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Super Rohit Sharma ready for more glory in crunch Sri Lanka clash

BANGALORE: Rohit Sharma was already five years into his ODI career when he went to Sri Lanka in the summer of 2012. He finished the five-match series with 13 runs, including two ducks, and spawned a succession of memes and cruel social media posts about “No-Hit.” If some of Indian cricket’s most influential voices had not sworn by his talent, he might have ended up on the scrapheap, with two hundreds from 80 innings and a mediocre average of 30.84.
MS Dhoni’s solution to Rohit’s travails was to send him up the order to open the batting. It was the same conclusion that Sachin Tendulkar reached in 1994, when he sought out the team management and asked to be allowed to open. His average at the time, 66 innings into his ODI career? 30.84.
Since his promotion, Rohit averages 57.7 from 87 knocks. Three of the 14 hundreds he has made have been scores in excess of 200. Sri Lanka have been at the receiving end of two of those epics — a world record 264 in 2014, and at unbeaten 208 in Mohali earlier this week that helped India square the current series, which includes today in Visakhapatnam, at 1-1.
Sri Lanka’s emphatic win on a lively pitch in Dharamsala, with India skittled for just 112, was an upset, considering the recent results in this rivalry, and Rohit, stand-in captain after Virat Kohli took the series off to get married in Tuscany, quickly redressed the balance with an innings that married patience and brutality. Having eased to a century in 115 balls, he smashed 10 sixes and four fours while romping to the second hundred in just 36 deliveries.
Without the assistance on offer from the pitch and overhead conditions in Dharamsala, Sri Lanka’s bowlers looked utterly ordinary. Nuwan Pradeep was taken for 106 in his spell, while Thisara Perera, the latest of the many captains appointed by Sri Lanka Cricket, conceded 80 in eight overs.
Sri Lanka’s bowling woes, especially with Lasith Malinga not far from retirement, have been a constant refrain since Muttiah Muralitharan called time on a storied 18-year career. During the Muralitharan era, when Sri Lanka could also call on Chaminda Vaas’s left-arm nous, this was an even rivalry, with India shading it 50-43 (102 matches).
Once defeat in the 2011 World Cup final sent Murali into retirement, there has been no contest to speak of. India have been utterly dominant, with 21 wins and just six losses (28 games). On Sri Lankan soil, where they once used to struggle, India have won nine and lost just one in that time.
That today’s clash is not a dead rubber is a surprise in itself. But the omens for Sri Lanka are not great, at a venue where India have won five of their six matches. Dhoni set the tone way back in 2005, the first match to be hosted at the new venue, by smashing 148 off 123 balls against Pakistan. Last year, when New Zealand went to Visakhapatnam with the series square at 2-2, they were handed a 190-run thrashing.
For India, this series has been another opportunity to look at faces for the future. The 18-year-old Washington Sundar, fast-tracked from the Under-19 team coached by Rahul Dravid, made his debut in Mohali, and there was also a sparkling 70-ball 88 from Shreyas Iyer, 23, playing just his second match.
Middle-order slots remain up for grabs though, with Dinesh Karthik and Manish Pandey among those in the fray. Yuzvendra Chahal continues to reap the wickets with his leg-spin, while Hardik Pandya is now trusted enough to take the new ball in some games.
Sri Lanka have been boosted by Angelo Mathews’ return to form, but there remain plenty of questions about the top order, where Upul Tharanga continues to be a hit-or-miss option. The dropping of Dinesh Chandimal, in such outstanding form in the Test series, was a big call, and Sri Lanka need big runs and not cameos from the likes of Niroshan Dickwella, Asela Gunaratne and Perera.  
But with India having won 12 of 18 ODIs on home turf over the past two years, it is hard to see anything other than the expected result at a venue that’s often seen them at their ruthless best.