Virat Kohli finally arrives as captain, shaken and stirred4 min read . Updated: 31 Dec 2018, 01:25 AM IST
For all the flak Kohli has received over selection and defensive mindset, MCG showed how good a leader he can be
Virat Kohli arrived in Australia for this series as the undisputed champion of batting in all forms of cricket. His two centuries in England settled questions about his technique for seam bowling. Earlier, he top-scored for India in South Africa.
Kohli had already proved himself in Australia as a rookie, and now he was King Kohli with the bat. So the focus was really on his leadership.
India lost 2-1 by narrow margins in South Africa. The team selection came right only in the last Test, with the inclusion of Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Ajinkya Rahane. India left out spinner R. Ashwin to play five pace bowlers on a belter in Johannesburg and their boldness was rewarded with a Test victory.
But poor selections continued to dog India in England, where the mainstay of the Test batting, Cheteshwar Pujara, warmed the benches in the first Test. A magnificent 200 runs by captain Kohli could not prevent his team from going 1-0 down by 31 runs. India ultimately lost the series 4-1 to a vulnerable England side captained astutely by Joe Root.
Kohli didn’t get many with the bat in the opening Test match Down Under, but India won by 31 runs, with Pujara getting a century and a 50. It was a reversal of what happened in England.
Then the reputation of Perth for producing the fastest and bounciest wickets in the world, coupled with the memory of Johannesburg, led to another selection blunder. Umesh Yadav replaced the injured Ashwin instead of a spinner. It helped Australia level the series, with their off-spinner Nathan Lyon claiming eight wickets.
That was the lead-up to the third Test in Melbourne. Former Aussie captain Alan Border felt whoever won the toss would bat first with 15mm of grass on the wicket. But the Indian team management of captain Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri had learnt that appearances—and expert commentary—could be deceptive.
India batted first and battled through to 443 for 7 declared, with the dependable Pujara getting a century and Kohli contributing a patient 82 before a strained back induced a skier to third man.
For all the flak Kohli has caught for his dubious selections and defensive mindset on the field, Melbourne showed how good a leader he can be for Indian cricket. The team management decided to dump both the struggling openers Murali Vijay and K.L. Rahul, opting for the makeshift Hanuma Vihari and the rookie Mayank Agarwal.
Young Agarwal scored 76 and 42, the best by an Indian on debut in Australia. Rohit Sharma justified the faith Kohli has shown in his ability, scoring a brisk 63 not out down the order. And the irrepressible Rishabh Pant continues to produce cameos with the bat while collecting 20 scalps behind the wicket, the highest for an Indian wicketkeeper in a series abroad.
It’s worth noting that the team management opted for the young, precocious talent of Pant in preference to the more experienced Dinesh Karthik, and it’s paying dividends.
The Melbourne Test victory puts India 2-1 ahead in a series for the first time Down Under. A draw or a win in the last Test at Sydney will give India the first series win in Australia since we began touring the land Down Under in 1947.
But for all the euphoria of winning in Melbourne, it didn’t come without palpitations. India had a mammoth lead of 292 after bowling Australia out in two sessions on the third day. But Kohli and Shastri decided to bat again instead of enforcing a follow-on, despite a forecast of thundershowers in the next two days.
There’s some merit in giving the bowlers time off, but not when so much is at stake and when only 67 overs were needed to knock off the Aussies in the first innings. Out of those 67, spinner Ravindra Jadeja bowled 25 overs.
The Indian team management’s folly became apparent as India collapsed to 53 for 5 by the end of the third day. That was a potent pitch for Jasprit Bumrah and company to exploit for an innings defeat. They did pick up eight Aussie wickets on the fourth day after declaring at 106 for 8 thanks to a face-saving cameo of 31 from Pant.
But showers on the fifth morning brought back memories of Melbourne in 1985 when India plodded to 59 for 2 before rain washed out play after tea on the final day with just 67 more runs required for a win.
This time was different. Bumrah and Ishant Sharma needed just four overs to wrap up the last two wickets when play did get under way after the rain.
Nothing succeeds like success. India now has the most talented cricket team for all conditions in every format. But the safety-first approach of captain Kohli in not enforcing the follow-on still makes for an intriguing conundrum.
What was the fear in the decision to bat again? That Australia would score 400 plus and then bowl India out for less than 150 on a wearing pitch?
Kohli and Team India are too good for such diffidence. If they can believe in themselves as a team as much as Kohli does in his ability as a batsman, then we’re looking at a golden era of cricket for India not just at home but in all conditions against all comers in all formats.
It’s a wonderful time to be an Indian cricket fan supporting a team led by a player, who plays unselfishly for the team and never for milestones.
Sumit Chakraberty is an author and freelance writer based in Bengaluru.