The innings becomes amazing when you realize that Kohli wasn't at his fluent best. © AFP

The innings becomes amazing when you realize that Kohli wasn’t at his fluent best. © AFP

In a One-Day International where one team scored 303 for 6 and the other was bowled out for 179, Virat Kohli made 160 not out off 159 balls on his own. In a match where 19 batsmen took guard overall, the other 18 combined for 303 runs off 381 balls. Remove Shikhar Dhawan’s 76 off 63 and that’s 17 batsmen making 227 runs off 318. Or to put it in an innings context, it was 227 for 16 in 53 overs. Even with Dhawan, 18 of the others scored at an average of 17.82 and a run-rate of 4.77. Kohli was outstripping his peers by margins so large they could be playing different sports. In a sense they were. Kohli’s on the expressway to G.O.A.T-hood in one-dayers. Greatest Of All Times, for those fogey enough not to know the term.

When Kohli fronted up to the assembled media after playing yet another classic though, he faced an equal number of questions on his innings as on the performance of his wrist-spinning magic duo of Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal, who each took a four-fer. Kuldeep and Chahal have been the bowling stars in each of the first three matches, but they still have a novelty about them. A Kohli classic is almost everyday news in that you are not even surprised when he pulls off one after the other with such regularity. You are awed, yes. But not surprised anymore.

On Wednesday (February 7), he scored his 34th ODI hundred in only his 197th innings, a pace that’s so scorching, Formula 1 drivers could pick up valuable tips from him. He’s amassed centuries like they were being sold at steep discount at the local supermarket, his career bag overloaded. And yet, despite so many to choose from, despite one blockbuster coming almost every month, the innings in the third ODI against South Africa was special.

This was Kohli revealing a new facet of his greatness, one not seen as often. A typical Kohli ODI hundred is a dominating, destructive feast for the eyes. This one was different. His first 50 runs took a sedate 64 balls. The next 50 came off 55 balls. The acceleration happened late, with the final 60 runs taking 40 balls. This was in fact, his longest ever ODI innings by minutes (220) and balls faced (159). It needed to be that long because apart from Shikhar Dhawan (76 off 63), nobody from the top order could stick around long enough. If India had to be dragged to an imposing enough total, it would be down to Kohli. And so, he did it. He did it against an attack that had a fair bit of zip early on courtesy Kagiso Rabada, on a pitch which got slower and more difficult to hit on, in conditions that sapped you physically, in a situation where he had to take the onus of scoring even while others were falling all around him.

A typical Kohli ODI hundred is a dominating, destructive feast for the eyes. This one was different. His first 50 runs took a sedate 64 balls. The next 50 came off 55 balls. The acceleration happened late, with the final 60 runs taking 40 balls. This was in fact, his longest ever ODI innings by minutes (220) and balls faced (159). It needed to be that long because apart from Shikhar Dhawan (76 off 63), nobody from the top order could stick around long enough.

“Every hundred is obviously very special. International runs are never easy, they are hard-earned,” said Kohli. “Some might come on more batting-friendly pitches, but I think with their attack, and the pace and bounce they were getting initially, you had to adjust your game. Then the wicket got considerably slower after the 30th over, so you had to again adjust your game, and make sure — with wickets falling also… it was pleasing from the point of view that we want someone to bat through the innings. And I was able to do that today. That feels really good that we could get to 300-plus compared to 275-plus. That is psychologically a big pressure thing for the opposition knowing that we have those two wrist-spinners as well. I was pleased from that point of view that I was able to bat through because I was struggling with a bit of cramp around the 90s. Then wickets kept falling, I decided to hit out, because I thought I might not have enough energy left. But amazing things can happen when you are thinking ‘team’ all the time. You can push your body beyond limits that you might push yourself otherwise. I experienced that today, and that was an amazing feeling.”

The amazing thing that happened was Kohli’s innings. It was his ability to craft a masterpiece even when not looking at his most fluent for large parts of the innings. It was the investment he has made in his fitness that allowed him to battle through cramps and heat while still running the twos as hard as anyone in world cricket till the last over — he ‘ran’ 100 of his runs, another maximum for an Indian. It was the audacity of brilliance that allowed him to hit Kagiso Rabada for six and four off the last two balls of the innings, each shot more stunning than the last.

During his second-wicket stand with Dhawan, the left-hander was comfortably outscoring his captain and looking much more at ease. But Kohli showed the facet of genius that finds a way even when none seemingly exists.

“Today I wanted to accelerate at different times. When Shikhar was batting, my job was to take singles,” he explained. “That is also very important when the other guy is set and scoring at a higher rate, so you sit back and take singles and keep rotating the strike to be able to get the partnership going. So when he got out, I wanted to accelerate but we lost two-three wickets immediately. So then you have to change your plans again.

“When batting first, you switch roles. One guy is the aggressor and you become the guy who is rotating strike and when he goes, you take that role up and another guy rotates strike. That is how it is usually done. But today, we had wickets falling and we had to string in more partnerships, so I had to change my game-plan. Batting second is very different in terms of knowing what you need to do, when to accelerate, when to keep those singles coming.”

Kohli has already shown as complete a mastery as anyone in the history of the game when faced with a chase. In this match, he showed that there were few equal to his genius when setting a target too.