Virat Kohli stepped on to the Wanderers with a giant shadow hanging behind him, of a man who had achieved some incredible feats in his 25-year-long career.
Kohli, who took the number four slot left vacant by Sachin Tendulkar, did his forebear proud, notching up a hundred (119, 257m, 181b, 18x4) of top quality – a crucial ingredient in India reaching a satisfying 255 for five at stumps on the first day of the first Test here on Wednesday.
The Indians’ effort, in fact, exceeded the belief that this batting line-up sans some legends is ripe for picking. Even before India’s latest tour of South Africa started, it was perceived to be an improbable task for Indian batsmen to negate the South African pacers. Their performance in the two one-dayers only strengthened the notion.
At 24 for two, after the early departures of Shikhar Dhawan and M Vijay, India needed a consolidation act first. Kohli in the company of Cheteshwar Pujara accomplished it with a stand of 89 in 27.3 overs. Pujara was an island of calm as usual, but Kohli at the other end had his own moments of discomfort – particularly against Morne Morkel.
The strapping right-arm pacer generated disconcerting bounce at speeds close to late 140 kmph, catching Kohli in two minds on a couple of occasions. Once he dangled his bat outside the off-stump unsure whether to play or leave, and the ball took the leading edge en route the third-man fence.
The ball that succeeded it showed Kohli’s uncertain mind – Morkel caught him again in a play-or-leave situation with an incoming delivery that eluded the stumps by a whisker after scraping the Delhiite’s bat. Those moments were a wake-up call – screaming at Kohli to tighten his act. He did it indeed!
Thereon, seldom there was a loose or panic-initiated shot from Kohli, negating the pace of Dale Steyn, bounce of Morkel and swing of Vernon Philander with comfort. There, of course, was a moment of indecisiveness that ended the blooming third wicket alliance with Pujara.
Kohli called his partner for a single after tapping Imran Tahir to mid-wicket but soon realized that there was no single. The 25-year-old signaled Pujara to retrun but the Saurashtra man had already zipped past the middle of the pitch, reaching a point of no return.
Kohli knew that he had sold his partner down the river, standing with a sagging head as Pujara walked past. The rest of the innings was as much a penance for that callous act as much an effort to prove his all-weather capability. Many tended to attribute his blistering hundreds last month against the Australians to the flaccid nature of the pitches. But at the Bull Ring, Kohli gave yet another example of his development into a batsmen comfortable in all formats.
He relished the battle too. Steyn tried to unsettle him with a barrage of short balls like he did against Dhawan. Steyn had bowled four short-pitched balls in succession to Dhawan, and the fifth ball the left-hander, by now slipped into a compulsive hook mode, wafted straight into the hands of Tahir at square leg.
Steyn tried a similar method against Kohli, but he was up to the task. His thunderous pull off the world’s best fast bowler was not only a statement of authority but it was also a firm message that he wasn’t scared of snorters. Then he unfurled a straight drive off the same bowler that would have made Tendulkar smiling in appreciation before square driving Morkel to the fence – Kohli emerged triumphant from his test of skill and temperament.
Rohit Sharma’s needless swish off Philander deprived Kohli off a solid partner, but Ajinkya Rahane gave him resolute company for the fifth wicket, milking 68 runs. However, Kallis’ slower delivery did Kohli in, Jean Paul Duminy latching on to a tame lob. The dismissal came against the run of play, and the South Africans may think that they have gained good portion of the lost ground with that wicket.
But the Indians have sent out a clear message – they won’t fade away without a fight. It wouldn’t have been possible without Kohli.