The much awaited final of the World Test Championship (WTC) finally got underway in Southampton from Day 2 and as promised turned out to be a seesaw battle between two world-class units. There were a number of performances that stood out on the first day of action in the southern port city of England but the one which would give India the maximum confidence and boost was the classic unbeaten 44 of their skipper Virat Kohli - still a lot of work to do but it was almost a blemish-free knock reminiscent of his form in England in 2018.
We look at the talking points from Day 2 at Southampton.
1. Virat Kohli’s Classic Unbeaten 44 Reminiscent of England 2018
Virat Kohli came out to bat with India under pressure with the quick dismissal of both their openers - Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill - after a fine start. He had the double responsibility of not only resurrecting the innings but also keeping the scoreboard ticking - it was as important to score runs as playing out overs and time in bowler-friendly overcast conditions in Southampton.
Kohli came out with a plan and executed it to perfection. For starters he stood a good yard outside the popping crease to negate the swing and seam movement - something which he did very successfully on the 2018 tour to England and did not do in 2014 when he miserably failed. He then displayed a quality which does not come naturally to him and neither is a part of his attacking personality - the virtue of being patient and showing discipline. But that is why Kohli is an all-time great.
After getting off the mark with a majestic high-elbow cover-drive off Neil Wagner of the fourth delivery of his innings, he put his head down and showed remarkable character defending with confidence and leaving a number of deliveries outside the off stump - again, one of the other reasons for his massive transformation in 2018. Kohli scored just 17 off as many as 56 deliveries and added 25 off 95 deliveries for the third-wicket with Cheteshwar Pujara. He knew the New Zealand bowlers were on top and it was more critical for India to negotiate this period playing out time and overs rather than create opportunities to score runs - that is exactly what Kohli did.
Kohli’s patience and preservation paid off. He did not get tempted by deliveries outside the off stump and made the bowlers bowl to his strengths. Having taken India out of the woods he then started to play a few more shots adding 58 off 147 deliveries with Ajinkya Rahane - Kohli contributed 27 off 68 deliveries to what could turn out to be the defining partnership of the match for India.
Overall, the Indian captain left about one-third (34%) of the 124 deliveries he faced in the innings - a very high percentage for an attacking batsman like Kohli. In tough, overcast, swinging and seaming conditions with players often going off and on the field due to bad light, he still was in control for 87% of the deliveries he faced - this combination of restraint and focus were the hallmarks of his performance so far.
Kohli also made a masterful technical adjustment - when he moved back and across he kept the front leg straight thus nullifying the lbw to a large extent with the incoming delivery. A determined, resolute and inspired Kohli could just be playing the most impactful knock of his Test career.
2. The Rohit-Gill Opening Partnership
India were on the backfoot as soon as Kane Williamson won the toss and inserted them in in very tricky and overcast conditions in Southampton. The first hour was going to be crucial and most pundits expected the likes of Tim Southee and Trent Boult to run through the Indian line-up. But the openers - Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill surprised everyone with their approach. They came out with a very positive frame of mind and showed intent in scoring runs not wanting to get bogged down by the occasion or the quality of fast bowling they were confronted with.
They left a number of deliveries outside the off stump but at the same time whenever the ball was overpitched dispatched it to the boundary. The striking feature of the partnership was their deliberate ploy to stand outside the crease thereby negating the swing generated by both Southee and Boult. The Rohit-Gill pair mixed caution with aggression and gave India their best start in England in 10 years and 29 innings. In a low-scoring match, which is what Southampton in all likelihood will turn out to be, the quick start and the platform provided by India’s opening pair for the middle order could be one of the defining moments in the final.
3. Poor Start By Southee and Boult
Kane Williamson had won a perfect toss on Day 2 in Southampton. The conditions were overcast and perfect for swing and seam bowling and in Tim Southee and Trent Boult New Zealand had two of the best proponents to use the new red Dukes Ball in their XI. But the two veteran bowlers were not at their best in the opening hour of play and let the Indian openers Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill get away.
Southee and Boult were guilty of not getting their length right to the Indian openers. They were either bowling too short or too full allowing the Indian openers to punch off the backfoot or drive through the covers or straight down the ground for a number of boundaries. The usually very disciplined New Zealand pair were off the mark in what was probably the most crucial hour of the match and could not give their team a breakthrough with the new ball. There was a lack of discipline especially from the otherwise immaculate Southee who bowled a number of deliveries down the leg side to the Indian openers.
4. Pujara’s Struggles In England Continue
Cheteshwar Pujara continued to struggle in England and managed to score just 8 off 54 deliveries in the first innings of the WTC final. His two scoring shots were boundaries which means he did not score off 52 off the 54 deliveries he faced. India had lost both their openers and the need of the hour was to preserve wickets and re-build the innings. But being extra-cautious at this crucial juncture in the match could have played into New Zealand’s hands. Unlike Kohli at the other end, Pujara was unable to get the singles and the twos and threes and could not manoeuvre the strike.
Pujara has had problems with getting off the hook on a number of occasions in his Test career. While his temperament, patience and ability to play out time and overs are match-winning qualities in Test cricket, he sometimes needs to come out of the shell and find a way to keep the scorecard moving. This will not only put less pressure on him but also on the batsman on the opposite end.
While the India number 3 produced the performance of a lifetime in Australia in 2018-19 and again gave a good account of himself in 2020-21, he has struggled in swinging conditions in England. Pujara had scored 278 runs in 8 innings at an average of 39.71 with one hundred and a fifty on the 2018 tour. He had failed in 5 of the 8 innings he batted in the series.