India vs Australia: At Kotla, Virat Kohli seeks home comfort in his quest to arrest Test form slump

A gaggle of teenagers hung restlessly outside the Virender Sehwag Gate, in the narrow alley flanked by brown-bricked walls, asking passers-by whether Virat Kohli is batting. A grumpy policeman yells at them and threatens to brandish his oiled cane-lathi. A stranger tells them, whether he was unaware or was merely playing around is unsure, he is practising. He even claimed he had spotted him spinning into the stadium in his ruby-red Porsche. Another bluntly informs them that he skipped the optional training session. Though uncertain, they hung around, in the hope that he would zip out in his car and wave his arms at them.

The whispers and debates at Kotla, even though he was absent on Thursday, revolved around Kohli. Whether he would end his century drought at home, whether you managed a selfie with him on Thursday, whether you saw his gleaming car, or how he batted in the nets or what he did at the nets. Kohli might be enduring the longest slump in his career, but his aura and stature in his home city have not diminished. The cricketing world might be debating whether he should be persisted with, after a harrowing run of 929 runs at 25.80 in 37 innings since December 2019, whether he is cruelly blocking the path of a deserving young cricketer, or whether he would ever rekindle his best Test match form. But the Kotla crowd is certain that he would rescale the lost peaks. Their love and hope remain undiminished and unconditional. “Is baar hoga,” is the collective belief. “Yaad hain woh Sri Lanka wali innings?” they would croon in an obvious reference to his 243 against Sri Lanka in the last Test here.

So seems Kohli’s determination to woo back the form. If he eventually fades away, he would not slip away without a fight, without a final flicker, without trying everything he possibly could to retrace the steps of greatness. At the nets, he sweats out as intensely as he ever had, ironing out his flaws, tightening his defending, and chalking out methods with the alacrity of a wide-eyed teenager who has just burst into international cricket.

Kohli checked in at 12 noon at the Ferozshah Kotla, even before the Indian team arrived, and batted in the nets. Kohli hasn’t played a Test match at his home ground in five years. He scored 243 and 50 in the drawn Test against Sri Lanka in 2017. Kohli hasn’t scored a Test hundred since November 2019. (Express photo: Praveen Khanna)

His recent nemesis has been left-arm spinners—seven times in the last 16 outings have they snared him, and alarmingly through different ways. So, he invited Uttar Pradesh’s Saurabh Kumar, a throwback loop-and-flight operator than the modern stump-to-stump one, to the nets and made him bowl until the bowler got utterly tired, on Wednesday. Kohli asked him to interchange his trajectories, from flat and fullish to loopy and slower, his length and pace. He scratched the rough just outside the off-stump and blast the ball in that area so that the ball would leap. Several times Kohli was beaten, especially when he looked to stretch forward and defend. But Kohli remained unbeaten in his spirit, encouraging Saurabh and asking him to probe the same area. Gradually, the front-foot stride became firmer and more definite. The switch of weight to either foot looked more seamless.

At one point, he asked him to bowl outside the leg stump and he would tickle it down the leg side. Such an attempt was his undoing in Nagpur, when he feathered a harmless delivery to the wicket-keeper Alex Carey off Todd Murphy. Most batsmen would dismiss it as a freak dismissal, but Kohli would get into the heart of it and address the weakness. His head was wavering a bit, his legs seemed a bit imbalanced, but this instance, the head was stiller, the weight on the backfoot perfect and the glance silken as it rammed onto the army green poles, inducing a smile on his face. At the end of the session, he placed a warm hand on Saurabh and thanked the other net bowlers, before he retreated into the massage room. By the time he came out, there was a sizeable crowd at the entrance beside his car, marvelled both by the man and the machine. After he reached home, he made an Instagram story on his drive to Kotla and wrote: “A long drive towards the stadium in Delhi after ages. Such a nostalgic failing.” He spends more time in Mumbai, but Delhi is where his heart and soul are. The city that forged his ideals, the city that made him.

Perhaps, a return to home was the blanket of warmth his Test career needed. Familiar ground and faces, the venue where his journey began and dreams sprouted, a ground he averages 77 in this format, and where his friends, relatives and acquaintances would flock to watch him, Kohli might feel fresher, younger and more confident of ending his century-drought here than anywhere else. He has already arrested his barren spell in white-ball cricket, an upturn of form that has seen him blast three hundreds in seven innings. Not just the runs he scored, but he found the joy back in his batting. It could be a proverbial matter of time before the hundreds come rolling in this format. But like super-athletes do, he is not waiting for that moment to arrive but rather reaching out for the moment. It’s a fascinating battle, a champion batsman battling to reach the heights he once inhabited, biting the ego, pushing his body and spirit, just so that he could breathe the air of that rarefied space again.

In his journey are his legions of admirers. But he would know that more than anywhere else in the world, the support in Kotla would be unconditional. As those boys who hung around despite the threat of lath-wielding policemen showed.

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