Leading from the front is a well-used cliche, but Kohli's innings of defiance and intent cannot be described any other way. © BCCI

Leading from the front is a well-used cliche, but Kohli’s innings of defiance and intent cannot be described any other way. © BCCI

Vernon Philander, the man who had destroyed India at Newlands, had the second new ball in hand. It was just two overs old, and Philander had just drawn an edge from R Ashwin in his previous over. The bowler would have probably thought a good plan was to keep the ball in the channel, get it to move away. Either he would get a nick, or it would be left alone, or at the very worst, he would succeed in drawing the batsman across for the one that came back in later.

You know, just like he did at Newlands.

Philander did bowl the ball reasonably well. The problem was, Virat Kohli met it exceptionally well. One confident stride out, one perfect arc of the bat, and one meaty chunk of willow meeting leather at its sweetest spot. Perhaps, even Kohli didn’t know how well he had hit it because he ran hard. There was wide long-off and a deep cover. They weren’t too far from each other. They were both too far to stop the ball though. Kohli had bisected two fielders you wouldn’t have thought it possible to bisect.

It was a stunning shot, in a stunning innings. He had walked in at 28 for 2 in the 10th over. He was the last man out, in the 93rd over. During his stay, he scored 153 of the 267 runs that came off the bat. In 217 balls. The other nine batsmen combined made 114 off 278 balls. These sort of numbers don’t do any justice to the absolute mastery Kohli showed, but they illustrate how far above the pack he was.

‘Intent’ has become something of a meme when it comes to Kohli after his utterances on the subject, though he did clarify that by intent he didn’t mean a batsman looking to score off every ball but rather one who was confident at the crease. On Monday (January 15) – and on Sunday – Kohli showed the sort of intent that could encompass all definitions of the word. His footwork was decisive, his reading of the bowlers was impeccable, and his eye was forever on the lookout for where the next runs would come from.

Even the opposition felt it. Morne Morkel said that South Africa were reduced to just trying to keep Kohli quiet. “It’s quite tough when the wicket is so slow,” said Morkel, who took 4 for 60. “And if you get a batsman of his quality, you’ve got time to adjust. Bowling certain lengths, certain lines, we’ve got that small window to make a play. And for us it’s just, in a way, to keep him quiet on this sort of surface, and bowl as many dot balls as possible. He came out with a lot of intent yesterday, looking to score and looking to take the game forward. And for us it was just to hit our straps and stop them from scoring too quickly.”

Kohli’s overriding intent though, was on getting India to as big a first-innings score as possible. He played his normal game until Ashwin got out, and the only men left to bat were Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah – none of whom have any great pretentions as a batsman. Then he began to farm the strike, and look for boundaries. That resulted in the stunning cover drive off Philander.

His intent even rubbed off on R Ashwin, with whom the Indian captain managed to put on a successful partnership. © BCCI

His intent even rubbed off on R Ashwin, with whom the Indian captain managed to put on a successful partnership. © BCCI

Like all great batsmen, he seemed to be batting on a different pitch. Kagiso Rabada could tail the ball in and out at high speeds, but Kohli was prepared. Lungi Ngidi could get the ball to lift from an awkward length and move, but Kohli would counter. Morkel could plug away with the natural back-of-length line that is most troubling but Kohli was serene. Philander could bring all his skills into play but Kohli was equal to the task.

And as is his wont, he didn’t hold back from emotions. Whether it was kissing his wedding ring when he reached 150, or jumping up in joy earlier when he reached a century only to belatedly realise there were two runs to scramble back. Whether it was showing his frustration at Hardik Pandya’s hare-brained run out, or arguing with the umpires about first coming back to play when the outfield was wet, and then arguing some more when India’s bowlers were finding rhythm and swing and the umpires decided to go off for light.

“Virat is very competitive,” offered Morkel. “They are over here to compete and they’ve got a team that could potentially beat South Africa for the first time here. That’s his nature. It gets him going and keeps him going.”

On this pitch, which Morkel said had a “very subcontinental feel to it”, Kohli showed he was the master. But the nature of the pitch shouldn’t detract from his innings. It came against a pace attack where three of the four members were consistently hitting above 140 clicks, and one moreover where each bowler brought different and challenging skills to contend with. It came when the combined contribution of others in the top six was 85 runs. It came with India 1-0 down in the second Test of a three-match series. It came when Kohli knew that if he were to fall, India most definitely would.

“Virat’s innings was very crucial for us and he brought us back into the game,” said Bumrah. “We lost a few early wickets yesterday as well, so he was playing an anchor role and till the end he was fighting with us (the tailenders). It was a very important innings and he has always done well wherever he has gone. It is good that the captain is leading from the front and taking responsibility.”

Leading from the front has a very well-worn cliché ring to it, but in this case it showed that clichés exist for a reason: they’re sometimes the most apt way to describe events.