Rabada vs Kohli duel brings back memories of classic Tendulkar vs Steyn showdown

The fire, finally, was back in Kagiso Rabada’s eyes. A fire so violent and unstoppable that even the best Indian drummer of this generation, the volunteer Virat Kohli, could not be extinguished.

The titanic battle between Rabada and Kohli would eclipse other memories of the series and would be told over and over again in the future. Like Sachin Tendulkar and Dale Steyn; Allan Donald and Mike Atherton; Ricky Ponting and Andrew Flintoff; Wasim Akram and Steve Waugh. Back in the days when cricket wasn’t just cricket, cricket was also both chess and boxing, a battle of destruction versus survival.

Rabada likes to use the word “battle”. One of his favorite books is The Art of War by Sun Tzu. He brought the battle to Kohli, himself no less a warrior. It started with a short ball that squared Kohli. The ball flew away and rebounded more than the Indian skipper had expected. But he wasn’t stabbing the ball or throwing his hands at it. Rabada, in his follow-up, looked at him threateningly. Kohli avoided the gaze completely. Rabada was only beginning to intensify his aggressiveness.

The next bullet had Kohli in a split second dilemma. It almost cost him the box office. Rabada moved a fraction away from the usual delivery point to fabricate the inward angle and suck Kohli to play for the ball in. But Kohli was not new to Rabada’s designs. Halfway through his defensive push, he realized the ball was going to move away from a shadow and struck out the bat, loosening his lower hand. Rabada’s speed meant the ball was kissing the edge, but the edge died before it reached the slip cord. Kohli shrugged and looked away; Rabada winked at the cloudy sky.

At this point, the two might have sensed that a contest was brewing; Kohli wouldn’t have easy shopping. At other times, against different bowlers, he had resorted to the counter punch. But he was wise not to engage in such thoughts against Rabada. He chose security. Likewise, Rabada knew Kohli would not launch his wicket. He would fight, he squeak, he would resist. Two of his next three bullets, he’s gone. The one he carefully defended, straddling the rebound.

But trying to defend or leave all the time was not like Kohli. An unplayable bullet could still devour him. The first ball from the 14th almost did – the ball dug into the corner, sank into the stump and held the line to beat him. Kohli grimaced; Rabada grimaced. Maybe a kickback could ruffle Rabada, or Kohli reasoned as Rabada pinged a bouncer on the middle stump. Kohli hooked. If the Newlands pitch had been as quick as SuperSport Park’s it might have crashed into his neck, but he had just enough time to take Kohli’s advantage for a six. Rabada smirked sarcastically.

Kohli realized the madness of going after Rabada. He left the next three balls. But the moment his bat kicked in, the possibility of an advantage lurked. The fourth bullet he faced took a thick outer edge, but on the ground. But just as the battle escalated, when the atmosphere crackled with a special kind of electricity, a mixture of euphoria and excitement, the anticlimax began.

For the next four overs of the match, Rabada ended up bowling against Rishabh Pant while Kohli faced only Marco Jansen. The interlude was like the irritating commercials that appear before the climax of a thriller. Even Rabada seemed a little annoyed that he wasn’t bowling with Kohli. Or was he waiting for Kohli to come back and knock to unleash all his fury?

It looked like he was. He was a different beast when their battle resumed. Two simple swingers walked away from the stumps, before he landed the ball closer to the stump and the ball held its line. He beat Kohli’s weak push. The next ball was better, the same trajectory, but with a more pronounced outward movement. He beat the edge and was then ruled without a bullet. The next ball found the edge, but not the fielder. Rabada cursed his rotten luck, then more as he pounded his outer edge with an extra bounce and movement from afar. Kohli, his face expressionless, looked numb. Just one next bullet, and Kohli awkwardly smirked at his glorious fortune. A final part of the spell was a matter of routine, as Kohli left three of the four balls he faced.

Indian captain Virat Kohli smashes the ball towards the border during the third and final test match between South Africa and India in Cape Town, South Africa on Tuesday, January 11, 2022 (AP Photo / Halden Krog)

Throughout the spell, Kohli resisted the temptation to lead and was ascetic in self-denial, but Rabada still had the tools to tease and torment him.

It was no coincidence that he was mainly looking to shape the ball away from Kohli. Not once has he tried the nip-backer. β€œThat was the plan. It was obvious, really. He had problems with the ball on the outside. He played really well. I continued to leave them, ”Rabada said at the press conference.

But his genius was that he looked for different methods of playing bowling the same way. Some were leg cutters, others were swing sewing machines, and intermittently, conventional leg cutters. But Rabada, displaying a mischievous smile, played low: β€œI don’t know why everyone thinks we (the bowlers) have bad plans! (smiles). It was a game of patience!

They bowed the spears one last time, and on this occasion he was rewarded. If Kohli was like the Nine-Lived Alley Cat, Rabada was like the predator that ultimately stung its prey. And as Kohli returned in panic, Rabada stood in the midst of his teammates, his eyes lit by the fire that had consumed India and its best firefighter. A raging and unstoppable fire.


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