Kohli's unscrambled mind cashes in on conditions

Say what you will, and there is a bit to be said, about Virat Kohli's technical and mental errors on pitches with pace and movement, but it is equally his mental strength that he doesn't let this bridge bother the rest of his walk. This particular bridge might arrive again at Wanderers, but at SuperSport Park the bounce was benign, the pace died and there was hardly any seam movement. Here, there were runs to be had, and only Kohli among the India batsmen had a mind unscrambled enough to make the most of the conditions. If there were scars from Cape Town, he didn't carry them here.

Kohli might have the conditions going for him, but he still had to face some high-quality bowlers executing their plans to near perfection. Apart from a sustained bouncer attack, South Africa did nearly everything right against Kohli. There was that consistent line a set of stumps outside off and a length that he couldn't drive at. Kohli continued playing that defensive shot to these balls that gets him into trouble on pitches that seam, but here he was good enough to middle them more often than not. Once he started middling, he unleashed his drives at every small error from the bowlers.

For a bowling unit it can be a sobering thought that you bowled almost as well as you wanted to a batsman, you got wickets around him, and still that particular batsman went at a strike rate of 65.38 despite a late slowdown, partly owing to wide bowling in the final 20 minutes. The plan was good: keep dragging him towards off and outside off, make him play away from the body, have protection in case he connects with drives away from the body, and then squeeze in the lbw ball once in a while.

For the record, South Africa managed to beat the bat six times out of the 130 balls Kohli faced. Three of them were when he played a defensive shot well outside off. Two of them were lbw appeals. Basically there was no indication that given helpful conditions, Kohli won't repeat the dismissals from Cape Town. For Kohli, there need not have been today. This was a different pitch, and it required different tactics. Others were still in Cape Town, only Kohli made it to Centurion.

Every small error in line or length was punished. A good example of how Kohli manufactured a punishable length came in the 12th over. To the first ball, bowled by Morne Morkel, Kohli reached out and drove a wide length ball - a complete no-no on spicy pitches - through covers. Consequently, he got a full and straight one next ball, which he drove for through mid-on. In the 17th over, against Kagiso Rabada, Kohli was beaten while trying to defend outside off, but that didn't stop him from going past midwicket the moment Rabada pitched up and close enough to the off stump.

There were a few risky boundaries too, like to the first ball of the 21st over, when Kohli went chasing a wide ball. There was no uncertainty, though, in what Kohli wanted. If he stayed long enough - as he told M Vijay half an hour before tea: "They will be s**t scared if we bat until evening" - Kohli was going to make South Africa pay. And that extended to all bowlers. Even when Keshav Maharaj got his act together after a loose start, beating Vijay in the flight regularly, making him cut balls that were not there for the shot, Kohli was quick to pounce on the minutest of error as he showed in the 27th over, late-cutting him for four.

"The way Virat is playing it is totally a different game," Ishant Sharma said of his captain, "and if Hardik [Pandya, the other unbeaten batsman at stumps] gets going he can take the game away from the opposition. I think he backs his strength totally, and I am hopeful he will take the game away from South Africa."

By the final session, South Africa were happy to keep giving Kohli the single and trying to target the other batsmen. It was a plan they will be reasonably happy with. There were 308 balls since Kohli arrived to the pitch, and he faced only 130 of those. That he scored 85 off those 130 balls is what will make Kohli happy. Then again, by evening he had lost three partners when he didn't want to lose even one. South Africa might have bowled wide to him, but even Kohli will admit they are not s**t scared anymore.

This fascinating contest between South Africa's denial tactics to Kohli and his punishing of every error will continue on the third morning, and will likely decide the Test and the series, for there is not going to be a repeat of these home-like conditions for India.