"It was only a matter of time this shot was played," exclaimed Harsha Bhogle on-air as Rohit Sharma shimmied down the track to bully the flighted delivery from Keshav Maharaj over mid-on for a lofted six in his opening spell on Day 1 against South Africa. Rohit had by then steadied his feet after a nervy (edgy) start against his tormentors -- Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada -- on a pitch that provided little lateral movement to the pacers. Yet, Philander, who has dismissed Rohit thrice before in the format and for a two-ball duck in the practice match, got the cherry red to swing both ways troubling the Indian at the start of his innings. But riding on a bit of luck, and on a clever changed in tactic, Rohit negated the early pressure before taking down the spinners from the two ends. And by the end of the first afternoon, Rohit put all doubts to rest with a smooth and authoritative century in his first innings as an opener in Test cricket. He continued with his dominance on the second day, targeting the spinners aggressively to score 176 runs before Quinton de Kock found him out of the crease just an hour before lunch.
There was a lot of talking going on around Rohit, his new role in the Indian batting order and whether he can truly emulate the Virender Sehwag theory. Since 2017, India have tried seven different opening combinations with seven different batters, but none managed to stake their claim. The team management believed Rohit could put an end to the conundrum just like he had done in the ODIs. Moreover, stiff competition in the middle-order lineup left Rohit, one of the most polarising figures in Indian cricket, on the brink of his Test career. Hence, regardless of the series and its importance, Rohit took the centre stage with many claiming that contest to be a make or break opportunity
A dream debut but lacked consistency
Such was not the story when Rohit had begun his Test career. In the series marked as 'Sachin's Farewell', Rohit marked his Test debut with 177 in Kolkata, which still remains his career-best score. He followed it up with an unbeaten 111 in the second game in Mumbai. Unfortunately for Rohit, he struggled to hit the same high until Wednesday. Following an impressive debut, Rohit had an array of overseas challenges to tackle in 2013/14 season but he failed both in South Africa and in New Zealand and later in the tour of England and Australia. His Test career hit a further low in when he managed only 26 runs in four innings against South Africa at home in 2015.
After remaining a year out of Test action owing to a thigh injury, Rohit bounced back in the series against Sri Lanka at home in 2017 which urged the selectors to rope him in for India's forthcoming overseas ventures. But his away struggles continued. Failing to counter the Proteas' challenging pace attack, Rohit was dropped for the third Test and subsequently for the England tour. He did return for the Australia series, but a modest run aggregate in the first two Test once again raised doubts over his Test career.
Another dream debut, but as opener
Rohit could not have found a better stage to make his debut as a Test opener. Despite the dip in form of openers around the world over the last few years, Indian openers have dominated in home conditions. But the challenge for Rohit was to get through the first hour. With still a bit of moisture on the track, Philander teased Rohit with his nagging lengths. He beat Rohit's outside edge twice in the third over while an inswinger missed the top of the off-stump after Rohit left the ball the alone. But having learnt from his mistakes earlier, he was far more cautious against the incoming deliveries creating an LBW opportunity. Besides, to counter Philander's seaming deliveries, he often walked out of the crease before Quinton de Kock placed himself close to the stumps. In the first hour, Rohit had control percentage of around 80 while scoring 19 runs off 45 deliveries.
As the pitched dried itself under the bright sun, the track turned sluggish offering little to the pacers. For the spinner, there was a slow turn but no bounce at all. Besides, the afternoon spell comprising Dane Piedt and Senuran Muthusamy brought down the entire intensity that the pacers and Maharaj managed to build in the morning.
Rohit and his opening partner Mayank Agarwal hit seven sixes between themselves in the second session with the former smashing back-to-back maximums against Piedt. And a few deliveries later, Rohit notched up his fourth Test century and first as a Test opener.
Rohit ended his innings with 176 runs off 244 deliveries on Day 2, one run short of his career-best score, laced with 23 boundaries and six maximums.
While conditions did help Rohit immensely, but the first-hour struggle against Philander was the highlight of his 176-run knock. With the score, Rohit must have sealed his place for the next four Tests at home, but his true test will be when India will travel to New Zealand next February.