Rohit, de Villiers hold their own in Kanpur furnace
Green Park was filling up well before the coin dropped, and there were more people queuing up outside the gates. Loads more were speed-walking to make sure they got in on time. ODI cricket does not come often to Kanpur. The India-South Africa game was only the stadium's 15th in 28 years, and nobody wanted to miss a thing.
By the time the dust cleared - literally because the pitch was so abrasive - those in attendance witnessed two stellar innings. AB de Villiers, the best batsman in the world, said howdy with 104* off 73 balls. Rohit Sharma, the only batsman with two ODI double-hundreds - said what's up with 150 off 133 balls.
Scores of such magnitude might give the impression it was easy going. Big bat. Small ground. Docile pitch. Limp bowling. And the bliss of ball coming onto bat and then hitting through the line. Two of those were true - modern day players do have the best equipment and the boundaries here were pulled in rather generously. But to counteract that were dry and energy-sapping heat, reverse swing and variable bounce. By no means a tranquil setting.
"AB was exhausted," Hashim Amla remarked. De Villiers. A man who has grown up playing nearly every sport there is, a man who has maintained his fitness to such freakish levels that he played 98 Tests on the trot, was drained after spending 71.4 overs on the field. Rohit lasted 96.1. The simple length of stay in the 38 C Kanpur cauldron and perhaps the way in which Rohit could find the boundary whenever he needed to may suggest he might have edged the head to head. But the thing was, neither man was better than the other on the day, even if the difference is apparent when judged across their careers.
De Villiers may not have smeared as many for fours and sixes at Green Park, but his strike-rate was never in the doldrums. He ran 48 of his runs and ransacked the rest only in the final five overs or so. Instantly turning it on is never easy. It is not uncommon for batsmen to stay stuck in accumulator mode.
But de Villiers has a special knack for gauging the pace of a pitch. Kanpur was not particularly forthcoming in that regard. Some leapt up - Faf du Plessis lost his bat while trying to defend the gentle pace of Stuart Binny - and some stayed low, especially with the older ball. Yet, once de Villiers decided it was time, the ball kept disappearing. He got to 60 off 60 balls. The next 13 fetched him 44 runs. Talk about flipping a switch. "What he does, I don't think anybody in the world can do," Amla marveled.
India had someone who ran de Villiers close. Desperately close. That Rohit has power is not news. Nor is the fact that he can time the ball as if he has unlocked cheat codes to batting. The singular aspect that should define Rohit's innings as a class above is its pace - after bashing Morne Morkel for a couple of fours in the 10th over, his strike-rate rarely veered below 100. That was in conditions that made de Villiers think the first 90 runs were hard; in conditions that had the uber-fit MS Dhoni hunched over on his bat after running a few twos in the afternoon heat.
"I felt Rohit took the risk very well," Dhoni later said. "When you are chasing 300 runs, you have to keep taking risks at regular intervals and I felt that's what he did brilliantly in this game.
"Rohit and Jinks' partnership, they way they batted [together], it looked as if the wicket became quite easy to bat on later. But it was just because of the quality they have in their batting. Not to forget it was still a two-paced wicket, there was reverse swing for the fast bowlers and their fast bowlers are taller than us so they can hit the deck harder."
That second-wicket stand gave India 149 runs in 157 balls. Roughly half the runs in half the balls. Lovely, symmetrical and very good in the chase. But Rahane's contribution - 60 - took up 82 of those deliveries. It is not a garish error. Simply put, without such a strong partnership, running down such difficult targets would be like holding on to a fading dream. And in cricket, rarely do you get two batsmen going gung-ho side-by-side. One holds an end up. The other makes up the difference. Rohit made it up very cleverly. He chose his strengths - the pull and the lofted cover drive - and walloped 95 off 66 balls in the V square of the wicket. Nine fours and five sixes came from the arc between third man and extra cover and the one between fine leg and midwicket.
But Rohit was tiring. He was nearly run out while he was in the middle of the pitch, wondering if he could make it across. That was in the 43rd over. In the 45th, he sent Morkel over the boundary. In the 46th, Dale Steyn suffered the same fate. He was running on empty, but the Kanpur crowd fed him with their goodwill. "Rohit! Rohit!" they roared with each ball he faced. The target too was shrinking. "Just a little more," he might have told himself as he stepped down the track to Imran Tahir in the 47th. Only this time, he popped a return catch.
That is where de Villiers tipped the scales back in balance. He remained until the very end. He got the last-ball six to get his century, and quite possibly the victory too, seeing as India fell short only by five runs.
As captain, as South Africa's best batsman and as a man who hates losing, he demands better from himself no matter what the mandate. Lest he finds himself in a situation where he loses the match and "just want to feel sad in my room for a while." That was what he said after the loss to India in the World Cup. Tonight, his room should be party central.
Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo