Match Analysis

The pleasures and pains of watching a Virat Kohli masterclass

An ESPNcricinfo staffer says he is fated to experience the India men's captain at his most masterful in only the most fragmented manner. Is that his fault, or Kohli's?

Virat Kohli is easy on the eye. His presence at the crease, even at the wrong crease, twirling his bat impatiently at the non-striker's end. The feline agility of his front-foot stretch when he plays a cover drive. The roll of his wrists when he takes a short ball from well outside off stump and half-pulls, half-whips it wide of mid-on. I could go on, but you already know all this.
Kohli can also be incredibly hard to watch. Particularly when he's in complete command, motoring along at a strike rate in the 60s in a Test match without playing a shot in anger, when there's little in the pitch or the bowling or the state of the scoreboard to poke holes in his self-assurance.
He can be particularly hard to watch when he's playing an innings like his 254 not out in Pune, and you're in the press box, separated from the heat and noise by a wall of glass, where even the TVs are on mute.
On day one of the Test, you may have only cast the occasional glance at the early part of Kohli's innings, when you were hunched over your laptop, working on a piece on Mayank Agarwal. That occasional glance would have given you a glimpse of reassuring familiarity - a neat little clip for a single to fine leg, perhaps, or a loud call of "no" when he's skittered a couple of steps out of his crease, head down, after a push into the covers - allowing you to get back to your task without worrying that you're missing anything.
You're missing the beginning of a Virat Kohli innings, of course, but you're in the business of picking the big story to tell from the day's play. You're here to cover cricket, not watch it.
Okay, enough of the cowardly "you". We're talking about me here. I. First-person singular.
Right. Here's the full confession. Even when I don't have the crutch of having other things, pressing things, to do, my attention often drifts away from Kohli. We all have that one player, don't we? That one player who's doing remarkable things on a TV screen or a cricket ground in front of you, things everyone else seems to be glued to and chattering about, and somehow you just aren't able to keep your eyes on that player for any length of time?
That guy, for me, is Kohli. The guy who bats when I'm lost in Statsguru, or scrolling through Twitter, or chatting with my colleagues.
On Thursday, well before Kohli began his innings, one of my colleagues, Sidharth Monga, sent me this message: "SA need to get Kohli out by 11am, otherwise century."
He sent it at 10.27am. Kohli walked in when it was past 2pm.
This is the nub of it. A lot of batsmen exude a sense that a big score is inevitable when they're batting, and batting well, but Kohli sometimes exudes it hours before he has put his pads on. It's the feeling you get when he's gone ten innings without a Test century, while batting perfectly well. Surely there can't be an 11th.
There wasn't, even if this was, by ESPNcricinfo's control measure, the third-least-certain of his 12 Test centuries at home. Even then, his control percentage was 88.96. This man is bloody difficult to get out.
Twice in the first hour of day two - a passage of play that I managed to watch a little more closely than some others - Kohli edged the ball towards the slip cordon, once off Vernon Philander and once off Anrich Nortje. Both times, the ball died before it could become a meaningful chance.
Unless he is driving at wide ones, and really throwing his bat at the ball - which he still gets dismissed doing, occasionally - Kohli's edges don't usually carry as far as those of most other batsmen. He doesn't push at defensive shots with hard hands like he used to when he was still chubby. He doesn't do it now, certainly not when he's already past the half-century mark.
With other batsmen, you watch these moments and put away your laptop. Something could give here, you tell yourself. With Kohli, I simply go back to whatever I was doing before. Oh, and none of this is out of choice. It's simply my reduced attention span when Kohli happens to be batting. Try as I might, I can't force myself to not get distracted.
It's not that I don't try. At one point - and believe me, this genuinely did happen - I bent my neck sideways, so my right ear was resting on top of my shoulder, and tried to see if this altered field of view would make it easier to keep my eyes on Kohli. As soon as I did this - and you really must believe me here - Senuran Muthusamy got some extra bounce, and Kohli edged his late-cut to slip.
Kohli c du Plessis b Muthusamy 208. Except, as we all know, Muthusamy had overstepped. A bend in the neck, a bend in the space-time continuum. Or something.
The saving grace of not being able to watch Kohli closely is that he still bats long enough for you to catch enough of his innings to create a personalised highlights reel in your head. It will contain the cover drives and the straight-bat biffs past the bowler, but it will also contain moments that won't make it to the TV highlights reel. The back-foot defensive on tiptoe, with the softest of hands, leaving backward point, cover and the bowler converging futilely towards the ball while he scampers a single. The pull off a good-length ball from the left-arm spinner, with back foot so deep in his crease that it's almost touching off stump, but he hasn't quite created enough room to be able to free his arms fully and smack it past midwicket.
These moments reveal as much of Kohli's genius as the bigger, brasher ones, and are perhaps more beautiful in a way. It's like watching a great artist paint something that's almost, but not quite, perfect. Wabi-sabi, if you must.
I would be able to describe a lot more of these moments if I had spent a little more time watching Kohli, but that, I'm afraid, is beyond me. I am fated to experience Virat Kohli at his most masterful in only the most fragmented manner.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo