Updated: August 3, 2018 10:56:21 am
Virat Kohli moved down the track. He walked across to the off. He stood outside the crease. He took an off-stump guard. He stood on the crease. Incredibly, he almost never stretched fully forward. He was here, there, everywhere. A moving target; no wonder England bowlers couldn’t take a proper aim.
The mind draws a blank when trying to recall a knock where a batsman did so many different adjustments in a single innings. There was just one constant: a fiery ambition to drag along his team. The Delhi ka chokra, the streetfighter who is forever looking for a sports brawl, wasn’t ready to give an inch.
The cricket lore overflows with instances of a batsman making one big adjustment or sacrificing a shot. [Sachin] Tendulkar not playing the cover drive in Sydney, [Sunil] Gavaskar deciding to hook everything that [Malcolm] Marshall and [Michael] Holding pelted down at his throat, [Matthew] Hayden sweeping away like a man possessed – but rarely, if ever, has a batsman strung together so many little adjustments in a single innings.
No one does that because you aren’t supposed to be doing stuff like that in a Test. You build a plan, possibly abstain from or indulge a shot. Batsmen do little things: they open up their stance to certain bowlers and little things like that, but no one messes around out there. You don’t overhaul your entire technique out there. You don’t pick apart your own batting, reassemble it, chose to present different variations at various times. In a single knock. It’s risky. Too risky. There isn’t a blueprint for it. And that’s why it isn’t a surprise that Kohli went for it.
He couldn’t have done what he did otherwise. He never ever gave the English a sitting target. They had to constantly revise, update, tinker, modify and try to come up with something to hit the target.
Anderson would have just walked away after a good delivery that would have teased past the edge. Righto, here is the line, the length to bowl. Nope. It wasn’t. As Kohli would suddenly walk down to Anderson. Or stand well outside crease to him. Retreat to the crease on occasions. Walk to the off stump, sometimes even outside it. What was the ideal line or length then? Anderson couldn’t slip into his auto-pilot mode. Muscle memory wasn’t going to just cut it.
Especially, when Kohli cut out that lengthy forward stride that got him into trouble last series here. That opened up his hips, made him search for deliveries he shouldn’t be thinking about. The feet were on a leash here. He had been practising for it in the nets.
Even to the ordinary net bowlers that the local association sent. It would have been easy, and natural, for him to stretch out and drive. He didn’t. He tried this short step forward, even if it meant a few ugly dabs when the ball skidded off a length. Stuart Broad too charged in but found a moving target.
Ben Stokes was probably the best equipped to trap Kohli here. When the mood seizes him, he can change his lines, lengths and the mode of attack: seam to swing. Kohli did the least amount of tinkering to him. Self-awareness on a tap. How do you develop something like that? How do you teach others that? Shot selection is one thing; this was something else.
It’s one thing to do all that in nets. It’s another thing to piece it all together, pick the moments when to do what, and have the mental strength to do it through a day when all other Indian batsmen were deserting him one after other.
The match situation kept changing. Mostly for the worse. Sam Curran, just in his second Test but showing exemplary control and skill, kept curling in the inswingers. M Vijay fell, trying to play around the front pad. KL Rahul chased a delivery, playing so far away from the body that he dragged the ball on to his stumps. Shikhar Dhawan went for a drive to a swinging delivery as if he never saw what Curran was doing thus far.
Kohli too had couple of chances; the first when he pushed out at Anderson but David Malan dropped a straightforward chance at first slip. Then Malan reprieved him again off Stokes on 51, this time diving to his right but failing to latch on. By the end, he had turned imperious. Slamming, driving, pulling, tonking, whipping – fielders spread out and crowd gasped as the ball kept plummeting through the gaps.
Willed to beat the odds
Kohli had pulled India out of a Curran-sized hole, and turned the game around. And R Ashwin rubbed it in, shoving Alastair Cook into a Groundhog Day moment. Was it still Wednesday still? Did the ball again pitch on leg and took out the off? Are you kidding me? The day, though, was owned by Kohli.
It’s been said on these pages before but it’s worth repeating it here. Kohli wasn’t ever a prodigy or a genius of a batsman. He is someone who has willed himself to greater heights. A Sachin Tendulkar or Viv Richards wouldn’t have attempted so many little changes. Because, they didn’t have to. See Tendulkar vs Steyn for example. Vicious outswingers, one after another, and Tendulkar kept stretching forward, covering for the swing and driving through off. It was awe-inspiring.
But in many ways what Kohli pulled off at Birmingham was more difficult. It’s one thing to express natural talent as Tendulkar did that day against Steyn. It’s another thing altogether to have the drive, will, mental tenacity to come up with a multi-layered approach. Tendulkar did because he could. Kohli does because he has to.
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