MOEEN ALI isn’t an off-spinner that turns the ball much. And he knows it. That’s not his strength. He works more with angles and clever changes of pace. He does have a happy knack of striking the batsman’s pads as a result, like he did on this occasion from around the wicket. It was the first ball of the 129th over of India’s innings, Ali’s 41st, and Virat Kohli was on 119. Ali, like all of his other bowling colleagues, had had little impact on the Indian captain till then.
The ball pitched between off and middle on a good length, straightened its line and hit Kohli’s front-pad around the knee roll. It was clearly headed for the stumps or at least it seemed well on its way. Strangely though there was no appeal. Well, there was one but it was feeble with Ali only turning around and raising his hand politely towards umpire Bruce Oxenford. No ‘aaaahs’ and ‘howzaaa’. Just one single, meek ‘howzat’. It was still three overs before England would unwisely use up their final review on a caught-behind appeal that even the bowler, James Anderson, was shaking his head about. But here nobody except Ali was even bothered to react, even if the DRS would likely have shown the dreaded ‘three reds’.
Probably by then, even the English had slipped into a ‘there’s no point’ mindset. Maybe their minds too, like everybody else’s at Wankhede Stadium, had been enslaved by the indomitability and mastery of Kohli. For, it was that kind of knock. It was that kind of day.
It was an innings that you sensed was running parallel to the actual script of the match, like in slipstream mode. At no point during Kohli’s majestic 15th Test ton could you actually gauge the other factors that were influencing it or at least playing a part. There was a lot happening at the other end too.
Murali Vijay was putting on a show of his own for the first half of the day. Then there was the unexpected comeback from the English spinners as they knocked off four wickets in the space of just over an hour in the second session, followed by two half-century partnerships with Ravindra Jadeja and Jayant Yadav — the latter still unbroken. It was only with an hour to go that India eventually went past England’s first innings score, and the pitch had turned consistently, even if not always threateningly. The flurry of wickets in the middle had left India in a slight muddle despite the in-form lower order still up their sleeve.
But whenever Kohli was on strike, it was as if they were all just ancillary events. Or they didn’t matter. He wasn’t showing any signs of it, and not allowing you to focus on them either. If you happened to catch the highlights of the knock in isolation while sitting in a bar and sipping a drink, you might even struggle to fathom the setting. Let’s say you wouldn’t be certain whether it had come on a flat first-day wicket with no pressure or in a tense situation with the team chasing the game. It was just that imperious.
Year of revelation
Kohli has held you and the opposition in this state of trance before on plenty of occasions in both ODI cricket and even of late in the shortest format, where there is a tinge of inevitability about him notching up a century once he’s gone past the early period. It was a day when he went past Joe Root as the leading run-scorer across all formats in this calendar year. But it’s his progression into a world-class Test batsman that’s made 2016 a revelation for Kohli.
If a concoction of defence and attack is what makes a successful Test batsman, Kohli has become the masterchef who’s found the perfect recipe. And all the ingredients were on show at the Wankhede Stadium on Saturday as India took a crucial lead of 51 with three valuable wickets still in hand.
Throughout his unbeaten 147, Kohli simply seemed to be going through the motions, and for once it doesn’t count as a negative. That’s the control he had over every aspect of the day’s play.
His first three boundaries were all about control. He rode the bounce of a short delivery from Jake Ball, who knocked out Cheteshwar Pujara when he decided to shoulder arms, and patted it to the point fence.
The next two were length deliveries slightly wide of off-stump, and both were steered past the slip region for four.
Then began the English version of a trial by spin. To the extent that 72 out of the 90 overs bowled during the day were shared between Ali, Adil Rashid and Root, who ironically was the best of the lot in a series where England have, prior to this match, utilised a third specialist spinner. Rashid himself bowled 28 overs without a break. And maybe Alastair Cook got it wrong. He could have been better off by mixing things around better and giving his fast bowlers more of a go against Kohli.
At one point, while he had faced nearly a 100 balls from each spinner, Anderson had bowled only 11 to him. Chris Woakes hadn’t even been thrown the ball. Not that it would have necessarily made a difference.
The English spinners did bowl a testing spell in the afternoon session. Rashid tried dragging Kohli out by changing his line to slightly wide of off stump. But to no avail. Kohli either left them alone or stretched his front foot out far enough to be able to contend with the turn. Whenever he saw the ball even slightly short though, he quickly transferred his weight back and pummelled them over the square-leg or mid-wicket fielders. His greatest strength against spin is the conviction in movement and intent, whether it be defensive or aggressive. And he soaked in the pressure of the period where India suffered a few setbacks by playing the waiting game, going 30 overs without scoring a boundary.
Blast in the end
But the English spinners were tiring and Kohli was just getting warmed up. He swept square and he swept fine off Rashid, the bat scything the ball on its way down. He was constantly making Cook change his field. And once he’d done that, Kohli was toying with it and finding gaps regardless. The century was brought up with a single before he dished out the signature Kohli cover drive off Ball, and then bend his stance and punch Woakes past the point fielder in the next over.
By now Kohli was in full flow, and the English were wilting and chasing the ball. What makes Kohli stand out is the way he’s always reamained involved with the game. He’s not a batsman, and there have been many in the elite class, who get so consumed by their own batting that the rest of the batsmen are mere walk-on parts. But Kohli was on the dot by asking Vijay to review a shaky lbw decision where the opener had got an inside edge on to his pad. And there he was coyly signalling that the visitors didn’t have any reviews left, and enjoying it, when Yadav had edged one down the leg-side but the umpire thought otherwise.
Unfortunately for the English, Kohli doesn’t seem to be done yet. And the longer he bats, the lead will only burgeon and take Cook and his team closer to that sinking feeling with the script increasingly suggesting a finish that has India on top.