This is Virat Kohli’s 63rd Test, but only his third at the Feroz Shah Kotla. Steve Smith has played five of his 58 matches in his Sydney backyard. The Boxing Day and New Year Tests are central to Australia’s sporting tapestry, events that people plan their holidays around. India doesn’t have one fixture to compare.
The irony is that it wasn’t always that way. Traditionally, Eden Gardens used to host a turn-of-the-year Test in late December. Chepauk would have a Test in January that took in the Pongal holiday. It’s easy to slate paying spectators for not turning up. But haphazard scheduling and the inability to create traditional slots has played a big part in the decline in attendances.
To be fair, you would have to offer special inducements, even in holiday season, to get fans to come in and view this sort of mismatch. Sri Lanka may have upset Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates in October, but this is hardly a vintage outfit. The batsmen have lacked both confidence and runs, the front-line spinner is nearly 40, and the pace bowlers keep breaking down. Angelo Mathews, who looked a world-beater when Sri Lanka won in England in 2014, has since seen his form fall off a cliff.
And ranged against that, you have an utterly ruthless Indian side, with the captain epitomising that attitude. Kohli started the series with a two-ball duck, but has since made 104 not out, 213 and 156 not out. Unless he gets bored on the second day, many more records could be under threat.
There was a time, earlier in his Test career, when Kohli struggled to make the big scores. Now, once he’s set, he almost invariably makes the opposition pay. This was his eighth score in excess of 150, with all but one of them made in the last 18 months. If he pushes on to score 200, he will become the first captain to score six double-hundreds.
Kohli struck 16 fours and, apart from a brief period after tea when he miscued a couple of balls in the air, was in almost complete control. His two bread-and-butter strokes – the cover drive and the flick through midwicket – fetched him most of the runs, and Sri Lanka failed to subject him to any sort of pressure on a surface that hid few demons.
For India and Kohli, who has won 20 of his 31 Tests as captain, this game marks the end of a chapter. The memories of two seasons of home dominance will recede quickly if India fall short again in foreign climes. You can simulate South African conditions all you like on Indian soil, but when you’re not facing bowlers of the quality of Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel and Kagiso Rabada, any talk of preparation is just fanciful.
One man who will be glad to see the back of this home cycle is Ajinkya Rahane, who has scored seven runs in four innings this series. The last time India played in Delhi, in 2015, his twin centuries helped complete a 3-0 rout of South Africa. But since the last home season began, Rahane has aggregated just 725 runs in 24 innings, at an average of 32.95. There have been 13 dismissals before he has got to 20.
Given his outstanding overseas record, Rahane will undoubtedly be part of the XI at Newlands in January. But by failing here, in what might be India’s only innings of the match, he has only heaped pressure on himself to deliver there. KL Rahul, with nine half-centuries in his last 12 innings, is sitting out this game, while Rohit Sharma has made use of every opportunity he has been given since last season. Rahane needs to turn things around, and quickly.
First Published: December 2, 2017, 6:30 PM IST