Ben Jones analyses the approach of the Indian captain on the opening day of the series.
We always knew this Test was going to be defined by Virat Kohli leaving; we just didn’t think it would be in a technical sense. Yet as the opening day of this highly-awaited series got into its stride, it became clear that the Kohli who had arrived, for his one-night-only Test tour, was here to play.
Just not at anything outside off stump.
After the early loss of Prithvi Shaw, India recovered well, with Mayank Agarwal and Cheteshwar Pujara seeing off some nervy moments and solid bowling to get India to the 18th over just one wicket down. Progress had been steady – 32 runs in those 18 overs did not make for riveting viewing – but when a Pat Cummins nip-backer brought Kohli to the crease, India were in a tentatively reasonable position. The pink ball was not swinging, and Australia were by no means on a roll. A windy Adelaide afternoon had scuppered the trademark movement we associate with day-night Tests, and in its absence, a platform had been laid.
However, whereas a more impulsive version of Kohli may have seen that platform as an excuse to leap straight off with a counter-attack, he decided to build it a little higher. Of his first 25 deliveries, more than half were met with no shot at all. Some batsman draw a mental line on fifth stump and refuse to play outside of it; Kohli’s was tighter, almost in line with the off stump itself.
He took that early template, and continued with it, and while the tea break came and went, Kohli’s patience persisted. Across the course of the day in Adelaide, Kohli left 43 deliveries alone; only once in his Test career has he left more deliveries in a single day. Both were overseas, in tough conditions, bringing out a depth of patience and control for which Kohli, all skills considered, is not always known.
There were elements, in this self-restraint, of his innings at Edgbaston in 2018. Then, he denied himself and refused to play with anything like his usual intent outside off, and it saw him through. On that day, his patience was rewarded by the right to tee off later in his innings, accelerating from a steady start to entertain the Birmingham crowd.
There were also touches of that defining technical move of the 2018/19 winter, the choice to bat out of his crease. Kohli’s average impact position against the seamers on that tour was about 2.1m from his stumps, the furthest down of anyone in the series. Today, he was a touch deeper (1.95m), but still out in front compared to his teammates.
Of course, that figure can mean one of two things, either that you’re setting up out of the crease, or that you’re setting up deep and playing out in front, with hard hands. Given that Kohli didn’t score a run in ‘the V’ against the seamers all day, we can safely assume it’s the former.
That set-up, combined with his willingness to leave the ball as often as possible, gave him a tremendous amount of control. Just 10.5% of the deliveries bowled to Kohli on this opening day brought a false shot, the lowest for any batsman on show today, and well below the average of 17% that we see in Australian pink ball cricket. It was a day that demanded caution, and precision, and through denial of drives and other frivolities, Kohli was providing it.
This sense of denial permeated the Indian approach, barring a brief flurry of counter-attacking when Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane arrived from the dressing room after the dinner break; the perils of being over-eager when it comes to attacking were plain to see when Rahane sent Kohli back there.
Because today, Kohli didn’t get chance for that Edgbaston flourish when the bulk of the job had already been done, ran out by his deputy after a risky single brought mixed messages, and messy results. Attempting to steal a quick single in Test cricket is questionable at the best of times, but given the added context – the established pair, the impending new ball, Kohli’s imminent departure – it will not be quickly forgotten. Kohli had only played three false shots in the last 50 balls he faced today, as set as a batsman can hope to be against an attack of this quality,
Of course, for all the jokes and the jibes about Rahane deciding to cancel his return flight to India, and stay safely on Kohli-free shores, these things happen. It’s the nature of sport, of team sport, that in order to succeed you need others to succeed alongside you. After the dismissal of Pujara, with Australian tails up and blood sensed, Rahane faced 20 of 32 balls that took them to the break, soaking up intensity which had equally been building in the contest, scoring two runs and taking the sting out of proceedings. After the dinner break, Rahane’s attacking intent did take the pressure off Kohli, and without undue risk restored some balance to the contest, in a way that Pujara himself could not do. It took Rahane just 48 balls at the crease to record more attacking shots than the No.3 had managed in the entirety of his 160 ball stay. The aggressive, perhaps reckless mindset which saw Rahane give up India’s strong position, was in part the mindset which had taken them to that place of strength.
Kohli may have shown the belligerent, laser-focused intensity that he always does, and funnelled it into self-restraint, but the self can only do so much. Kohli has to rely on others, and often, they deliver. Occasionally – as Rahane did today – they fail him. That’s the deal.
Ultimately, the run out showed the dynamics at play in Kohli’s rather unique situation perfectly. He is a player who has a huge amount demanded of him, but he ultimately needs those around him to achieve genuine success. He trusted Rahane’s call; he was wrong to. Whether he can trust his teammates to finish this tour in his absence, we’ll have to wait and see.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.