“... And still they gazed and still the wonder grew...” these words from Oliver Goldsmith’s epic poem could well form a tribute to the matchless Virat Kohli whose magnificent batting exploits over the past few weeks have been a sight for sore eyes.
Two months ago Kohli had smashed the daylights out of the Sri Lankans and accumulated 610 runs from five Test innings at a staggering average of 152.5 (two double tons, one century, one fifty). Carping critics, instead of living in the moment and appreciating his brilliant batting, said he would have his ‘comeuppance’ on the pacy, bouncy South African tracks.
But now, after three Tests and three One Day Internationals, India’s champion batsman is much like the colossus, striding the South African landscape, with lesser batsmen cautiously peering through his legs.
His average of 318 from the three ODIs (112, 46* and 160*) sets him up to be branded – not for the first time – as the ‘Don Bradman of ODI cricket’.
Even as any doubts about his ability to dominate the South African pace battery has been settled forever following his brilliant batting on seaming tracks in the low-scoring Test series (5 & 28, 153 & 5, 54 & 41) at least one well-known ex-cricketer stated that he would wait till the end of India’s series against England later this year, before passing any judgment on Kohli.
While this could be a fair statement, the reluctance to accept greatness on the evidence of the past five years’ batting seems a puzzle. Of course, Indian cricket followers would want Kohli to be a huge success in England. Not just to emphasise his brilliance but also to put India firmly on the winning path.
But even if he did not find similar success in England, can a failure take away the sheen from his undoubted batting wizardry?
It may be recalled that one of the greatest tennis stars of all time, Sweden’s Bjorn Borg, never won the US Open. He, however, won all the other Grand Slams – Australian, Wimbledon and French Open, on multiple occasions. Did his inability to win the US Open even once diminish the stature of the great champion? No, not at all! Borg is celebrated and appreciated for his triumphs. Not for the ones that eluded him.
Similarly Kohli, whose amazing performances have evoked shock and awe among opponents, must be hailed for the unbelievable success he has enjoyed in all formats of the game.
The South Africans, in particular, have had enough of him. It was not that long ago that their fast bowlers operating in their backyard were guilty of ‘work place bullying.’ They would give rival batsmen a thorough working over on their bouncy strips and hardly any batsman came through with flying colours.
But Kohli has been magnificent. He has not got cowed down by their tactics. He copped his share of criticism after India lost the first Test where his contribution was a mere five and 28. Cries and accusations of being flat-track bullies went up against the Indians after that loss at Newlands early last month.
Kohli, however, remained his normal, agitated self, venting his spleen at whoever caught his immediate fancy. Much like another great sportsman, John McEnroe, who was alleged to have a ‘rage for perfection’, Kohli’s ranting and raving too was being passed off similarly.
Importantly, these skirmishes were pumping him up to stay in the zone. The skipper was not just leading from the front, he was taking the battle into the enemy camp.
The innings of 153 against tremendous odds in the second Test at the Centurion was a stupendous effort. It showed class, determination and special talent. Although those runs came in a losing cause, the century was a monkey off Kohli’s back.
It was his first ton on South African soil on this tour and once he had got that out of the way he simply powered his way to greater heights.
By the time the ODIs came along, he had spent enough time in the middle and had got used to South African conditions and bowling. It was now pay back time.
The century in Durban was a mere appetiser. By the time the second and third ODIs came along, any doubts of Kohli and his ability to perform on South African soil had disappeared. Virtually everyone knew they were witnessing a master at work.
The manner in which Kohli went about his art on the canvas that was Newlands, Cape Town was a revelation. He stepped in when Rohit Sharma was dismissed in the first over and then gave a masterclass in the art of building an innings.
Kohli eschewed all risky shots and almost always played the ball along the ground. He ran like the hare and stole singles and twos aplenty (100 of his 160 runs came in this form). He completely avoided uppish strokes till he had run into some serious run-gathering mode. Strike rotation, such an important feature of limited overs cricket became second nature to him, and a fluent Sikhar Dhawan and the addition of these quick runs negated the need for desperate hitting.
The first time Kohli came up with a slog – so uncharacteristic of him – was after he had made a hundred. He deployed this slog sweep against off spinner JP Duminy to signal that he was switching gears. India added 80 runs in the last 10 overs, with Kohli contributing 52 of those.
Kohli’s unbeaten 160 did more than just take India to an impregnable total; it destroyed South Africa’s belief in themselves and their ability to defeat this Indian team. This was a far cry from the triumphant mood in the home side just three weeks ago.
However, the boot is now clearly on the other foot, all thanks to Kohli, the absolute lord and master of batsmanship.