Rohit transformation steers India towards date with destiny

Manjrekar: 'Rohit's selflessness the most appealing thing about him' (1:14)

'His sublime shots remind us of his brilliance,' Manjrekar added (1:14)

Rohit Sharma has transformed his approach to T20 batting in the last two years but this humid Monday morning in St Lucia was a high-stakes test of his commitment to a new, ultra-attacking mindset.

India's progress to the T20 World Cup semi-finals relied on avoiding a heavy defeat to Australia, a scenario which would lead many players to adopt a safety-first approach even before they slipped to 6 for 1 after two overs. And it was only seven months ago that Rohit's own dismissal after a fast start changed the course of a World Cup final - albeit in a different format.

But Rohit's response demonstrated his clarity of thought. Rather than obsessing over the cross-wind which howled across the Daren Sammy Cricket Ground, he launched the first two balls of Mitchell Starc's second over for sixes over cover. It led to an overcorrection and a loss of control, with Starc then hammered for four down the ground, six over wide mid-on and six more off an edge which flew over Matthew Wade.

It was the personification of attacking intent, and the third six merits closer examination. Starc attempted to angle the ball across Rohit, daring him to take on the infield in the covers again, and overpitched slightly. It was a slot ball, but delivered at 90mph/144kph - and Rohit went down on one knee, slog-sweeping him all of 96 metres. It was an outrageous shot.

And this was not just any bowler: this was three-format world champion, serial winner Mitchell Starc, bowling with the benefit of a cross-breeze which - in theory - should have helped him to shape the ball back late to the right-handers. "He was trying to get it up and get it swinging," Josh Hazlewood explained. "We've seen that for 10 years: it's pretty devastating when it's on."

Instead, Starc's over cost 29 runs - his most expensive set of six in an Australia career that has spanned more than 4000 overs. He had never previously conceded more than two sixes in a single over, in any format of international cricket: Rohit cracked him for four.

Rohit's plan, he revealed, was to open up both sides of the ground rather than relying on the cross-wind and hitting across the line. "You need to be smart," he said. "You've got to understand, bowlers are smart as well… I was thinking to hit the ball everywhere possible. When you keep an open mind and not think about just playing one shot, you can open [up] and access all sides of the field."

It worked perfectly. As soon as Australia's strategy of defending the windy side was thrown off, they started to veer between different plans and regularly missed their lengths: Pat Cummins' slower ball soared 100 metres onto the roof of the Johnson Charles stand at midwicket, with the wind, and his attempted wide yorker was squeezed through backward point.

Rohit was particularly punishing when Mitchell Marsh turned to Marcus Stoinis in the hope of some cheap overs, hitting half of the balls he faced from him to the rope, or over it. He repeatedly used his feet, shimmying down as if to highlight Stoinis' lack of pace and the time he had to choose a shot, commit to it and nail it: Rohit's strike rate against Stoinis was 270.

He repeatedly felt comfortable hitting him into the breeze, knowing that even a mishit had a good chance of clearing a 66-metre square boundary. "He targeted the boundary with the wind for a while," Hazlewood said. "Then we reacted, and then he hit a few [towards] the other side as well. He's a class act, and you expect him to do that a couple of times through a tournament."

Rohit fell in the 12th over for 92 off 41, bowled by Starc's yorker from around the wicket. It was a credit to him that he continued to swing, knowing that India would need 200-plus on a good batting pitch. "Fifties and hundreds don't matter," he said. "I wanted to bat with the same tempo, and carry on playing shots wherever it is necessary; try and put the bowlers under pressure."

Last year's 50-over World Cup felt like a brush with destiny for Rohit. After missing India's 2011 triumph, the chance to captain his country to their first major title in a decade on home soil was tantalising. He played selflessly throughout the tournament, striking at 125.94, but his dismissal in Ahmedabad - caught by Travis Head off Glenn Maxwell - prompted his team-mates to freeze.

This was not quite retribution: Australia are still mathematically alive, and India are two games away from a trophy. But when Head's miscue landed in Rohit's hands at mid-off to effectively seal India's win, it felt like a small step towards it. "It is quite satisfying [to beat Australia] especially when you play like that," Rohit said. "We can take a lot of confidence from a game like this."

It has been a remarkable transformation at a late stage of Rohit's career. In both ODIs and T20Is, his average and strike rate are higher as captain than in the ranks. That demonstrates both the security of a player who knows his legacy is already confirmed and the desire of a captain who wants to set an example to his team-mates, and prove that playing high-risk cricket will not bring repercussions.

Rohit's biggest challenge lies ahead. Two years ago, he made 27 off 28 balls in a T20 World Cup semi-final against England in Adelaide then blamed his bowlers for the 10-wicket thrashing that ensued. In Guyana on Thursday, he will have the chance to make amends by showing that he has changed for good.