For a batter as great as Virat Kohli, it can sometimes be difficult to accept that he is beaten. The game of the legends, even their greatness perhaps, is shaped by their utter belief in themselves and their method.
Sometimes that belief can turn to arrogance but at other times, as Kohli showed on a spicy pitch at Newlands, it can turn into a vehicle that allows them to adapt as few others can.
It was cloudy when the Indian skipper won the toss and elected to bat first. The pitch at Cape Town is known to assist spinners in the second half of the game and runs on the board were always going to be an advantage. The Indian team had expected the cloud cover to disperse sooner rather than later but the clouds hung around and the South African bowlers put in a disciplined performance to reduce India to 33/2.
That was when Kohli joined Cheteshwar Pujara in the middle and while he still inspires confidence, one wasn’t quite sure how he’d choose to counter the South African pace attack. Would he, as Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane did in the second Test, go on the attack? Or would he, as perhaps coach Rahul Dravid would have done, back his defence?
As things turned out, he chose the middle path that had shades of 2018 England and a huge dollop of good old determination. His patient approach was evident right from the start. For the first fifteen balls, he let everything go by… content to not chase anything. Then, on the 16th ball, an opportunity presented itself — the ball from Marco Jansen was a bit too full and Kohli leaned into the drive to get off the mark with a four.
The first 16 balls set the template for the innings. He wasn’t going to go looking, he wasn’t going to chase the ball outside the off-stump but if the bowlers did come into his areas, he would play his shots. His area, in this case, was much smaller than it usually is. He wanted to cut out risk. He wanted to stay out there. He wanted to survive. He wanted to score runs. This was Kohli showing his intent.
While Pujara was there in the middle, things moved along well. The right-hander was in a positive frame of mind and while Kohli was finding his bearings, the batter from Saurashtra kept the scoreboard ticking along. It helped that every once in a while, the SA bowlers would slip a delivery onto his legs too.
Kohli, meanwhile, settled into a nice unhurried manner. The measured stroke play was the sign of the Indian skipper wanting to wrest back the initiative from the bowlers — albeit in a different way.
As the first session came to a close, Kohli had faced 50 balls for his 15 runs. Very slow, very steady, very deliberate. But it was working.
The SA pacers kept at it, though. The loose balls were at a premium even after the lunch break but Kohli showed that he was prepared to wait for them. Even when he played the drive, he seemed to cut risk to a minimum. He waited for the ball to come to him, did not reach for it and presented the full face of the bat.
The shots showed he could go on the attack if he so desired but they also showed just how hard he was trying to stay there in the middle. As the second session came to a close, Kohli had moved on to 40 off 139 balls (25 off 89 balls in the second session). As steady as he was in the first session.
There was some luck involved too but no one can deny that he had worked for it. At tea, India were at a precarious 141/4. After electing to bat first, the visitors would have wanted more on the board but instead, they found themselves in an all-too-familiar position.
Having got his eye in, one wondered whether Kohli would finally break loose in the final session. But India lost Rishabh Pant, R Ashwin and Shardul Thakur in the blink of an eye and suddenly it looked like his hard work might come to naught due to the fragility of the Indian batting line-up.
He carried on gamely, getting to his fifty but was eventually dismissed as he was trying to farm the strike. The field was spread out, the single was on offer and he finally edged one from Rabada through to the keeper. One could see the bitter disappointment on his face as he walked back to the dressing room.
His 79-run innings had lasted 201 balls and once again showed us the true caliber of his batting. The wait for the century continues but this innings, many will argue, was clear evidence of Kohli coming back to his best.
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