Virat Kohli’s hands were already semi-pointing towards the dressing-room in ecstasy when umpire Kumar Dharmasena began drawing a box in the air with his hands. The Indian captain of course was certain that his desperate dive and last-minute lunge to make it to the crease at the bowlers’ end had beaten the direct-hit from Jimmy Neesham from point. The Kiwi all-rounder had helped his cause by taking one step too many before releasing the ball.
But with Dharmasena choosing to employ the third-umpire’s services to take the final call, a sheepish Kohli had to cut short his celebration ritual and instead wait for a few extra minutes before letting out the vent-up emotion—even if it did seem a tad anticlimactic eventually.
That Kohli was in a hurry to raise his hands is understandable. Not only had he scored his first century on Indian soil in 17 innings since 2013, he had also become the first batsman to cross three-figures in this series. Even though India sat pretty with an unassailable 2-0 lead going into Indore, it hasn’t been a series of many personal hoorahs for Kohli the batsman. And he’s spent the last two weeks at press conferences singing the praises of almost all his teammates who have made contributions of varying degrees with bat and ball to orchestrate the series triumph. Other times, he’s had to fend off multiple queries over his apparent ‘bad form’, which has not seen him score a half-century since the 200 in Antigua.
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But here, in front of a packed house on Saturday, he’d ticked that one remaining box in what has been a remarkable start to his Test captaincy career—a three-figure score in front of the home crowd. It also silenced all the cynical whispers resulting from his low run of scores while also helping India take control of the third Test. Kohli is still unbeaten on 103 with Ajinkya Rahane on course for a ton too, 79 not out presently, with India sitting pretty on 267/3.
When Kohli did finally point his bat in the direction of the crowd, they roared back in approval. Indore couldn’t have asked for a better start to its Test career than have the most celebrated headliner in Indian cricket’s modern era lighting up the occasion with a sensational century. To their credit, they had queued up outside the Holkar Stadium in droves since the early hours of the morning. And by the time Kohli won the toss—in what is becoming an inevitable outcome—thousands were waiting patiently in long sinuous lines to get their first taste of Test cricket in person. What was even more impressive was the lack of chaos, which you would consider almost par for the course in these scenarios.
By the time, Kohli walked out to bat the official crowd figure read 18,600—an eye-popping number as far as Test audiences go these days. And news of the superstar’s arrival at the crease only accentuated that number even more drastically. It wasn’t really a trademark Kohli century though. The knock wasn’t littered with an array of punchy and delectable strokes and set to the tone of domination—which loosely is his mantra whenever he has bat in hand. His 13th Test ton was more based on prudent restraint and dogmatic defiance even though the first scoring-shot was a trademark cover-drive off a full delivery that went for four. For the record, it was his fourth slowest century coming off 184 balls.
It wasn’t really a case of Kohli entering a shell of any sorts but more about trying his best to reign himself in and trying to eliminate the errors that had cost him his wicket earlier in the series. Though it flattened out as the day wore on—or let’s say Kohli and Rahane made it appear so—the pitch did exhibit a few worrying signs at the start.
The lack of bounce was evident with bouncers carrying through stomach-high and at times even the fast bowlers struggling to generate decent carry en route to BJ Watling behind the stumps.
Jimmy Neesham and Jeetan Patel were the first challengers that Kohli had to see off. While Patel had gotten himself into a nice rhythm, Neesham as always was erratic making the all-rounder an awkward prospect on the up-and-down wicket. Kohli had gotten out in Kolkata while chasing a wide, full delivery from Trent Boult after being set up with a few short-pitched deliveries. With a gully and a wide slip in place a familiar trap seemed to have been set for Kohli with Neesham bowling. But the Indian skipper didn’t seem keen on chasing any wild gooses on this occasion.
Patel on the other hand had a short mid-wicket—slightly straighter than usual—in place and had left the cover region empty, tempting Kohli to drive through there on the up. But it took 16 deliveries from Patel before Kohli finally even launched into a drive, and that too when the ball landed right under his bat. Kohli was playing the patience game and for a change he was winning and not getting sucked into going for the jugular. With the pitches being the way they are during home Tests in India these days, it’s a battle that batsmen have to overcome on a daily basis. And Kohli was showing that he was as adept as anyone in curbing his natural game, if only in periods.
Santner poses threat
After an untoward start the Kiwi bowling machine had regained its radar with Mitchell Santner and Patel beating Kohli’s bat and defences on three occasions in the space of two overs. But he survived. One delivery from Santner arrived at a flattish trajectory but then was fuller than Kohli expected, almost resulting in an outside edge. But his hands were soft enough to avoid the fatal eventuality.
Kohli’s first 30 came off 73 balls. By now he was in. Next came the bouncer strategy, one that Neil Wagner had made work in Kanpur. So out went the deep backward square-leg fielder. The plan had to be shelved almost instantly as Matt Henry’s first bouncer reached only as far as Kohli’s waist, and he dispatched it to the fence with a short-arm pull.
There were a couple of more anxious moments—an outside-edge off Patel and a leading edge off Neesham during the brief period when reverse swing made an appearance—as Kohli’s innings progressed. But by now he was in control. The century was within his sights, and his tempo only kept improving as he got closer. And ominously for the Kiwis, it didn’t look like he was done yet as Day One came to a close.
The Holkar Stadium is awash with Indian cricket’s most celebrate luminaries with their names occupying all vital vantage points inside the ground. On Saturday, Kohli was playing under their collective shadow, quite literally. But that shadow turned into his spotlight as the day wore on, and by the end of it Kohli had shown why he’s a shoo-in to shine amidst those stars, if he’s not doing so already.