Rohit sets the pace, India in charge
Rohit Sharma danced down the track against Dane Piedt and lofted the spinner’s length ball over long off. It was the sixth over after lunch, and the Indian opener’s shot was as perfectly controlled as any that he played during his century in the first innings.
Yet this six, Sharma’s ninth in the match, was a special one. It had a statistical underlining. This was the most sixes ever hit by an Indian in a Test, surpassing Navjot Singh Sidhu. By the time Sharma would get out to Keshav Maharaj at 127 he would hit four more to take his tally to 13, the highest ever hit by a batsman in a Test.
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Sharma’s true success lies not in the number of sixes but the way he dictated the pace of the second innings and helped India reach 323/4 to give the Proteas a target of 395.
In the first innings, Sharma had a lot riding on him—the pressure of rebooting a Test career as an opener, with young players like Shubman Gill and Prithvi Shaw waiting to pounce for a chance. A duck in the warm-up match didn’t help matters either. But he overcame all of that with a 244-ball 176.
With the opening blues sorted, Sharma came out blazing in his second innings—he reached his second hundred on the trot in just 133 balls. With the help of 10 fours and seven sixes, he finished on 127 off 149 balls. With 303 runs in his first Test as opener, Sharma has made the strongest possible claim to that ever-changing slot, and he has done it playing his natural game.
“Hitting sixes is his (Sharma’s) strength, he has excelled in white ball cricket. The way he hits sixes is incredible and as Test batsman who wants to improve his ODI and T20 cricket, there is lots to learn from him. Especially when it comes hitting the ball out of the park,” was what Cheteshwar Pujara, who shared a 169-run stand with Sharma, had to say about the century.
That Sharma’s twin century has come on a flat track at home may be a caveat, but then Visakhatpatnam has the reputation of reviving careers. Remember that 148 off 155 balls against Pakistan by MS Dhoni in 2005? It was the first of his ODI tons and consolidated his place in the team, sparking off one of the most phenomenal careers in Indian cricketing history.
Pujara revealed that the pitch at the ACA-VDCA Stadium was not an easy to bat on as it might have looked from the outside. “It was not easy to rotate the strike, it was not easy to time the ball,” he said. “Early on, it was a two-paced pitch against fast bowlers and even against spinners.”
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Sharma’s task was cut out in the second innings. South Africa’s tail wagged a bit too long and India had a lead of 71. Intent to score quick runs without losing too many wickets was the need of the hour if India were to press for a victory. Sharma did just that.
The South Africans bowled a disciplined line but Sharma looked to have made up his mind on making the day his own.
Even in ODI cricket Sharma is not a fast starter; he gets more and more devastating as he settles in. In all the three double hundreds that Sharma has scored in the 50-over format, he went into his hitting spree only after completing the first 50 runs. On Saturday, Sharma was in a different mode.
He slapped left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj through mid-wicket boundary to open his scoring and continued in the same vein throughout. At least on two occasions Sharma survived close calls—once when Quinton de Kock fell short of stumping him off Maharaj, and then when Senuran Muthusamy touched the ropes while attempting a catch off Dane Piedt while he was on 50.
With Mayank Agarwal gone early and Pujara taking his own sweet time to settle in, Sharma took charge. He was especially brutal towards the spinners, scoring most of his record number of sixed off them. With spinners and fast bowlers, he worked the gaps with ease.
The way he directed Maharaj towards backward point in two consecutive deliveries or the way he forced a Piedt delivery towards mid-wicket—or the one where he sweeped the same bowler from outside off stump—were all signs of a batsman completely in control of what he wants to do.
“When I came into bat, the way Rohit was batting, I felt we were scoring at a decent pace and I could take some extra time to settle down,” Pujara said.
“He batted really well in the first innings also but in the second the situation was different. To play all those strokes that he did on this wicket…that partnership was crucial. Our communication was good as he we have batted together since our under-19 days. It was a joy to watch him from the non striker’s end.”
Sharma scored at a strike-rate of over 70 and once Pujara began to open up, India cruised. The highlight of the day came when Sharma blasted Piedt for three straight sixes—one went over long on, the second fell in the mid wicket stands while the third sailed over long off—it was the perfect culmination of an innings that had aggression written all over it.
After that barrage of sixes, Sharma could add just one run more, but by then he had done exactly what he needed to do.