Virat Kohli clapped as he trooped off with his charges at stumps. But apart from the Indian supporters, no Australian in the stands reciprocated. Kohli wouldn’t mind. It’s that siege mentality that fuels him. But when this Test gets over and he walks back, they will surely miss him. For they admire Kohli, the batting beast, as much as they are befuddled by the drama king. It’s this staggering duality of Kohli they love. If there were pre-series apprehensions of Kohli self-gagging his volatility, he snapped them off with a terrific batting show, attended by an equally thrilling gaggle of histrionics, both embellishing (and enriching) the cult of Kohli.
It was a day Kohli was as inseparable from the ground as the giant digital scoreboard. Everything began and ended with Kohli. It’s the case when a great batsman plays a great knock, it’s also the case when a spontaneous showman reels out his full range of theatrics. And with Kohli, if you take one facet out of his disposition, he becomes less of a compelling persona. Kohli without the histrionics is like Ferrari without fuel.
As always, it began with an innings of restrained beauty, arguably his best in Australia. It boggles the mind how he tames his passionate self when he is batting. The England tour had already showed how he never lets his ego rule him; that he has no problems in biding his time against better bowlers. If it was James Anderson there, it was Pat Cummins here. Expectedly, he shelved the aggressive persona, wearing them down with patience, stretching their limits of desperation. The shot-making was habitually spectacular — scrunchy on-drives, emphatic flicks, thudding square-drives and an upper-cut off Josh Hazlewood, the line-and-length metronome.
Why Pant was unable to go for the ’keeper’s catch
Cheteshwar Pujara dropped the left-handed Marcus Harris at first slip but the real blame lay with Rishabh Pant. The wicketkeeper took one step to the right even before the ball hit the edge. Ishant Sharma was bowling from round the stumps and shaping the ball away. As the ball clipped the outside edge, Pant's left foot started to move to his right again, and by the time he saw that the ball was flying to his left, he was so out of balance that he couldn’t do much. Pujara lunged to his right but the ball died on him. No first slipper expects to be diving so much to his right to a seamer as he expects the wicketkeeper to do that job. If Pant had intervened at the appropriate moment, he would have found the ball at a comfortable height as well. The first step he takes puts him in trouble; usually he takes that step to his left – not a wise thing when the batsmen is right-handed and the bowler is bowling in the off-stump channel. But this time, he moved to the right, again without much rhyme or reason. Another mistake he does at times is not to shuffle his feet in the direction of the ball but just lunge out. These missteps aren’t one-of and he needs some quick readjustments.
But he was utterly quiet — shutting out his impulses from being easily provoked. Or maybe, like a shrewd loan shark, he was plotting and conniving for the right moment to pounce on the defaulter. It came with a regal off-drive, which brought up the milestone.
Like an artist marvelling at his soon-to-be unravelled piece of art, he stood watching the red-speck of a cricket ball skittering away from his eye-line. Once it reached its intended destination, he dropped his helmet on the ground, tapped the face of his bat and blinked his palms towards the dressing room. As far as celebrations go, it was understated. But the truth is, with Kohli nothing is understated. He turned half of the 19,000-crowd into sign-language interpreters, mind-readers and mentalists in a stroke of ingenuity. Or was it a pre-planned celebratory antic? Was it the straightforward “My bat is doing all the talking?” or a more assertive: “I will talk, but so will my bat.”
Only Kohli can stop the speculations, while the rest of us wheeled away assumptions, opinions and hypothesis. It, in a perverse way, perked up the Australians, infusing them with a sudden burst of energy. Was it that defining moment of the series, where it could turn all fractious from here on?
If anyone thought the drama would soon dissipate, die its natural death, they were soon to be proved wrong. It was only going to heighten.
A few overs later, Kohli lunged forth to fleece his big-smiling nemesis Cummins through the covers. Hard hands, feet not quite there, conspired Kohli’s dismissal. Or was it? Half the world must be still splitting their hairs and banging their heads and pounding their keyboards for conclusive proof that Peter Handscomb, the catcher, indeed had his digits underneath the ball. The umpire’s soft signal, the two-dimensional ambiguity of the super-slow-mo replays, and more than any of these, Kohli’s own perceptible shock in which he even forgot to acknowledge the crowd, all ratcheted up the intrigue.
The wronged captain, the flawed rulebook, the damned umpires — it felt like the 90s all over again. The tension during lunch and after was palpable. Kohli strode onto field with his troops, steaming and heated up, as if bracing for a physical confrontation.
What followed was a throwback Kohli performance, Kohli in his quintessence, shouting, smirking, sniggering, making his presence (and mindset) known in as loud a manner as possible. In the third over, he and Rishabh Pant began appealing vociferously for a non-existent edge, before he would go right under the nose of the batsman and say something silly and often unrelated to Pant in Hindi.
So incandescent was he that he would involuntarily start running with the bowler, rush towards the ball wherever it had fallen, fling it back to the ‘keeper, gesticulate something to the bowler, appeal for imaginary edges and lbws. Culprits of dropped catches and sloppy fielders were given that stare which cut through their skin and burned their bones.
Perhaps, he sensed the need for urgency too. For the lead they conceded, though not massive, was still daunting as the strip was getting increasingly vicious.
The bowlers, for all their unflagging effort, went unrequited. Surely, he can’t let another overseas hundred go waste, let go of the match, the lead and the momentum from such a juncture. The intensity rubbed off on others too. Words, stares, and scowls flung from his mouth to every corner of the stadium. He had a bit of an interaction with the crowd too, swishing his fists in the air animatedly, sharpening his ears towards them and urging the Indian continent to amp up their decibels. And of course, he celebrated Handscomb’s dismissal, furiously waggling his index finger.
He had a dally with Australian captain Tim Paine, which the stump mic picked up.
So, Kohli needles him: “If you mess it up, it’s 2-0. Paine, retorts: “You’ve got to bat first, big head”. It didn’t lead to blows, far from it, both left appreciating the verbal counter-punching. Both were spot on with their assessments. Paine, the Australian captain without an aura, must know his team needs some more runs and the Indian captain, with the most provocative aura in the game, must know the chase won’t be easy.