Nudging Senuran Muthusamy beyond square-leg for a couple, sprinting fiercely hard for those runs as he had his entire career, Virat Kohli completed his seventh Test double hundred, the most by an Indian, surpassing childhood heroes Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag. An hour and 54 deliveries earlier, a streaky boundary had steered him past the great Donald Bradman, as the owner of the most 150-plus scores as a Test captain. In between, he also picked the comparatively nondescript distinction of the third-fastest Indian to collect 7,000 runs and climbed to the seventh rung among India’s all-time run-getters.
But when talking about Kohli, or for that matter any great batsman, numbers only have an embellishing value. They are regarded great not merely by the magnitude of runs or records, but by the sheer majesty of stroke-play, transcendence of conditions, circumstances and bowlers, their sheer crease-presence and the radiating halo. It’s perhaps the reason the likes of Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara inhabited a rarefied space while Jacques Kallis and Alastair Cook dwelled a space beneath them. Statistically, the disparity is negligible, if any, but the yardsticks of measuring greatness are more intangible and unquantifiable.
Incredible as their stats are, their greatness lies elsewhere, perhaps in their ability to transform watching them into a singular experience that can’t be explained with numbers, with spectators flocking like pilgrims for a mere glimpse of their deity. Perhaps when numbers fail to capture a sportsman’s essence, his greatness manifests.
Like it’s with Kohli. You can flip through his numbers and feel awed, only that it leaves you with an emotional and visual vacuum if you haven’t watched him rack up those numbers.
It’s not like he bats differently every time. Regular Kohli fans know the pattern: a spirit-sapping stream of singles, risk-free flicks through the leg side, firm-footed drives, a crackdown on wayward deliveries, the bowlers’ weaknesses teased out, bursts of acceleration, and the constant impression that the pitch is five yards longer when he is on strike.
Even his celebrations these days are muted, unless there’s an instigation. He has made his batting almost risk-free, like Tendulkar in the last decade of his career. So in case you have missed his 254 not out, his highest Test score, you haven’t essentially missed much. Even the highlights package wouldn’t leave you fully sated, like reading the abridged version of a classic, the climax of which you already know.
In fact, the highlights reels will make Kohli look ordinary, doing the usual Kohli things. This is where another strand of Kohli’s greatness kicks in, the ability to make even the extraordinary stuff look normal. For example his straight-driving, which was remarkable, especially off Kagiso Radaba. It’s perhaps not his signature shot — it’s difficult to pinpoint a particular Kohli-esque shot, for there are several — but it made one feel ethereal in isolation. Stripped to the basics, it’s simple — a mere push, without flexing a single muscle. Yet, even great batsmen swear the shot is the most difficult one to execute.
But then, haven’t one seen all these before? However, even after a hundred repeats, the shot leaves one entranced. For all the repetitiveness, there’s no strand of boredom. The more he plays, the more one wants to see it again.
But as much as Kohli conformed to his usual template of run-making, the stream of regular strokes, he pulled out a few outlandish ones too. Like a pulled boundary off Anrich Nortje. Judging the shortness of length, Kohli was quickly into the shot, before realising the ball hadn’t bounce as much as he had anticipated and was coming slower at him. So he deliberately froze in his swivel — an incredibly difficult thing to do, as anyone who has played this stroke would admit — and instead of flaying it through mid-wicket, slapped it wide of mid-on. The wrist-snap at the last moment gave the shot direction. It’s an area of the ground more accustomed to his flicks, not pulls.
Soon after, Rabada was powerfully flicked through square leg, almost taking out the umpire. The length wasn’t flickable, not quite full, though the line was leg-sidish, but Kohli’s wrists were firmly over it, before the bottom hand twirled. In his rare extravagant flourish when flicking, he was almost like Tendulkar.
Another eye-catcher was a drilled straight drive off Vernon Philander. The wicketkeeper standing up to the seamer naturally inhibits the drive, batsmen being wary of leaning into the shot, unless it’s full and on the stumps. So when Philander bowled one really full on the off-side, Kohli didn’t lean into the drive, rather stood where he was and bludgeoned it straight down the ground. If his usual straight drives are all grace and timing, this one was sheer power and precision, so flatly hit that the follow-through was non-existent. All wrists and bottom hand.
If some batsmen have two shots for the same ball; Kohli has two shots of the same shot. Fundamental to this ability are his wrists, steely yet supple, his balance and steadiness at the crease and, underneath all of these physical gifts, a ticking, ever-processing brain. Now, this is greatness. More than the statistical feats he has scaled and would scale.
As soon as Kohli entered the 90s — which he hasn’t in Test cricket since the hundred in Perth before Christmas last year — Faf du Plessis summoned Senuran Muthusamy for the first time in the morning. If Kohli didn’t get the motive of the move, ’keeper and RCB mate Quinton de Kock piped in a reminder. Muthusamy had dismissed Kohli the only time he has been dismissed this series, to an unseemly return catch.
But far from getting needled, Kohli dwelled on the funny side of it and showed him the exact location of the bat’s edge, from where had ballooned a simple return catch. The two kept chuckling.
Realistically, introducing Muthusamy was a sign that the visitors’ plans were wearing thin. For, they’d tried everything to snare Kohli. In the morning, they tried the usual first-up-the-sleeve trick, to lure his outside edge. So Philander and Rabada probed the fourth-stump line, interchanging between good length and short-of-good-length. They were getting marginal away seam movement, and if they could drag him into a drive or a push, they could tickle his edge.
It nearly worked, as Philander drew an edge off a feeble defensive push. It was a cross between a poke and defensive push, Kohli’s front foot half forward, his back foot static, his hands feeling for the ball. It was the length that confuses him, whether to press fully forward or meet it on the back foot. The marginal away movement was enough for the edge. But it died and bisected first slip and de Kock. A few balls earlier, Kohli’s edge was beaten by a similar delivery, and a few overs later, a similar indecisive defensive short fetched another edge, a thicker one that flew between gully and second slip.
Philander can brood on those moments and curse his luck. So can Maharaj, on whose bowling three half-chances went begging. He could blame himself for the first, when he was slow to react to a low airy drive. Later, much after Kohli had crossed his hundred, Maharaj encouraged him to cut before slipping in one slightly fuller and wider. Twice in the space of eight deliveries, he edged it, though Du Plessis couldn’t clung onto either. The slices of fortune didn’t end there— it seemed like thanksgiving day — as Kohli was caught off a no-ball after he had passed his double hundred.
In between, the Proteas tried to lure Kohli into airy flicks, placing a straight short-midwicket and a mid-on. They also briefly flirted with the short ball, but stopped once Kohli started murdering those. They tried to suck him with the odd nip-backer, as he has a tendency to plant his left leg a trifle across. But none of these worked on a day Kohli was not only fortunate but also ruthless in latching onto anything that was marginally loose. Soon, the field spreadeagled and Kohli could bring out his tip-and-run game.
In effect, Kohli did what great batsmen often do — make the most of their luck, take it as a sort of entitlement — and make the audience want more. Even after he scored 254, blazed 33 fours and two sixes and broke a spate of records, the audience were left craving for more. As it’s when sporting greatness manifests in flesh.