PUNE: On Wednesday, the eve of the second Freedom Trophy Test, Virat Kohli was batting at one of the nets of Maharashtra Cricket Association Stadium.
Cries of “watch out” were being heard way too frequently. The police and the few media personnel relaxing at the North Stand had their hands on their heads, ducking without actually knowing where the ball was going to land. A few even changed their seats to more safer zones.
A while later at the press conference, Kohli was asked if that whacking he was indulging in was a strategy to counter South Africa’s spinners. "I just wanted to have some fun today," the smiling India skipper said. "I don’t do everything with strategy in mind."
That statement doesn’t have much to read into. But after seeing him notch up his highest Test score on Friday, you know he chose to have fun at that net session, not in the middle.
Kohli’s hunger for runs is unparalleled among the current generation. This was his seventh 200-plus score, and all have come since 2016. In this period, three double hundreds have come from England, Pakistan and New Zealand each while five have come from Australia, Bangladesh and West Indies combined. Despite his huge hunger for runs, Kohli doesn’t gobble them in one go.
There isn’t a time limit. He likes to savour his opponents. No spills or wastage. It begins and ends with India’s needs. Most of the time, there is no space for personal wants or fun. Requirements in the middle need him to be disciplined, even if the attack is mediocre. There is boredom to be dealt with at times, especially when fielders’ shoulders droop. Balls are left alone for the feast that lies ahead. There is no succumbing to temptations till then.
On Friday, as he feasted for more than seven hours, Kohli’s discipline stood out. Barring that 213 against Sri Lanka in Nagpur two years ago, the six of his double tons have come when India needed those runs more than him. He had to be responsible to ensure that the hard work put in by Mayank Agarwal, Cheteshwar Pujara and himself didn’t go waste.
Kohli knew a big first-innings total on a placid wicket will only add to scoreboard pressure. With one less regular batsman in his XI, he seemed hell bent on converting his knock into a big one.
The first session was Kohli’s amuse-bouche and potage. In the company of Ajinkya Rahane, Kagiso Rabada and Vernon Philander were kept at bay. He was content adding only 41 to his overnight score of 63; thus arrived his 26th Test century.
The plan was to keep South Africa on the field as long as possible, under the sun. No animated celebration for breaching 100 for the first time this year. He batted on. Post lunch, came the entree. Rabada breathed fire for a while after Rahane fell to Keshav Maharaj, ending a 178-run stand for fourth wicket. The fiery pacer beat Kohli’s edge at least four times. But every slight error ended with the ball being hit to the cover or square-leg fence. Rabada bowled short, out came Kohli’s pull.
South African tempers were frayed. Rabada threw the ball to Quinton de Kock, who appeared clueless. “Keep watching the ball,” screamed the former. Faf du Plessis had to step in to soothe nerves. Kohli kept tucking into his meal, as India went to tea at 473/4, their captain just six away from 200. Soon after tea, the double arrived. Again a muted celebration. The main course had already been served. Kohli was ready for sorbet and dessert.
Jadeja changed gears. So did Kohli. Runs, not rains, poured in Pune on a gloomy evening. They brought up 100 in just 12.3 overs, as Jadeja accelerated for his second Test century.
Kohli, meantime, opened up against the spinners; a few sixes were smashed. Jadeja fell for 91. A third triple century for India was there for the taking. But the skipper walked back smiling. At 601/5, both he and his team had savoured a buffet froid to remember.