Five weeks is a long time in international cricket. Reputations are made or marred in half that time. True, Indian cricket’s credentials were never in doubt; it was just that their batsmen’s inability to deliver on overseas pitches which was dragging the team down.
Over the past five weeks, Indian cricket’s fanatical followers’ emotional upheaval sailed through an entire gamut of feelings — from aspiration, hope, despair to elation and triumph. Virtually all these feelings were at various times triggered by Virat Kohli’s team, with the six-wicket victory at Kingsmead, Durban on Thursday ultimately vindicating the enormous faith reposed in them.
The telling point was not so much the victory as the manner in which India’s batsmen came to the party. This served as an indication of what might have been had the team been given the time and opportunity to familiarise itself with South African conditions.
In the past five weeks, India’s batsmen were constantly peppered with pace and bounce almost every day to the extent that they had got used to it. Of course, seam movement, which was absent in Kingsmead, is another matter altogether. But the fact that the batsmen were so much at home proved how beneficial the sustained exposure to pace and extra bounce had been.
It would be no exaggeration to state that the Indians out-batted the home team in no uncertain terms on the day.
Certainly no praise could be too high for the remarkable Virat Kohli. The Indian captain has taken batting to a different level, particularly when it comes to chasing down a target.
The statistics speak for themselves. He has an amazing tally of 18 centuries in 74 successful run chases at a brilliant average of 94.04 and an equally impressive strike rate of 97.23. In comparison, the redoubtable Sachin Tendulkar, the next best, has only 14 tons from 127 matches at an average of 55.4 and strike rate of 90.18.
The fact that Kohli averages a century in every four successful run-chases is in itself phenomenal.
Michael Vaughan, former England skipper acknowledged as much in his tweet on Thursday when he hailed Kohli as “.... The Greatest chaser the game has ever seen.”
Sure, the present crop of Indian cricketers’ desire to win cannot be discounted. But Kohli’s intensity at the Kingsmead was something else altogether. He was passion personified during the chase and that actually spurred Ajinkya Rahane to bring his ‘A’ game to the crease.
Kohli was in the zone, whether running between the wickets or stroking the ball. He smelt half a chance and grabbed a single or two to keep the heat on the fielders right through the innings. His partners, Rahane or Shikhar Dhawan, had to be on their toes all the time just to survive. There was simply no respite from the hard running.
Rahane was quick on the uptake and emphatic enough to scream ‘no’ whenever he thought that he could not make it to safety in time. Dhawan, the only time he was on his heels, was caught out. Had he trusted his partner’s call — and the ball was behind the stumps — and run like the hare he would have been safe. But he hung back, watching the umpire’s response to the lbw appeal, and lost precious time to be run out at the non-striker’s end.
Rahane who had had a miserable 2017 in Tests, put those bad days behind him in an effort to live up to the team’s expectations. He took his time getting into his stride. The five weeks on South African soil had got him acclimatised to the conditions. In any case he was a smart runner and kept his end going.
The Mumbai batsman scored just 34 runs from 47 balls during the first 100 runs of his partnership with Kohli. He wisely left the bulk of the scoring to the aggressive Kohli but looked reassuring whether running between the wickets or middling the ball.
The lofted six off leg-spinner Imran Tahir freed him from his shackles and he soon opened out with lofted shots, cuts and drives to either side of the wicket.
But the most important aspect of the partnership was undoubtedly the running between the wickets. It literally eased the pressure of chasing a big target. The 189-run stand came off just 188 deliveries. Importantly, during the crucial 16th to 40th over phase when just four fielders are permitted outside the inner circle, they took the total from 75 for 2 to 236 for 2. In contrast, South Africa lost three wickets during this phase as they moved from 83 for 2 to 200 for 5.
The 44 extra runs that India squeezed out during this phase without losing a wicket tilted the balance.
This was almost wholly due to the dynamic Kohli. He took all the pressure when Rahane was finding his feet and later egged him to lift the level of his game. With somebody of his intensity and passion batting his heart out at the other end, it was natural that a chunk of the grit and determination rubbed off on Rahane too, who responded with a sublime 86-ball 79.
Nevertheless, India’s successful run chase of 270 was all about Kohli (112 runs; 119 balls 10x4) and his brilliance. Nothing, not two new white balls, swing, pace, bounce or spin fazed him. Amazingly the pressure of a huge chase did not hamper him. On the other hand it kept him motivated and spurred him to shatter the Proteas’ winning streak of 17 ODI wins at home.