ICC Champions Trophy 2017: Virat Kohli, India’s run-plundering giant, finally awoke against South Africa

Andile Phehlukwayo can nag a batsman with his consistent line and length. Yet, he stands out as a misfit in the pack of South African pacers.  Kagiso Rabada, Morne Morkel and Chis Morris are tall, fast and, generally, in beast mode. Phehlukwayo is like a friendlier version of his fellow pacers.

Phehlukwayo strictly bowls medium pace, unlike his fiery brethren who thrive in the high 140s. He smiles more than he stares. He welcomes a batsman more than he intimidates. He is often the comfort a batsman craves for after the bombardment of pace missiles from the rest of South Africa’s hostile attack.

 ICC Champions Trophy 2017: Virat Kohli, India’s run-plundering giant, finally awoke against South Africa

Virat Kohli in action against South Africa. Reuters

But on Sunday at The Oval, even Phehlukwayo appeared like a monster baying for Kohli’s blood. Suddenly, there was not much that was friendly about the South African youngster.

Kohli’s armour is almost chink-less. The corridor outside off-stump that invites a drive, especially in England, is the only real shot the bowlers have. Once the ball is in the zone, Kohli’s resistance breaks. He invariably throws his bat at those deliveries.

Early on in the innings, the ball habitually finds the edge of Kohli’s bat. But once Kohli’s eye is in, the same ball unfailingly finds the middle of his blade. Either, he hangs his head in shame as the wicketkeeper and slip cordon rejoice after he has been caught behind, or, he maintains his pose — front foot stretched to the pitch of the delivery with a plush bat swing for company — after he has sculpted one of the most elegant cover drives in the game today. The two contrasting images define Kohli’s game.

Midway through the 16th over, Phehlukwayo’s gentle pace outside off lured Kohli into a drive. The Indian captain had been in the middle for a while, but the rust had not been shaken off yet. The first of Kohli’s defining image was set to say hello when the edge flew to Hashim Amla at slip. However, fortunately for Kohli, Amla grassed it. The South African celebrations were resigned to an abrupt end. Kohli lived on with an opportunity to paint his second defining image.

About half hour later, Kohli’s eyes were transfixed on the ball. Morkel ran in with the ball now. Morkel delivered the ball back in that corridor outside off. It carried an invitation to drive similar to Phehlukwayo’s delivery. It was an invitation Kohli finds difficult to refuse.

But by now, Kohli had survived the initial fire and was ready to unleash an assault of his own. This time, his bat met the ball the way he wanted it to. With a steady head and stretched front foot, he drove the ball to the cover boundary. The second defining image of a Kohli cover-drive in poetic symmetry sparkled through.

Kohli’s rust had been forgotten. It did not matter that it was Morkel and not Phehlukwayo with the ball. It was inconsequential that Morkel is South Africa’s most experienced pacer, and their most effective in the 2017 Champions Trophy.

Just as Kohli personified elegance with the cover drive, the crowd gushed in unison. It was as if their king had spoken a sentence of significance after a prolonged silence. There was a wave of awe that hit a packed Oval, as that boundary signaled the arrival of King Kohli.

And, Kohli stayed till the end. He survived the initial phase when the South African pacers constantly enticed him with drivable deliveries outside off. He brushed aside every effort from the tall pacers to attack his body with a dead bat, especially after he nearly pulled Morris straight to a diving Morkel at long leg in a bid to break free. By the end of it, Kohli had conquered almost every challenge that the South African bowlers had thrown at him. He had won. His team had won.

Two days later, Kohli had scaled the peak of the best batsmen in the world. He had surged past AB de Villiers and David Warner to sit atop the ICC rankings. He had, in fact, ended India’s must-win encounter against South Africa with a responsible knock that had qualities worthy of the world’s premier batsman.

Kohli has looked far from the best in this Champions Trophy, opening his campaign with an unbeaten 81 against Pakistan. While the score looks good on paper, Kohli had scratched around and found more fielders than boundaries. It was only after he was dropped on the square leg fence after his pull had top-edged a Wahab Riaz bouncer did he decide to park his inhibitions and switch to fifth gear. Though he finished his innings with a flurry of boundaries, not all of them carried the Kohli stamp of authority.

To darken the gloom over his struggle with the bat that had stretched since the Test series against Australia earlier this year, Kohli was back in the hut before he could register even a run against Sri Lanka in the next game. Once again, it was the zone outside off. Nuwan Pradeep had lured Kohli into an unnecessary shot. And, unlike against South Africa, Kohli was not handed a life.

Upset that he had succumbed to a weakness of his the world was aware about, but he could do little about, Kohli had an extended session in the nets ahead of the game against Morkel & Co.

At the nets, when Kohli faced throwdowns, right-arm pacers, left-arm pacers, there appeared to be a clear directive to pepper him with deliveries in the area outside off he often falls prey to.

When he entered the battle against South Africa, Kohli required a reprieve before he could signal his return to form with the trademark cover drive. But once he had survived, he put his practice into use. The risky deliveries outside off had been mastered. The run-plundering giant had been awakened. While the prospect was a delight for the Indian fans, the Bangladesh bowlers would have already braced themselves for the thunderous impact likely on Thursday.

Updated Date: Jun 14, 2017 08:53:02 IST