dhoni and the management were looking for a new opening pair. Rohit Sharma was chosen to become one part of the new sniping duo at the top, along with the maverick Shikhar Dhawan, and the occasion was big. India needed good starts at the top in the 2013 Champions Trophy and the Rohit-Shikhar duo clicked.
Dhawan was in the middle of a purple patch and went on to become the highest run-getter in the tournament as India became the first team to win both the World Cup and Champions Trophy titles. Rohit Sharma too had played his part with two half-centuries but it was Dhawan who became the pin-up boy, thanks to his cavalier batting style, tattooed biceps and WWE wrestler kind of mannerisms.
Rohit Sharma though for once had found his niche in the Indian team. He was now a specialist and had a role to play in the team. There was an old school charm in his batting and he would play proper cricketing shots even while taking apart bowling attacks. But being an opener wasn't an easy task and he needed to mould his game accordingly and take more responsibility.
The biggest change in Rohit's temperament though came due to a change of role for his Indian Premier League team around the same time. He was appointed the captain of the Mumbai Indians and that proved to be a game changer. Rohit has since led Mumbai to three IPL titles but we will not go into that today, what we are concerned with is the effect it had on Rohit, the opener for India.
The Australians visited India in late 2013 and the ODI series was a run fest. The first glimpse of the new Rohit came in the match in Jaipur as India chased a target in excess of 360. Rohit remained unbeaten on 141 in what was a chase for the generations. Rohit put on 176 for the opening wicket with Shikhar Dhawan, but the match was won by the brilliance of Virat Kohli, who nailed the Aussies with a 52-ball century, and further strengthened his credentials as a chase master.
But the big moment of the series came in the decider in Bengaluru. The series could have gone either way as the track was placid and Chinnaswamy is a stadium with very small boundaries. India needed to bat the Aussies out of the match and it was Rohit who put his hand up. He reached his century in 114 balls and it looked like India will get to a challenging total of around the 300-run mark. But what followed thereafter changed how people looked at Rohit Sharma forever, perhaps it also changed Rohit, the batsman, forever.
Rohit went on a six-hitting spree that saw him race from 100 to 150 in just 26 deliveries and from 150 to 200 in just 16 more. While doing that, he also broke the world-record of most sixes being hit in an ODI innings, with 16 massive hits. What made it special was the owner of the record earlier, Shane Watson, was witness to the carnage.
For those who thought it was a 'flash in the pan', Rohit Sharma had more in store. A little over a year later, he smashed the world record for the highest individual score in ODIs with a similarly paced innings as he tormented Sri Lanka and scored 264, before being dismissed off the last delivery of the innings.
Rohit Sharma has since become one of the Indian ODI team's strongest pillars. His metamorphosis into an opener with an insatiable hunger for runs, and ability to pace his innings perfectly, has now seen him equal the great Sachin Tendulkar and David Warner for the most number of 150-plus knocks in one-day cricket.
His innings of 208* against Sri Lanka in Mohali on Wednesday was once again a reminder of his ability to switch gears at will at any point in a one-day match. There was a time when it was thought that only big-hitters like Sanath Jayasuriya and Virender Sehwag were capable of getting to a double hundred in ODIs, mainly because of their ability to score quickly. But it was the calm strokeplay of Sachin Tendulkar, which broke the 200-run barrier in one-dayers first.
Rohit belongs to the same school, a look at all his knocks of 150-plus showcases how important it is to pace your innings well. The ability to go for the big hits later on in the innings is a direct result of the batsman managing to lay a strong foundation first.
And for those who want to get into a comparison and talk about how Rohit Sharma is still not as good as Virat Kohli, we have another small piece of statistic. Both Rohit and Virat have scored 11 centuries in ODIs since 2015 and Virat has just one half-century more than Rohit during this period.
This isn't the time for comparison though, this is a time to celebrate the fact that the Indian team has two top order batsmen who can bat long and bat well, and if they continue to be in their elements, who knows, Project 2019 could well be a reality.
First Published: December 14, 2017, 12:23 PM IST