Not very long ago we would see KL Rahul do all the hard yards — play the difficult period with the new ball, leave a lot of balls alone, show determination, impress with his concentration — and then just as it would seem like it was time to cash in, he would start looking shaky. A lazy waft outside the off-stump, a shot straight to the fielder in the deep. The dismissal would come out of the blue and we would all be left wondering ‘what changed?’.
On the other hand, we would see Virat Kohli walk in and just look to put the pressure back on the bowlers. He would, based on conditions, take his time getting set but mostly he would just seemingly waltz to 30-40 runs before you knew it. But once he got there, he, unlike Rahul, would not give it away. He would make his start count and make the opposition pay.
But on the first day of the Centurion Test, Virat Kohli and KL Rahul somehow seemed to have swapped places.
Rahul did what we have come to expect from Kohli. In tough conditions, the India opener put his best foot forward. It was overcast early but the right-hander left the ball well, played close to his body, put away the pull and the hook shot. He did what was expected of an opener and then showed everyone watching how his Test game has moved up a level.
At no point did Rahul look like he was in a hurry. In the past, he could sometimes get carried away by the beauty of his own strokes or perhaps the adrenaline boost that accompanied them. There was intent to dominate or just to play his natural game but it would invariably land him in trouble.
But during the 117-run opening stand with Mayank Agarwal, Rahul was the calmer guy in the middle. When the former seemed a little shaken just before the lunch break, the more experienced batter would walk over and have a quick word to just settle things down.
More importantly, he continued in the same vein. Undisturbed. Ready to take full toll of the poor deliveries. But that is another aspect of his game that stood out. He didn’t look to attack the good deliveries – as batters of his class often want to do – rather he patiently waited for the bad balls.
There was one occasion where he was caught in two minds against a short ball from Mulder. He wasn’t sure about whether he wanted to play the pull shot and ended up playing a half-hearted shot. The top-edge almost carried to Marco Jansen in the deep but Rahul survived and was still there at the end of the day.
Kohli, on the other hand, started with two sumptuous fours – both timed to perfection. And then, with South Africa employing Wiaan Mulder and Keshav Maharaj from either end, he got time to settle into his innings.
Agarwal and Rahul had batted time – like most Indian opening pairs in 2021. From 2011 to 2020, India didn’t have a single opening partnership in men’s Tests outside Asia that lasted more than 20 overs. In 2021 alone, it has happened seven times in 15 innings.
So while the South African bowlers were better in the second session than they were in the first, Kohli still looked comfortable against a not-so-new Kookaburra ball as the opening partnership lasted long enough to take the shine off the ball.
But then having made his way to 35, he suddenly threw it away. The ball was wide enough to leave but Kohli went for it anyway and edged it to the slips. The wide delivery outside off has become the Indian skipper’s Kryptonite.
In England, six out of seven Kohli dismissals were outside off and we saw more of the same in the first innings in Centurion on Sunday. It is a problem area that the opposition has recognised and there is no way it has escaped the notice of the India skipper.
Perhaps just as troubling is how a lapse in concentration is costing him. In 10 of the 24 innings since his last Test hundred, Kohli has faced 80 or more balls (he faced 94 against SA). So he is getting the starts; getting his eye in and then getting out – mostly to poor shots, just as Rahul once did.
It really isn’t as much a problem of technique as it is of the mind. Kohli has fought off similar issues in the past and he knows the way out of this predicament but if he wants a closer look at inspiration, he needs to look no further than Rahul.
For now, India are in a comfortable sport as a team. They made their way to 272/3 at close of play on Day 1 and will know that anything above 400 will put them in a very strong position indeed.