India vs South Africa 3rd Test: Kohli leads by example

Marco Jansen had been the last man to dismiss Virat Kohli in Test cricket; the tall young South African pacer had got the Indian captain edging an attempted cover drive in the second innings at Centurion. It was also the 10th successive time Kohli had gone nicking to either wicketkeeper or first slip in overseas Tests.

Heading into the series decider in Cape Town, there was understandably speculation on whether Kohli should completely shun the drive, or at least stay away from it until he had worked himself back among runs (remember there was no pandemic the last time he made an international century in November 2019).

Kohli was on exactly zero at Newlands on Tuesday when he leaned into his favoured stroke and sent the ball all the way to the cover rope. The bowler: Marco Jansen. Having seen over the years how Kohli operates, there should be no surprise if he did this on purpose. Same shot, same bowler, vastly different result to Centurion. Even if he didn’t do it deliberately, the ‘I’ll do it my way’ message is hard to miss.

Kohli wouldn’t stop at this, of course. The first four of his 12 fours, in fact, would be either cover or off-drives, and both the cover drives would come off the left-armer Jansen. The skipper would be ninth man out for 79 — his highest Test score since his last international century – in an eventually underwhelming Indian total of 223. The hosts ended the day at 17/1 with skipper Dean Elgar already dismissed.

It was classic Kohli cover-driving – you miss your length by inches, that’s all I need; front foot leading into the shot, top hand guiding the bat, no desperation, all stability. It has worked for him for so long because he has largely been able to convert it into a percentage shot that turns the risk-reward trade-off decisively in his favour. It is somewhat counter-intuitive for a batsman of his stature, but when Kohli is at the top of his game, the cover drive is the filling main course rather than the indulgent starter or dessert for him.

Monkish self-denial

But moving on from the standout stroke, it was what Kohli did before his first scoring shot that defined his innings. He got off the mark on his 16th delivery, and had refused to play at 13 of the previous 15.

According to ESPNCricinfo, during the first 100 balls he faced, Kohli left nearly two-thirds of the deliveries South Africa bowled to him outside off-stump. Among 1,100 such innings in the last five years, only four have seen more balls being left alone.

Not only was Kohli a superb judge of line on Tuesday, he also reacted to varied lengths in different ways. According to Cricviz, he left three times the number of balls from short or short of a good length as he did fuller ones.

Kohli had come prepared to play the waiting game, and nothing was going to make him waver from the plan. At one stage, he and Cheteshwar Pujara had both faced 73 balls each. Pujara had raced to 39, Kohli was on 16. It was as if the bodies had swapped souls.

The dangerous Kagiso Rabada would come the closest to dismissing him when he had Kohli, then on 33, edging one that didn’t carry to a diving second slip. Keshav Maharaj earned a thick edge that flew past the lone slip, but it was Rabada who would ultimately terminate Kohli’s knock on 79, just as it was threatening to grow into something more substantial. And even that came about as Kohli was looking to farm the strike with No. 10 Umesh Yadav at the other end.

The comparisons with Edgbaston 2018 aren’t quite on then, especially in terms of magnitude; Kohli had made a grand 149 in Birmingham out of a total of 274, and most of those runs had come in the company of the lower order. Also, he had been dropped at least twice in the English slip cordon; Newlands was almost chanceless.

If anything, the context was far grimmer than Edgbaston 2018. The first Test of that English summer was about how Kohli would go against James Anderson and Co. after the personal horror show that the 2014 tour had been. His leadership across formats was, without overstating it, simply undisputed.

bvstartup India captain Virat Kohli smashes the ball toward the boundary during the third and final test match between South Africa and India in Cape Town, South Africa, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022. (AP Photo/Halden Krog)

Bat does the talking

But this is Cape Town 2022. Reporters are asking even head coach Rahul Dravid why Virat Kohli hasn’t come instead for a press conference. Ever since he gave his version of how the ODI captaincy was taken away from him, Kohli behind a mike has generated way more interest than Kohli with a bat in hand. This 79 may be the start of restoring the balance; he may have ceded two-thirds of his leadership territory, but presumably none of the batting pedigree.

Balanced is what Kohli is when it’s going right in the middle. He was determined not to go after widish balls, so the front foot was coming out a lot straighter when he did decide to play at ones closer to him. So certain was his shot selection that in his first 100 balls, he went for the drive only three times, and all three went for fours.

India batting coach Vikram Rathour would say that barring momentary slips in focus like those in Centurion, Kohli had been batting well all along, be it in the middle or in the nets.

“It was a lapse in concentration for a fraction of a second. The conversation was that he needs to be more selective with the shot,” Rathour said. “As a batting coach, I was never concerned with the way he was batting. He was more disciplined today. He looked really solid. With a bit more luck, he could have converted this into a big one.”

The way the rest of the Indian line-up – barring Pujara – went on the best batting strip of the series, it is likelier Kohli would have run out of partners before he could have made it a big one.

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