Kohli graduates from the school of hard knocks


Aryan Surana

The first two deliveries of Kagiso Rabada's 11th over stood at the opposite ends of the cricketing spectrum. While the former was a supersonic leg-break that beat Virat Kohli all ends up, the latter was hooked passionately off the top edge for a six. It was the only instance when he had thrown caution to the wind in the 88 balls faced till that point, a welcome change from the trigger-happy Kohli who has had a fetish for fishing at wide ones.

His recent dismissals have been of such inexplicable nature that it seemed as if Kohli was on an ego trip. He wanted to go ahead with the shot and impose his authority, even if it meant losing all sense of responsibility and judgement. There was a certain been-there-done-that kind of cockiness attached to those flailing swishes of the blade. However, on the opening day of a decider with his team in a tight spot at 33/2, Kohli eventually saw merit in swallowing his pride.

That South Africa will bowl full and wide to Kohli was along expected lines. Having welcomed the Indian captain to the crease with a bumper, Rabada fired three in a row a good yard outside the off stump. Marco Jansen picked up from where his senior colleague left, his barrage of away-anglers aimed at teasing Kohli's instincts. In the justifiable hope of a nick South Africa kept pursuing the sixth-stump channel, their average line to Kohli in the first session. It proved to be an exercise in futility. Kohli had learnt to decline the poisoned chalice.

But how did he wipe out a shot from his muscle memory just like that? Kohli seemed to have worked in reverse order to keep himself from chasing the ill-fated drive. He was throwing his bat at balls outside the off-stump because he felt he was close to them, which in turn used to happen due to the trigger movement that ended up leaving him positioned right across the stumps. By the time he was ready to face the ball, Kohli had already covered the stumps in their entirety. Another contributing factor was his front toe which opened towards covers rather than mid-off as a result of the pronounced shuffle.

The updated trigger movement saw Kohli move his back foot from leg to middle and subsequently point the toe in a straighter direction. This ensured he wasn't being lulled into a false sense of proximity to the balls pitching a great deal outside off. That Jansen was overcooking the ploy made life easier for Kohli, with a lot of deliveries a bit too wayward to invoke a reaction. The technical amendments were made to facilitate better decision-making around the off-stump, and not by any means to curtail his signature shot. So when Jansen got the wind of Kohli's restraining game-plan and shifted his radar to the right, he was treated with a crackerjack of a cover drive, a shot that suggested Kohli had ironed out the flaws and had a fair idea of what to go after and what to leave alone.

He shouldered arms to 66% of his first 50 deliveries, by far his highest figure in Test cricket with the second-best being 46%. It was a role reversal of sorts as Kohli dawdled to 5 off 36 while Cheteshwar Pujara, usually the slow starter, had cantered to 21 off 36, showing that he was more than happy to bide his time. Although Pujara didn't achieve consecutive fifties, the 62-run partnership assuaged the nerves in the dressing room. Kohli made the second-least runs in an innings after facing 100 balls, but now everything was clicking into gear.

He did face the wrath of Rabada in a sweltering hot sever-over burst, playing and missing often, but Jansen and Duanne Olivier weren't able to sustain the heat from the other end as Kohli helped himself to some hard-earned runs, bringing up his second slowest half-century in Tests off 158 balls. Notwithstanding the fact that Rabada went past the bat on a number of occasions during that spell of rapacious intensity, the closest South Africa came to dislodging Kohli was when a strangle down the leg was sent upstairs for verification. Hotspot caught a murmur but the third umpire discerned daylight between the bat and ball, giving Kohli the green light to carry on with his exhibition in self-discipline.

While he had slain his inner demons to take India to 172/5, Kohli was running out of partners. With the tail-enders in tow and Rabada breathing fire, he had no option but to farm the strike to try and accumulate precious runs. Kohli wouldn't have thought twice about it, for he has never let personal milestones come in the way of the team's cause. The elusive 71st century would have to wait, as Kohli manoeuvered across the sticks and got done in by the lateral movement from Rabada, offering a poke that was put in cold storage all this while.

The visitors surrendered their last six wickets for just 56 runs, folding for 223 thanks to Rabada's four-fer. In hindsight, the collapse could be looked upon as a blessing in disguise as the South African openers, grilled in the field for a tick above 77 overs, padded up to negate the Bumrahs and the Shamis under dimming sunshine. Umesh Yadav was there as well, having pipped Ishant Sharma to the post on the grounds of recent form, especially the three wickets he picked up to orchestrate India's come-from-behind victory at The Oval.

Three dismissals in four innings against Aiden Markram should have left no room for debate, but India preferred Umesh over Shami to share the new ball with Bumrah, who outclassed Dean Elgar with a beauty from round the wicket. The early breakthrough called for celebratory shenanigans as Kohli finally let loose after keeping a check on his proactive tendencies for the better part of the day.