CAPE TOWN: Virat Kohli’ rivalry with fellow batting star AB de Villiers is likely to provide a compelling side-show in the three-Test series between South Africa and India starting at Newlands on Friday.
“It’s not like only two guys are playing in this series,” said Kohli, playing things down when asked about De Villiers, his Royal Challengers Bangalore teammate in the Indian Premier League.
“AB is a great friend of mine, I respect the way he plays the game and I’ve always respected him as a person as well,” Kohli said at India’s arrival press conference. “But when you’re playing against each other it’s just about wanting to get AB out and I’m sure the opposition would want the same when I play or (Ajinkya) Rahane plays or (Cheteshwar) Pujara plays as well.”
While Rahane and Pujara may be high-quality players – in the same way that Dean Elgar and Hashim Amla are for South Africa – no player on either side can match the aura created by Kohli and De Villiers, whose thrilling stroke play can change the course of a match.
Kohli is India’s most glamorous and best-performing batsman since Sachin Tendulkar while De Villiers has the rare distinction for a foreigner of having star appeal in India.
When South Africa toured India two seasons ago, crowds put aside their passionate support for the home side and chanted “ABD, ABD” whenever De Villiers walked out to bat.
It could even be argued that De Villiers contributed to South Africa’s downfall in the Test matches which followed a one-day series dominated by his dazzling batting.
De Villiers slammed three centuries in five matches, leading South Africa to a series victory which had Ravi Shastri, India’s team director (now coach), grumbling about conditions which suited the visitors.
It seemed no coincidence that the four Test matches were played on spin-friendly dust bowls and were dominated by Indian spin bowlers Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja.
It brought De Villiers down to earth, although he was still South Africa’s best batsman, scoring 258 runs at an average of 36.85. Even Kohli struggled in the conditions, restricted to 200 runs at 33.33.
Kohli has only played in two other Tests against South Africa, when India toured in 2013/14, but showed his ability to handle the pace and bounce of South African pitches by making 119 and 96 in the first Test in Johannesburg.
De Villiers has played 17 Tests against India and his average of 40.10 against them is modest compared to his career average of 50.47. But he has enjoyed some big successes – 217 not out in an innings win in Ahmedabad in 2007/08 and South Africa’s fastest Test century, off 75 balls, in Centurion in 2010/11.
Kohli is coming off a spectacular 2017, during which he hit three double centuries in compiling 1059 Test runs at an average of 75.64, while because of injury followed by a break from Test cricket De Villiers has only played in one Test – scoring 53 in the two-day rout of Zimbabwe – since January 2016.
De Villiers professed his excitement about being back on the big stage. Kohli, in speaking of the hunger in the Indian team, noted that he couldn’t speak for the opposition and that “AB hasn’t played much Test cricket since he played against us, and he’s coming back after a while.”
What seems certain when the world’s two top-ranked Test teams square up is that there will be extra excitement and anticipation every time Kohli and De Villiers walk out to bat.