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The titanic battle between Rabada and Kohli would eclipse other memories of the series, and would be retold and re-retold multiple times in future. Like Sachin Tendulkar and Dale Steyn; Allan Donald and Mike Atherton; Ricky Ponting and Andrew Flintoff; Wasim Akram and Steve Waugh. Times when cricket was not just cricket, cricket was both chess and boxing too, a destruction-versus-survival battle.
Rabada likes using the word “battle”. One of his favourite books is Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. He took the battle to Kohli, himself no less a warrior. It began with a short-of-length ball that squared up Kohli. The ball moved away as well as bounced more than the Indian skipper had expected. But he was not stabbing at the ball or throwing his hands at it. Rabada, in his follow-through, stared menacingly at him. Kohli evaded the glance altogether. Rabada had only begun to rev up aggression.
The next ball had Kohli in a split-second dilemma. It almost cost him the wicket. Rabada veered a fraction away from the usual point of delivery to manufacture the inward angle and suck Kohli into playing for the incoming ball. But Kohli was no novice to the designs of Rabada. Midway through his defensive push, he realised the ball would seam away a shade and withdrew the bat, loosening his bottom hand. Rabada’s speed meant the ball did kiss the edge, but the edge died before it reached the slips cordon. Kohli shrugged his shoulders and looked away; Rabada winked at the cloudy skies.
At this juncture, both could have sensed a contest brewing; Kohli would not have easy runs. At other times, against different bowlers he had resorted to counter-punching. But he was wise not to engage such thoughts against Rabada. He chose safety. Equally, Rabada knew Kohli would not throw his wicket. He would fight, he would grit, he would resist. Two of his next three balls, he left. One he carefully defended, riding the bounce.
But looking to defend or leave all the time was not Kohli-like. An unplayable ball could still devour him. The first ball of the 14th over almost did—the ball hemmed in with the angle, home in on the off-stump and held the line to beat him. Kohli winced; Rabada grimaced. Maybe, a counter-punch could dishevel Rabada, or so Kohli reasoned as Rabada pinged a bouncer on middle-stump. Kohli hooked. Had the Newlands pitch been as fast as the one in SuperSport Park, it would have perhaps crashed into his neck, but this one had just enough time to take Kohli’s top-edge for a six. Rabada smiled sarcastically.
Kohli realised the folly of taking Rabada on. He left the next three balls. But the moment his bat came into play, the possibility of an edge lurked. The fourth ball he faced took a thick outside edge, but to the ground. But just when the battle was raising fever pitch, when the atmosphere crackled with a special kind of electricity, a blend of exhilaration and excitement, anticlimax kicked in.
For the next four overs of the match, Rabada ended up bowling to Rishabh Pant as Kohli faced just Marco Jansen. The interlude was like the irritating ads that pop up before the climax of a suspense thriller. Even Rabada seemed a little dulled at not bowling to Kohli. Or was he waiting for Kohli to return to strike to unleash his full fury?
It seemed he was. He was a different beast when their battle resumed. Two plain out-swingers pitched away from the stumps, before he landed the ball closer to the off-stump and made the ball hold its line. It beat Kohli’s feeble thrust. The next ball was better, the same trajectory, but with more pronounced outward movement. It beat the edge and was later adjudged a no-ball. The next ball did find the edge, but not the fielder. Rabada cursed his rotten luck, and then more as he beat his outside edge with extra bounce and away movement. Kohli, his face expressionless, seemed numbed. A single next ball, and Kohli smiled awkwardly at his glorious fortune. One last over of the spell was routine stuff, as Kohli left three of the four balls he faced.
Throughout the spell, Kohli resisted the temptation to drive and was ascetic in self-denial, but still Rabada had the tools to tease and torment him.
It was no coincidence he mostly looked to shape the ball away from Kohli. Not once he attempted the nip-backer. “That was the plan. It was obvious, really. He has had problems with the away ball. He played really well. Kept leaving them,” Rabada said in the press conference.
But his genius was that he sought different methods to bowl the same way. Some were leg-cutters, some the wobble-seamer and intermittently, the conventional ones. But Rabada, flashing a wicked smile, played it low: “I don’t know why everyone thinks we (bowlers) have some wicked plans! (smiles). It was a game of patience!”
They tilted lances one last time, and on this occasion, he was rewarded. If Kohli was like the alley cat with nine lives, Rabada was like the predator who finally swooped his prey. And as Kohli walked back distraught, Rabada stood amidst his teammates, his eyes lit with the fire that had consumed India and its finest firefighter. A raging, unstoppable fire.
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