Captain Virat Kohli has a pet word. ‘Intent’. He uses it in press conferences, interviews and television shows. And he uses it much like his predecessor, MS Dhoni, used the word ‘process’ -- employed mainly when pressed into a corner. Kohli’s ‘process’ is intent; and he was asked to elaborate what he meant by it during the captain’s presser a day before the Centurion Test.
“Intent doesn’t really mean that you have to go out there and start playing shots from ball one,” Kohli replied. “Intent is there in the leave. Intent is there in defending as well. Intent is about being vocal out there in calling. All those things count as intent… people can tell if you are playing with intent or not.“ He wasn’t done yet. “That’s how I look at things. It is understanding that you are in control of what you want to do. That’s how I break down intent.”
On Day Two of the Centurion Test, when India finally got to bat after bowling out South Africa for 335 in the first session of play, that word ‘intent’ manifested in different ways for different batsmen. It will be fair to say that opener KL Rahul, replacing Shikhar Dhawan at the top for this Test, showed little of it – softly prodding at a Morne Morkel ball for a return catch in the 10th over of India’s innings. He was the first of five Indian wickets to fall on Sunday.
It will also be fair to say that the man replacing Rahul in the middle, Cheteshwar Pujara, showed plenty of it. First ball, he flicked Morkel to mid-on and set off on a run that even the athletes in the team wouldn’t dare to. Now, Pujara is no athlete. And neither does he have an appetite for bold singles. Yet, here he was, putting on neon display his intent. But that word can only get you that far, 19 yards far or three yards short in Pujara’s case. He was run-out first ball, 28 for no loss became 28 for two and ‘#Intent’ momentarily trended on Twitter.
To save face, in came Kohli. It was the moment of the day and an apt one at that, for Kohli was about to show just how to put his word in use.
On a bouncy pitch where the other batsmen preferred to play/poke/probe from within the crease, Kohli got off the mark with a single that flagged off his cherished word. A big stride forward to the quickest of the South Africans on show, Kagiso Rabada, and he was off the mark. In the following over, when he faced the bounciest of the South Africans in Morne Morkel, he used his hands to steer him through covers for his first boundary, and then stayed back and crunched the ball past the bowler’s right foot for four more. Kohli’s batting crease, every square inch of it, was already in use.
Kohli, as Ishant Sharma said at the presser at the end of day’s play, “was batting on a different wicket to the others.” Not just because of how easily he was able to find the boundaries (almost at will) but also due to how measured his unbeaten innings of 85 – the largest contribution to India’s overnight tally of 183/5 – really was. When a bouncer threatened to take off his head, he either ducked or swayed with poise, and sometimes even rose to his toes and got on top of it, dead bat under his thick brows. Sometimes, he played and missed and sometimes he even fished for the fifth stump line, his Kryptonite. But most importantly, he survived and kept his score moving.
After Rabada was steered past gully for four more by Kohli in the 13th over and again flicked for a boundary in the 17th, SA captain Faf du Plessis brought on his spinner, Keshav Maharaj. For three balls, Kohli lay in wait for the left-arm spinner to drift wide of his off stump. When he did, off the fourth ball, Kohli cut him powerfully past point to the fence. Soon after, when the players broke for tea, the team had added 52 runs since the two early wickets. Kohli had scored 39 of those runs. His batting partner, Murali Vijay, 13.
Post-tea, when Vijay tried to cut Maharaj quite like Kohli had pre-tea, but off a ball that was fuller in length, he was caught behind. Livid with self, Vijay dragged his leaden feet back to the pavilion. Even more livid than Vijay was Kohli, who punched his bat at the non-striker's end, and hissed a few choice words unfit for print under his helmet. In Kohli’s world, this too is a statement of intent. With another Sachinesque straight drive off Morkel he got into his 40s and then, with a controlled pull off the same bowler for a double, the captain brought up his first half century of this tour.
Kohli might’ve been determined to bat on at all costs, but his batting partners had read a different memo. Rohit Sharma, playing with the freedom that one can with a dagger hanging overhead, was set up by Rabada with a short ball. He was late on the pull but managed the collect 2 runs, a fifth of his total collection for the day. Next ball, Rabada bowled it full and straight and Rohit was trapped leg before. When South Africa’s debutant, the strong and fast Lungi Ngidi, attempted a similar one-two on Kohli the following over, the Indian captain too was struck on the pads. But before getting there, the ball had grazed the inside edge of Kohli’s bat and the batsman collected two runs for Ngidi’s effort.
In his 80s now and playing for stumps in the dregs of Day Two, Kohli had one final task of seeing off a Vernon Philander over. Perhaps due to the dying light, he poked at a short ball which screamed past the first slip for a boundary. There was no intent in these runs. It was his only unintentional moment all day.
Brief scores: Centurion Test, Day Two – India 185 for five in 61 overs (V Kohli 85 not out, M Vijay 46; L Ngidi 1/26, K Rabada 1/33) versus South Africa 335 all out in 113.5 overs (A Markram 94, H Amla 82, F du Plessis 63; R Ashwin 4/113, I Sharma 3/46)