India 270 for 4 (Kohli 112, Rahane 79) beat South Africa 269 for 8 (Du Plessis 120, Morris 37, Kuldeep 3-34) by six wickets
He wanted to bat first at the toss. He was then rolling on the floor not laughing when his knee jammed into the Durban outfield. He might even have peeved that his fast bowlers, so reliable at home, had turned liabilities for a few hours. But put a bat in Virat Kohli’s hands and tell him he has to lead a tough chase and just watch him go.
There is a template, and it appears to work regardless of opposition, and of conditions. Step one, walk out with the desire to intimidate. Morne Morkel and Kagiso Rabada were nudging 145 kph and above but he stood outside his crease and charged at them. Step two, keep the ball on the ground. Batting second is largely about risk-assessment. And this trick takes the possibility of being caught out of the picture. He’s rarely ever lbw so that’s two modes of dismissals negated. But for all this to work, he has to run like the wind. There is, sometimes, collateral damage – Shikhar Dhawan tonight – but otherwise the people tearing their hair out mostly belong to the opposition. Step three, exploit the slightest weakness, aka South Africa’s fifth bowler. Kohli barely gave Andile Phehlukwayo breathing room, and it was by flaying him through point and then through cover that he raised his 33rd ODI century. Over the past five years, he has made one every five innings. Kohli has made the extraordinary look normal for quite a while in one-day cricket.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he said at the presentation, with a perfectly straight face. You would think he was talking about going to a movie, or eating ice-cream. With this innings of 112, Kohli has made centuries in each of the nine countries he has played 50-overs cricket.
Ajinkya Rahane was at the other end for most of that knock, and his 79 off 86 was no less significant. Given a resounding endorsement to take the No. 4 slot a day before the match, he came out with India wobbling. The score was 67 for 2 and there were 37 overs left. Another wicket would have opened up the middle order, which is filled with players who were yet to bat in these conditions on this tour. South Africa had a chance, but to convert it, they needed Imran Tahir to be as effective as India’s wristspinners had been.
Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav, playing in tandem for the first time outside the subcontinent, on a pitch that did not afford any turn, brought the scoring rate down and spurred second thoughts in the batsman’s mind. Tahir, meanwhile, was economical but ineffective.
Rahane and Kohli negated the opposition’s strongest threat in the middle overs during their 189-run partnership. South Africa tried to do the same earlier in the day but found it rather more difficult. They had been 79 for 1 in 14 overs when India turned to spin. And they sunk to 134 for 5 by the time the stranglehold relented.
That was when Dr. Du Plessis took over. He knew the recovery would take time, and that he had to be present every step of the way. The job required patience and diligence and skill and the South African captain was not found wanting, despite that bad back of his flaring up. Du Plessis was 91 not out in his last ODI when he had to retire hurt because of it. This time he simply wouldn’t let it – or the Indian bowlers – win without a fight. The Durban crowd were bowled over; the noise they made when he took strike on 99 was nothing short of poignant.
As hard as he applied himself, Du Plessis looked every bit as awkward as anyone facing the wristspinners; his strike-rate against Kuldeep was 63.63. And he could have been lbw on 18 if India had chosen to double-check an appeal from Chahal in the 13th over. Given that slice of luck, he worked hard not to need another, forced to do so because the South African middle order simply fell limp. JP Duminy tried cutting a wrong ‘un and was bowled. David Miller played away from his body and was caught at short cover. All they needed was survive the spinners and India would be forced to bring back their quicks, who were far easier to handle considering there was no sideways movement. Du Plessis collected 82 runs off 60 balls from the seamers, and was particularly brutal on Bhuvneshwar Kumar, as a strike-rate of 189 showed. His 120 ended up looking like an aberration on the scorecard; the next best contribution was 37 and no one who faced more than 20 balls managed a strike-rate anywhere near his 107.14. It was a masterful innings, just not a match-winning one.