Having spent his entire IPL career at Royal Challengers Bangalore, Virat Kohli knows that it is easier to chase at M Chinnaswamy Stadium than set a target. He knows that the dew often sets in later in the evening and neutralises the threat posed by spinners. Yet, with the series on the line, he chose to bat first in the third T20I against South Africa. He challenged himself and his team-mates to step out of their comfort zones, as India tune up for the T20 World Cup in Australia next year.
After Kohli became the first captain to decide against chasing at the venue, several batsmen dared to jump out of the crease to manufacture scoring opportunities, a departure from India's earlier ODI-style approach to batting in the shortest format. Rishabh Pant was trialled at No. 4 once again (although he wasn't supposed to bat at that spot), but India's experiments didn't quite come off, and a revamped South Africa side claimed a series-levelling victory.
Left-arm seamer Beuran Hendricks had Rohit Sharma nicking off for 9 in the third over, but Shikhar Dhawan laid down the marker when he hit Andile Phehlukwayo for back-to-back boundaries in the next over. Dhawan usually prefers to bide his time - be it in T20Is or ODIs - but here he hung up caution and decided to have a proper crack at South Africa's bowlers. He regularly flitted around the crease in a bid to force the bowlers into bowling in his swinging arc.
India were fairly well placed at 62 for 1 in seven overs, but then the pitch suddenly became slower and South Africa's bowlers exploited it efficiently to throw a spanner in their works. Despite the pitch getting slower and wickets falling at both ends, India were keen to find higher gears. Pant took on Bjorn Fortuin, but the left-armer slid one across the batsman and had him slicing a catch to long-off. Two balls later, Shreyas Iyer ventured out of the crease and was stumped by a leg-side wide.
Suddenly India lost four wickets for 29 runs and although they had depth in their batting line-up - Washington Sundar at No. 9 and Deepak Chahar at No. 10 - they couldn't get the big hits away on a pitch that was now very responsive to the cutters and change-ups from Hendricks and Phehlukwayo. Not even Hardik Pandya could get the big hits away.
India scrambled only four boundaries after Iyer's dismissal in the 13th over and ended with a below-par 134 for 9.
"Yes, we wanted to go for a big score and that's exactly why we batted first," Kohli said of India's approach, at the post-match press conference. "In the past, in certain games in T20 cricket, we have been 20-30 runs short batting first. That has cost us the game. So, the idea again as I said at the toss, was to come out of our comfort zone and then try to get that big score because we are batting till No. 9. But quickly we realised the pitch didn't allow us to keep doing that."
Kohli reckoned that India would have been better off had they recalibrated their focus to 170 "rather than thinking of 200".
"Because of the intent we showed the pitch obviously didn't allow us to get to that total and we kept losing wickets. They [South Africa] hit the right areas and understood the pitch," he said. "It was a combination of good bowling and not great decision-making. These kinds of games will keep happening as long as we are wanting to come out of our comfort zones as a team and putting ourselves in a situation, which could be the case in a big game in a big tournament."
Kohli's bat-first decision also handicapped his bowlers, who had to cope with the dew in the second innings. While Washington came away with 4-0-27-0 and Deepak found swing in the early exchanges, Navdeep Saini and Krunal Pandya struggled with their lines and lengths. Nearly every Indian fielder had a towel, often furiously wiping the ball with it in the break between overs.
Quinton de Kock took advantage of it, making a bruising, unbeaten 79 off 52 balls, and finished off the chase with nine wickets and 19 balls to spare. While such a heavy defeat might invite some pressure, Kohli said that India are ready to take more risks and "take the toss out of the way" in their run to the T20 World Cup.
"Nothing is a given or a guarantee before you start playing," Kohli said. "I think if we as a team are willing to get out of our comfort zones a lot more, then we will be unfazed with what happens at the toss. That's why we have people batting till nine. Unless you do that and start taking those risks, you are always going to be put under pressure somewhere or the other. We want to make sure we iron all of those things out before we head into the World Cup."