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The Rohit way throws New Zealand out of gear

Rohit Sharma is a modern athlete and a fine fielder to boot, but he sets his own pace, in his own style. Associated Press

The grey clouds threatening to explode on a Friday afternoon were unlikely to deter a group of Indian players undergoing a recovery session at the sea-facing swimming pool in Visakhapatnam. In that group were Virat Kohli, Axar Patel - not quite there yet - and Hardik Pandya, the face, or abs, of India's new-age ripped cricketers, with the athletic bodies toned and double-toned to destroy fat.

Another man arrived to settle down on the outdoor chaise lounge, one of the few who still had his training jersey and shorts on. Rohit Sharma cast a sage-like gaze at the group bonding over the session before getting up, slowly, to join Amit Mishra at the coffee table. As he stirred his brew, he threw another benign look in the direction of the pool.

Technically, Rohit is a part of India's new-gen brat pack: he is, after all, only a year-and-a-half older than Kohli. While Rohit wears a beard - like yo-yo and skin-fold tests, this seems to be standard protocol within the team these days - he neither does crew cuts nor transforms into a manic ball of inferno on the field. He does not deliver rousing sermons on how to succeed by being boring. He is a modern athlete and a fine fielder to boot, but he sets his own pace, in his own style.

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With the series in balance at 2-2, MS Dhoni wins the toss but veers away from the chase-first strategy on a slow, dry pitch that looks like it will slow down further, a pitch on which only 70 will come in the last 10 overs. The openers depart from routine, too; like in Ranchi, Ajinkya Rahane takes first strike and not Rohit. In the first two overs, Rohit leans on his bat and watches Rahane gently smack two fours, in the middle of playing out a number of dot balls.

It's difficult to tell from Rohit's perennial "I-know-what-I'm-doing" expression if he is restless to feel bat on ball as quickly as possible. Rohit later said he was disappointed with his scores in the series going into the decider, especially as he hadn't faced more than 20 balls in any innings. Actually, he had played more than 20 balls in three of the four matches, but had not scored more than 15. This, though, is the decider, and Rohit knows how it is done in deciders. He did it in Bangalore, Sydney and Port of Spain, but failed in Mumbai last year. He has a record to straighten, a reputation to keep.

In Visakhapatnam, Rohit faces his first delivery only in the third over. After three dot balls, a hesitant push almost carries to the slips. While it is fortunate the ball doesn't carry, it is also a sign there is hardly any pace to work with on this pitch. The next delivery, he creates the pace he needs by purposefully, yet almost stealthily, striding down the pitch to Tim Southee, and slams the ball over mid-off.

In the next four overs, as Rahane struggles to pick the gaps in the field, Rohit faces only seven deliveries. By the end of the ninth, India are 39 for 0, and the strike-distribution remains skewed: Rahane has faced 38 balls to Rohit's 16. Two balls later, however, Rahane is out. The fielding restrictions are lifted four balls later, and finding boundaries is about to get harder.

Once Kohli arrives, the strike is rotated more freely, but runs are still hard to come by. Rohit, though, has decided to take charge. In the 12th over, James Neesham bowls a short, slow off-cutter, and Rohit, giving himself a solid base, clobbers him from the crease over mid-off for six. This is just a back-foot off drive. This is not supposed to carry all the way for six. As Kohli gawks at the shot, Rohit reciprocates with a cheeky wink. There are not going to be many manic, Kohli-esque singles and twos; this is Mr Smooth at work.

Rohit smuggles as many runs as he can, realising it will be difficult later, probably factoring in the lessons from Mumbai Indians' struggles on this ground in the IPL this year. He targets Ish Sodhi, and is unforgiving with his pulls, cuts and slog sweeps.

Just as he nears his fifty, Rohit has to dive to complete a quick single. He appears to have twanged his quadriceps, and his right thigh is heavily taped. Unfortunately, just when he looks set to explode from a slow start, just when he looks like he can neutralise a slow track with his clean striking, Rohit is forced to play low-percentage cricket because every single he runs is hurting him, every strain on his body an injury risk. He goes after Sodhi again, for another round of cutting and slog-sweeping.

Eventually his innings ends at 70, but it is 70 at higher than a run a ball on a slow pitch where even Kohli struggles for fluency, where New Zealand are bowled out for 79. This has come just in time to redeem an ordinary series for Rohit, just in time to provide a counter-argument to the notion that India are becoming a one-batsman team. This is no barn-storming double-hundred but by taking the pitch out of equation, Rohit does enough to throw New Zealand out of gear and set things up for the middle order. He does it not as much with muscle as with liquid, casual charm. The Rohit way.