Detractors who cited the Mumbai batsman’s less-than-impressive overseas record were silenced with the rebuttal of his successful Champions Trophy in England this past June, where he forged an attacking opening pairing with Shikhar Dhawan and led the team to a title win.
South Africa was supposed to be the ultimate Test. Not just for Rohit, but for the other new bearers of Indian cricket: the dashing Dhawan, the pugnacious Virat Kohli, the courageous Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina – who, it may be added, was lucky to make the trip after a largely infructuous season. Twenty-five overs into their first day of business on tour, all five were back in the hut.
It took Rohit fourteen Dale Steyn deliveries to get bat on ball. Dhawan was found wanting in his handling of the extra bounce and pace. Kohli was beaten, battered, somewhat resilient, but eventually dispatched without having scored much. Yuvraj’s two-ball essay comprised a knock to the helmet and a clean bowled. Raina, perhaps the perfect illustration of a flat-track bully, had all his shortcomings against the rising, moving sphere shown up in the 30-odd minutes he spent at the crease, before a scorching Steyn throw from deep square-leg ran him out.
What made it even worse for India was that they had failed on all three counts.
Read more: Dhoni unhappy
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Their bowlers had earlier been destroyed (to the tune of 135 runs in the last 10 overs); the fielding was tardy; the throwing inaccurate; the catching slipshod – India missed getting both de Kock and Amla out very early in their innings. In not a single department can Dhoni's men claim to have put their best foot forward. The bowling was equally sans bite. Far from using the conditions to tighten up their act, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohit Sharma and Mohammad Shami got carried away to such an extent, they all but forgot about the yorker, hurling in length ball after length ball only to see them disappear into the stands.
Nor were the spinners particularly effective, with AB de Villiers and JP Duminy treating them with as much respect as society harbours for the mentally compromised. So, what next for the Men in Blue? With two ODIs and as many Tests remaining, they still have time to salvage some respect. Should Ajinkya Rahane be drafted in for Yuvraj for the next game? Should Umesh Yadav’s natural pace be preferred over Mohit’s greenhorn ways? Should Rohit be demoted and Ashwin promoted? Will Ambati Rayudu continue to play the role of a bench-warmer - he can certainly do no worse than those that played the first game.
Dhoni was himself guarded after the shellacking and chose to downplay the lack of preparation time that his batsmen had coming into a tough assignment. "You'd love to come here, practise for a few days, play a few games, but nowadays the international schedule doesn't really permit that." He also had just one advice for his young bowlers: Bowl in the right areas, let the batsmen play good shots. Don't give them a gift. He certainly wouldn't be expecting any from the hosts.