Freed-up Kohli shows what he is truly capable of
Earlier in the one-day series, the India captain batted according to the match situation, did just what his team needed. Now, with the result of the game holding little value, he had the licence to let himself go, and boy did he put on a show
After sealing the series in Port Elizabeth
, with the temptation of a clean sweep not alive, Virat Kohli
suggested he might rest some of India's key players, not least because there are players in that ODI squad who haven't had a go in the series. Come game day in the dead rubber, India were full strength again. The only man missing out was Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who hasn't been at his best and was showing signs of fatigue. Despite having played in every match on the tour, Jasprit Bumrah continued to play on.
And so did captain Kohli. You could see sense if Kohli wanted to rest it out before the T20I series in two days' time, but after having watched him bat, you are thankful he didn't. How could he miss this? He had played tough, tense cricket on the tour so far; now was the time to celebrate, to show South Africa what he was truly capable of after having batted in a certain role through the series, mindful of a slightly weaker lower-middle order.
Through the series, it has looked impossible to get Kohli out once he has batted for 10 to 15 balls. In Durban
, he offered a catch second ball, which claimed Faf du Plessis' finger on the way to the boundary. In Cape Town
, he was given out lbw third ball only for DRS to save him. That's about the only two times he has looked in trouble. Yet he has mostly batted within himself. In Cape Town, for example, he kept losing partners, which meant he had to delay his charge. The Durban chase didn't need any big hitting but required one big innings, which meant he had to play within himself again. In Johannesburg
, he fell just as he was hitting a higher gear. In Port Elizabeth, he was run out.
On Friday night, though, Kohli had the licence to let himself go. The target was small, the pitch wasn't demanding, and South Africa were in no mood to play the long game. They were going to gamble with attacking fields. If he hadn't already done it, Kohli was going to dominate on this night. And dominate he did with joyful stroke-play, scoring 129 off just 96 balls. For a change, Kohli hit the ball in the air early on in the innings. For a change, he scored 88 of his runs in boundaries. In Cape Town, with the series alive and a wicket gone in the first over, it had been the opposite: hitting in the air only towards the end and running 100 of his 160 runs.
This was as if to show the world he could bat much more aggressively, but, in the better interest of the team, in adjusting to match situations, he batted the way he did earlier in the series. He still managed a small matter of two centuries in five matches.
Still, Kohli wasn't done. He had another score to settle. After celebrations, he walked to the same press-conference room where he had a run-in with reporters even as he nursed his wounds from the Test series. He was hurting that day, and clearly hadn't forgotten the unpleasant press conference
or the reporting thereafter. "One month back we were a very bad team," Kohli said when asked if this was the biggest ODI series win for him. "Now we are being asked these questions [which glorify the team]. We haven't changed our mindset. We have just focused on our cricket.
"I don't want to get lost in such thoughts: whether this is the biggest win or no. Our work is to play the game, strive hard, our work is to perform and try to win every match. Now whether this is the biggest win or not, whoever wants to analyse, write, [they] will do so. For us as a team, our only motive is to give 120% effort, strive hard in practice, keep our mindset good on every day of the tour and prepare so well that we can go and win. We have achieved that this series, and that gives us most happiness. Creating these tags or headlines is not our work. We just wanted to play cricket, which we have executed perfectly this series.
"I know for a fact that 90% of the people didn't give us a chance after two Tests. I was sitting in the same room giving a press conference. So we understand where we've come from. I'm not going to live in a dreamland right now and accept all the praise and sit here and feel good about this because it doesn't matter to me. Honestly, it doesn't. It didn't matter when we were 2-0 down [in the Tests], it doesn't matter when we're 5-1 up. Because what matters is the respect in the change room. What matters is what the management thinks about me, what I think about the players and what the players think about me. That's all that matters to me. These things do not matter. I know the headlines change day in and day out. Tomorrow I play a bad shot and get out for zero, everyone will conveniently do what they want to do."
Sitting next to Kohli, coach Ravi Shastri was in no mood to see the series win in the light of a weakened South African opposition, which missed three gun players in two of the six matches, two in three and one in one. "One thing history tells me, I have been coming here since 1992, there is not one South African side in the world that anyone can say is a weak side," he said. "You just look at their bilateral record, and they are one of the great sides in bilateral cricket. I have followed this game for a long time. I have been a broadcaster as well and covered a lot of South Africa games, and I know how they play. So I would like my boys to enjoy every bit of this series win. Whatever the scoreline is, they must enjoy because it doesn't happen every day."
"We had the same mindset when we played in Sri Lanka
recently, we had the same mindset when we beat Australia
," Kohli said. "When we beat Sri Lanka 9-0, everyone said it's a weak team. When we beat Australia, they still said Australia is not a good ODI side. Then we beat New Zealand
, then we beat Sri Lanka again
, and we've beaten South Africa here again. So the focus has always been on the team. It doesn't matter who is playing, who is not playing. Whether the team is what it is supposed to be or it's not, it's not in our hands and it's none of our concern."
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo