Virat Kohli‘s 23rd ODI century – in only his 157th innings – was the cornerstone of India’s series levelling victory in Chennai and it was also a sign of his evolution as a batsman according to MS Dhoni.
“Virat is somebody, right from the very start – and not today, I’m talking about the ODIs when he started – he was always someone who was very keen on improving his game,” captain MS Dhoni said after the win. “And even when he would get out scoring a 60 or a 70, he wanted to convert it into a hundred.
“Just watching how he plays his 50 to 60 and 100 to 110 – because a lot of times these are the brackets where you see a lot of batsmen getting out – so once he crosses that, with the kind of mindset he has he will always play a big innings.”
On the surface Kohli’s 138 off 140 balls implies an innings that befits the pace of modern cricket. But it was achieved using old-fashioned values. He was back at No. 3 and was forced onto the scene in the fifth over. Then in the eighth he watched another wicket fall to leave India at 35 for 2.
The new ball zipped off the Chennai pitch, so Kohli had to mind the bounce on offer. Later on, as the ball got older and softer, he had to adjust from weathering the pace on the ball to making the pace himself. This is one-day cricket after all and runs need to be made at a fair clip.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean it had to come from flashy strokes. Kohli, as per the team’s strategy, fed his innings through singles and twos. They accounted for 84 (66 singles, nine twos) of his 138, a whopping 61%. He kept the ball along the ground. He trusted a strength – his wrists – and subsequently a lot of his runs came through on-drives and flicks to square leg and midwicket. He was severely efficient against spin – 77 off 62 balls faced from Imran Tahir and Aaron Phangiso.
“I felt he was rotating the strike really well and again the important thing is when you play such a long innings, the middle overs when you put pressure on the fielders is the key,” Dhoni said. “You can’t play a big innings by playing only the big shots. With the amount of heat that’s around, you have to put pressure on the bowlers especially when they are fielding out on the boundary and that’s how you get them tired.
“When they come to bowl their second spell or third spell they will commit that error and give you a few balls to hit. I felt he is very good that way and he was just brilliant when it comes to pacing his innings and how he played the full quota of overs.”
One-day cricket in India is no longer the same as it once was. Slower pitches are not readily conducive to hit through the line. The extra fielder – five as opposed to four – on the boundary allows fielding sides to restrict the flow of runs even in the death and South Africa’s tall and extremely pacy bowlers have been able to extract reverse swing as well. So Dhoni felt this knock was a clear sign of Kohli’s evolution from when Austraia visited India in 2013, when Kohli clinched the record for the fastest ODI ton by an Indian.
“Also if you see, the wickets have been very different. You can compare his hundreds to the hundreds he scored in the Australian series. There was a bit of dew, the ball was coming on nicely to the bat and it was big-scoring games – we chased down 350 twice – so that’s why I felt it was an important innings because on a slow wicket what happens is the batsman who is set will always find it slightly easy when compared to the new batsman coming in and playing the big shots.”
However, with AB de Villiers in the opposition nothing can be taken for granted. Moreover, India were without R Ashwin, whom Dhoni called “his main bowler.” But Harbhajan Singh made sure India’s attack was not bereft of threat.
The old loop is back. The drift away from the right-hander is palpable. Harbhajan produced a beautiful offspinner that beat a fluent Quinton de Kock in the air and had him caught at second slip. Then he set up another left-hander in David Miller by sneaking the arm ball through and trapping him in front.
Although they were only two wickets, Dhoni from behind the stumps, could see Harbhajan’s rhythm was very good.
“At times we always assess bowling in terms of wickets. If somebody is getting wickets we say he is bowling well,” Dhoni said. “But a lot of times, and especially being a keeper, you have the advantage of seeing what the bowler is doing, seeing what he is extracting off the wicket. I think he is bowling really well.
“Losing Ashwin right at the start of the series, that is a big blow because especially in these conditions he is our main bowler. I can use him in the first ten, I can use him in the middle overs, I can use him in the slog, wherever I have to he is always there. That did put a bit of pressure on me.
“But it was good that Harbhajan, the way he has bowled so far in the series, that eases a bit of pressure because I can use him in the first ten, couple of overs in the first 10, then today also I used him in the last few close to the 40th over onwards. He has eased off the pressure.”
Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
ESPN Sports Media Ltd.