“Yeah, I’m no good. Everybody can’t be a King Kohli.” Tim Paine might have uttered a cricketing truism of his times. For it’s incredibly difficult to sustain such gold standards in batting like the Indian skipper has this calendar year. But, in the context of what has been said and heard over the last two days, he was being perversely sarcastic, irritated at Kohli incessant mocking and ridiculing him, whenever he edged or was beaten by the bowler. This time, he was replaying the way he missed a cut shot to KL Rahul. It wore Paine’s patience out.
Kohli was slightly bemused by Paine’s response — indirect yet witty. Kohli is generally game for more direct verbal counter-punching. There are no inhibitions, whether he’s batting or sledging. But he didn’t shirk, he doesn’t need a second invitation to badger. He repositioned himself from gully to mid-on, sightly closer to Paine, amped up his decibels, sometimes slipping into Hindi when shouting at Rishabh Pant, but promptly switching back to English. Lest, what’s the fun in bantering, if the adversary doesn’t pick up the words!
Paine would first pretend he was not hearing, then ignore, then slowly respond with stares and finally resort to verbals. Not that he’s any less fiery, but these are days Australia are treading the image makeover path, with all the talk of culture and dignity swirling around, and being the leader he has to be more tolerant and less abrasive, both in deeds and words. So the unusual side-stepping.
But Kohli has a knack of provoking even the meek and mellow. Ask Joe Root. And now ask Paine. The latter then gently nudged at Kohli’s pre-series bluster that “we won’t sledge unless we’re provoked,” and how the Indian captain lit up the flames on Sunday. “You’re the one who lost it yesterday, why are you trying to be cool today?” Paine shouted. “Keep your cool, Virat.”
He was referring to Sunday’s exchanges, almost at twilight, when Kohli needled him saying, “If you mess it up, it’s 2-0”, to which Paine retorted: “You’ve got to bat last, bighead”. Rat-a-tat, one would say.
Kohli then began strutting and posturing, squealing and scowling, walking very much with the haughty air of the best batsman in the world. Soon Kohli walked up to Paine, who was completing a run, and both were so uncomfortably close to each other, almost chest-barging like WWE wrestlers, that umpire Chris Gaffeney intervened and shrieked: “Oi, that’s enough, that’s enough. Play the game. You guys are the captains.”
The Kiwi umpire missed the whole point — that Kohli and Paine were so involved in this verbal joust primarily because they are skippers, with the match on a knife edge, when Paine and Usman Khawaja resisted, swaying it in Australia’s favour, both sensing an opportunity to scatter each other’s focus, without realising that the more they were sledging each other, the more determined they were turning out to be. Like a performance-enhancing wonder drug.
However, the pacifier was made to feel like an outsider: “We’re allowed to talk. We can have a conversation. There’s no swearing,” Paine told Gaffeney, who wore a stunned expression. To put in plain-speak, Paine meant: “Look, it’s our business, why do you need to interfere?” But Gaffaney warned Paine sternly: “Look, I’m the umpire. I can’t let it go on like this.”
It mellowed down the brewing antagonism for the next few overs, the skippers hardly exchanged eye contact, let alone words. Pant, though, was keeping the stump mic busy, though Paine was least bothered about his chatter, almost shrugging it off like it were a child’s babble. What’s the fun, after all, without Kohli.
Not for long though. Before the two parted for lunch, Kohli brushed past him, stared at him and Paine whispered something inaudibly in his ears — maybe, a general “what’re you gonna have for lunch” kind of thing — before Khawaja dragged him to the dressing room. Kohli seemed to have gestured to the umpire that Paine was the one who was provoking him. In commentary, they gave their verdict of how this relationship was shaping up. “I’m sure these guys are not going to have a beer in the evening.”
But before evening, there was the afternoon session, and lunch-break discussions revolved around what novel ways they would envisage to keep each other engaged and entertained.
But it turned anti-climatic, as Paine departed on the fifth ball after lunch, caught by Kohli at second slip of a Mohammed Shami brute. Maybe, Kohli was so disappointed that the battle ended all too soon that he didn’t celebrate as animatedly as one would have thought. A volley of filth though escaped his mouth, which the broadcasters duly captured, but there was nothing outrageously cheeky.
There suddenly was a vacuum, though it was filled early on in India’s chase, when Cheteshwar Pujara exited.
Even before Kohli strode to the pitch, there was ample chattering, Peter Handscomb reminding the Indian batsmen of the drifting cracks almost every other delivery and warning them like a friend: “Mate, watch out for the low one yeah, it’s kind a skidding on.”
As soon as Kohli started taking guard, Paine tapped in a conversation with Khawaja: “Do you fancy batting on the pitch? Oh! look at that crack, it’s dark yeah?” Khawaja would just keep laughing. So did Kohli, unfazed as ever. It’s an aspect of him these days — he hardly gets sucked into verbals when he’s batting. The Australians too knew that and they sequestered into a shell until Nathan Lyon ensnared him with a tossed-up delivery that fractionally spun.
This was the perfect time to toss up the sledgiest of all sledges at Kohli. Not on his face, or his back, but to his teammate Murali Vijay. “I know he’s your captain but you can’t seriously like him as a bloke. You couldn’t possibly like him.” Vijay was expressionless. Later, Josh Hazlewood slipped in another sledge, when asked whether there is an all-consuming focus on Kohli: “No, definitely not. I probably see Pujara as the big wicket as far as when I’m bowling.” Think of how that could steam up Kohli — and how he would be if India can pull of a heist.
Whatever, the series had been suddenly stimulated, and surely there’s more to come, in terms of runs and run-ins, wickets and words. As Mohammed Shami quipped at the press conference: “If there is no sledging, you won’t enjoy the game, the public won’t enjoy the game.” Paine and Kohli too wouldn’t disagree.