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Virat Kohli's Intent in Tests Is a Sign of Indian Cricket's Evolution

Dileep Premachandran | Updated: November 22, 2017, 4:29 PM IST
Virat Kohli's Intent in Tests Is a Sign of Indian Cricket's Evolution

Virat Kohli acknowledges the applause after bringing up his 50th international century in the first Test against Sri Lanka at Eden Gardens (AFP Photo)

Perceptions and stereotypes, like Francis Bacon said of a little learning, can be dangerous. If you’d asked most cricket fans in the 1990s who they would choose to bat for them in a crisis, Steve Waugh’s name would have figured in most lists. And with good reason too. Think of some of the defining innings of that decade. The defiant 200 at Sabina Park (1995) that marked cricket’s changing of the guard, and which left his body battered and bruised. The twin centuries at Old Trafford (1997), which transformed an Ashes series. Even his final innings, a defiant 80 at the SCG that denied India a first series win on Australian soil.

Then, check how Waugh performed in the third and fourth innings of matches, when runs are generally harder to come by. He never scored a fourth-innings hundred, and averaged 25.54. In the third innings of matches, he did a little better, scoring two centuries while averaging 35.83.

Sachin Tendulkar, who spent most of his career playing for a team far weaker than most that Waugh represented, scored 10 third-innings hundreds (average 46.81) and three in the final innings (average 36.93). Two of those centuries were placed at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum – the match-winning 100 in Chennai against England, weeks after the Mumbai terror attacks (2008), gave him the greatest joy, while the magnificent 136 in a lost cause at the same venue nine years earlier against Pakistan left him at the bottom of a pit of despair.

But it was Mumbai’s original little master who thrived in the hothouse atmosphere of run chases and salvage operations. Just think of Sunil Gavaskar’s greatest innings. The 102 in just over four hours at Port of Spain that inspired a record run chase in 1976. The 221 at The Oval (1979) – included in John Arlott’s Ten Greatest Innings video – which nearly overhauled that record. The 90 off 168 balls – Sehwag-esque by the standards of the day – on the final day of the Chennai Tied Test (1986). And last, but certainly not least, his final bow, an epic 96 on a Bangalore cabbage patch (1987) where no one else went beyond 50.

Gavaskar was truly a freak in that he averaged more in the second innings (51.46) than he did in the first (50.90). In the final innings of Tests, he was extraordinary, averaging 58.25 and scoring four hundreds. In situations where lesser men wilted, he thrived.

Like Tendulkar, Kohli is more of a first innings player (average of 54.13 compared to 43.83 in the second), but like Gavaskar, he also seems to relish the tough situations. Before the sensational final-day effort at Eden Gardens, his best knock was the magnificent 141 on the final day in Adelaide (2014). India ultimately lost, but the manner in which the stand-in captain went after a massive target was a sign of things to come.

A few months earlier, after Brendon McCullum’s triple century had destroyed any Indian hopes of squaring the series in New Zealand, the loss of two quick wickets on the final day saw them face up to the very real possibility of defeat. But Kohli breezed to an unbeaten 105, and the flames were doused with little fuss.

Kolkata though was different gravy. The conditions were testing, as evidenced by the fact that only 244 runs were scored off the bat on a truncated day that also saw 14 wickets fall. Kohli made 104 of them, racing from his half-century to three figures in just 39 balls. The early defiance gave way to imperious strokeplay, and by the end, the Lankan bowlers were staggering on the ropes.

That momentum change extended to the final innings as well, with India’s pace bowlers nearly pulling off an incredible win. What should have been an utterly prosaic day was enlivened by one man’s determination to make things happen.

His Test average (50.12) remains a smidgen below what it should be for someone that possesses such gifts, but it shouldn’t be viewed in isolation. What Kohli has also done is bring about a tremendous change in mindset. Over the last two years, half a dozen home Tests have been played on extremely challenging surfaces where the bowlers held sway. The batsmen haven’t been able to fill their boots as they once did. Eden Gardens saw another example of that, with India seemingly intent on testing themselves before sterner challenges overseas.

It marks a major step in Indian cricket’s evolution. And the man spearheading the change is only going to get better.

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First Published: November 22, 2017, 1:43 PM IST

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