Kohli fights the ego in final climb to greatness

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By Nagraj Gollapudi at Edgbaston

Virat Kohli walked to the middle at Edgbaston to the sound of boos. Quickly he took guard. The bowler was already waiting for him. Anderson. James Anderson.

Three slips and gully waited for the edge. Anderson ran in. The first ball was 83.6mph. Kohli left it alone. It would be the first of many that he would leave alone, and many of those not of his own volition. Anderson was that sharp. That hungry. That cunning.

For the next two-and-a-half hours the battle between the two men, broken at the beginning by the lunch break, lived up to its billing. If you were to remove the bias towards the player and the country of allegiance, the combat between Anderson and Kohli was one of the best spectacles witnessed in Test cricket.

Test cricket has enjoyed many such battles: Flintoff against Ponting, Lee against Pietersen, Steyn against Tendulkar, Akhtar against Hayden, McGrath against all the best batsmen in modern Test cricket. These are all consuming bouts, part Test cricket’s hall of fame. They draw you in ball by ball, over by over, session by session.

The crowd becomes a part of the contest, too. There is pin drop silence for a moment. Next moment the batsman edges and the home fans erupt, just like the Edgbaston faithful each time Anderson beat Kohli’s outside edge and inside edge.

Those emotions reflected the gripping contest in the middle. And the best part came in the first hour after lunch. Anderson had bowled nine overs pre-lunch. Kohli could barely lay his bat on the ball. But Kohli had a plan. Unlike four summers ago where he was laid bare by Anderson, Kohli this time stood out of the crease.

He had used that method successfully on the 2014-15 tour of Australia, but here in England the reasons for standing out of the crease are clearly different. Part of the plan was to negate the swing. With Kohli’s desire to stay aggressive at all times initially you also felt that by standing a bit in front of the crease he could meet the ball early.

However, it also made him vulnerable as Kohli found out facing the first ball of the second over he received from Anderson. It was an away swinger. Kohli went for the drive. The outside edge flew to the left of Jos Buttler at gully. Anderson leaped with both hands in the air like a long jumper at the end of his stride. The ball did not quite carry to Buttler, but touched the fingertips of his outstretched left hand.

Then off the second ball of the first over he bowled after lunch Anderson swung it away, once again from the fifth or sixth stump. Kohli went feeling for the ball. The outside edge fell short off Jonny Bairstow behind the stumps. A wave of emotion swelled in the stands. The next ball was a short-of-length delivery, which Kohli played with soft hands off the outer edge off the top shoulder of his bat. The crowd clapped at his quick response.

But Anderson would not leave Kohli alone. An old man (in fast bowling terms) he might be – turning 36 three days ago – but like a good fisherman he dangled the bait and stayed calm, waiting for Kohli to bite. Kohli almost did. Anderson kept pitching on the same spot, maintaining the same sixth stump line, allowing no space for Kohli to escape, allowing not even a single freebie.

James Anderson troubled Kohli early on

Eventually Kohli fell into the trap. He edged a delivery that once again shaped away. The ball was travelling straight to Dawid Malan at second slip. Anderson was already mid-leap, waiting for Malan to clasp the gift. But he spilled the ball. Anderson bent into two, placing his hands on the two creaking knees, hiding all that pain. The English fans let out a loud grimace. It was the final ball of Anderson’s spell – 15 overs broken only by Adil Rashid’s single over before lunch.

Kohli placed his bat leaning on to his left leg and put his gloved hands clasped behind his back. This move he did frequently between balls to calm him down.

That one hour after lunch was the most breathtaking one of the day. Kohli was attacked by Anderson and Ben Stokes. It was also the hour when the cloud cover was prevalent. England becomes a difficult place to bat when it’s overcast. Kohli was not ashamed at being beaten, at not being fluent.

Remember the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, where the former took heavy, sinking blows to his body before telling the world never ever to call him an underdog? The duel between Kohli and Anderson was similar. The runs were not coming for Kohli. Anderson had once again left him exposed. Yet, remarkably, Kohli did not once show the urge to play aggressively to force Anderson to change the line. Kohli somehow manage to take the ego out of the contest.

As India’s batting coach Sanjay Bangar said, the beauty about Kohli’s batting is its vividness. The strength that Kohli possesses, Bangar pointed out, is being flexible in his mind. That helps him stay one step ahead of the opponent, allows him to defeat all the plans of the opposition. And then dominate.

That is what Kohli did. And not in the company of the specialist batsmen, the last of whom, R Ashwin, departed with India still 122 runs behind. From there on, Kohli scored 92 runs from 116 balls while the three tailenders scored just eight runs from 37 balls. Malan had dropped Kohli, once again in the slips, this time off Stokes, when he chased a fuller length delivery angled wide. But Kohli did not let that hurt his progress.

Batting with the tail allowed Kohli to switch on ODI mode, as if he were chasing a target. He knew the gaps, the areas to score, the bowler to attack. By the time Anderson returned for another burst of six overs, Kohli was in a more confident frame of mind. When Anderson pitched short of length, Kohli finally played the cut for the first time in the day and collected two. When Sam Curran bowled full next over, Kohli flicked to the left of the midwicket fielder to earn an easy four. Next delivery, he would hop and steer another boundary, leaving England captain Joe Root anguished.

The hundred now felt inevitable – if he didn’t run out of partners. Of the various emotions Kohli put on display as he reached his maiden Test century in England, one was revealing. Kohli pointed his index finger to his head looking towards the dressing room. To keep his head when Anderson had flattened his ego. To keep his head when his partners were finding ways to get out. To keep his head when has just the tail to bat with, in the face of a growing deficit.

One question that will be asked would be: who between Kohli and Anderson was the winner? Both. Both men strived. They set up a contest that has already made this Test and possibly the rest of the series engrossing.

If this innings were to be a journey in his life, Kohli evolved a little. He became humble. He became a better Test batsman. En route he scored one of the great centuries in Test cricket.

In the end, Virat Kohli walked out head high, with Root and his men joining the standing ovation. (ESPNCricinfo)

 

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