With first Test ton since 2019, a Kohli message: His story still in the making

IND vs AUS: ON A strangely overcast day, about an hour after noon, with Virat Kohli on 99 and Nathan Lyon starting a fresh over, the clouds miraculously parted for the sun to shine over the giant bowl of the stadium. The stage was set for the world to see Virat Kohli in a better light.

Those in the higher tiers ran down the stairs for a closer view of Kohli reaching a Test hundred, the moment for which India had waited for three-and-a-half years. Fearing that the daring among the frenzied crowd might jump over the fence to give Kohli a bearhug, the security staff, with their walkie-talkies held close to their mouths, stood in attention. Close to 45,000 had opted to spend their Sunday at the Narendra Modi Stadium with the hope that Kohli, unbeaten on 59 at stumps on Saturday, would score at least 41 more runs.

He took his time but Kohli did score those runs. In the day’s second session, half-an-hour after lunch, on the second ball of Lyon’s 53rd over, he reached his hundred. His unspectacular single to square to reach his much-awaited 28th Test hundred was followed by a quiet, but emotional, celebration. A younger Kohli would have burst his lungs, strained his nerves and cursed out loud on reaching a hundred after even the slightest of criticism. At 34, he has changed. Despite losing the captaincy, endlessly trolled during his long Test hundred drought, Kohli was restrained. He raised his hands half-way, flashed a warm smile and looked under his sweat-soaked shirt for the wedding ring hanging from the chain around his neck. He would seal the celebration with a kiss on the shining band.

The crowd that came to see a Kohli 100 almost got a double ton. While anchoring India to a commanding 571, and a first-innings lead of 91, he scored 186 from 364 balls. Running out of partners and India wanting to put pressure on Australia, the Kohli marathon knock ended with a tired heave to deep mid-wicket. Before walking up the stairs, he would raise the bat to the stands and start his slow climb up to the dressing room. It was a draining and satisfying day. He hasn’t had such days recently.

In search of that elusive hundred, he had travelled the entire cricketing world — New Zealand, Australia, England, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka — and played 15 Tests at home but the highest he had scored was 82. Once perched at the top of the list of Test run-getters, the slump was making him slip from the podium. His average that was once in the mid-50s — the prerequisite to be called an all-time Test great — was now close to 48. Even his contemporaries — Aussie Steve Smith and England’s Joe Root — had raced past him. Root had crossed 10,000, Kohli was trailing him by close to 1,500 runs. In the period when Kohli had his run-block, Root had hurriedly collected 13 centuries.

Of late, Kohli seems to have made peace with his demotion and cricket’s glorious uncertainties. Late last year, he took a break from cricket where, according to him, for the first time in his life he didn’t touch the bat. On his return, he spoke about his vulnerabilities and how he had become the victim of the hype around him. He said he had subconsciously started believing in the image the marketing team created for him.

Every pre-series promotional video would have him wearing his trademark scowl and staring at the rival captain. The broadcaster would also float a cartoon series on him. They would call it “Super V”. It was about a boy with superpowers. In the world that Indian cricket created for Kohli, failing was not an option.

About his learning from the brief sabbatical, he said, “I sat and thought… and then came to the realisation that I was kind of trying to fake my intensity a bit recently.” Being on international cricket’s non-stop treadmill, the tiring effort to be intense and in-the-face had taken its toll. The break seemed to have worked. The first sign was in the World T20 game against Pakistan. In that game he would hit the match-winning hit over the boundary rope that had the gravitas to be called the second most-important six in the history of India-Pakistan rivalry.

Though he couldn’t break India’s ICC jinx and continued to struggle in Tests, he looked relaxed. There was a superstar former captain in the dressing room but there were no stories, or even gossip, of factional fights. Be it a call for a DRS or a fielding placement, Kohli could be seen advising Rohit Sharma. They would appear in videos appreciating each other.

He has been friendly with the Australians too in this series. Kohli, these days, likes to chat up the wicket-keeper and close-in fielders while batting. Even when fielding in the slips, he jokes with the batsmen. The other day, Aussie batsman Marnus Labuschagne missed a Ravindra Jadeja ball that almost took the edge. He looked at Kohli, who showed how to leave the ball. Labuschagne would give a thumbs up, Kohli smiled back.

His batting today was a study in restraint. In the first session, though the pitch didn’t have many rough spots, batting wasn’t easy. Lyon, his long-time tormentor, kept beating him with the starighter one outside off. He would also make him lunge forward and cleverly pull the length back. The ball would break and beat the bat. But Kohli survived.

From the other end, the rookie spinner Todd Murphy would target his pads with a leg-side heavy 7-2 field. The gaps were tough to find, the boundary had extra fields, the run flow was a virtual trickle. Kohli, of old, might have lost patience. He might have tried that against-the-spin cover-drive. But not now. Today he took 113 balls to score those 41 runs and reach 100. When he was in the 90s, the Aussies teased him by keeping the straight boundaries unmanned, tempting him to take the challenge, hit a six and reach the hundred. Kohli didn’t take the bait, he reached 100 with an easy single.

It can be argued that Kohli’s 186 on Ahmedabad’s dead track is not a true test of his form in red-ball cricket. Will he be able to handle James Anderson in England? Can he negotiate Lyon’s wily off-spin on a crumbling pitch at Nagpur? Only time will tell if this hundred can trigger a second wind to Kohli’s Test career. But for now, he has made an important point. Kohli, after being the totemic King Kohli for so long, has adjusted to the life of a commoner. No longer, the voice of the team, he has refused to silently fade away. The demons in his head haven’t been able to impact his muscle memory. The Kohli story is far from over.

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