Kohli shows he belongs in Tests
Twelve years ago, on a similarly gloomy tour of Australia, a 25-year-old Indian found acceptance in Test cricket, and a love affair with Australia. He had played 16 Tests in more than four years before that, not in his usual position, and with the axe hanging forever over his head. In the final Test of that series, in Sydney, the man unleashed a whole array of drives and flicks, and scored 167 off 198 balls out of a total of 261, and in a defeat by an innings and 141 runs.
The man found acceptance the hard way. He scored a match-winning second-innings fifty in his first Test, batting at No. 6, but would be forced to open the innings soon, would play one Test here, one there, and would be dropped often. That man, VVS Laxman, now at the fag end of a legendary career full of match-turning innings that defied all logic, should most empathise with Virat Kohli's reaction at finally getting to a Test hundred, the only Indian to do so in this Test series.
Kohli has not had an initiation as tough as Laxman's, but we have been quick to write him off as a Test player. He has had other avenues in cricket that made him a superstar in his own right even before he started playing Test cricket. He had won a World Cup before his Test debut, had scored eight ODI centuries, and was the face of an IPL team owned by a multi-millionaire.
All that took us away from the struggles and desperation of the 23-year-old. Test cricket was neither his livelihood nor the end of his world, we thought. He played three Tests in the West Indies, and was dropped. At home, he scored twin fifties against the same opposition, and was brought to Australia as the No. 6. One failure, and the natural reaction was to ask for his head, and dismiss him as just a one-day specialist.
In perhaps the only sensible captaincy-slash-selection move on this tour, India stuck with Kohli. Then he scored 44 in the first innings at the WACA, the top score in yet another abysmal innings, and poured his heart out in a press conference. Suppressing a lump he said he couldn't figure out why people were after him.
Even today Kohli said the pressure had got to him. "After Sydney it was very bad," he said. "I was not in a good mental space after Sydney. And no one did anything. I was just putting myself under pressure. People are going to write things if you don't do well. If you concentrate on that you are going to put yourself under a lot of pressure.
"And after Sydney I went to Perth, everyday I kept telling myself I have done really well in one-day cricket, that's international cricket as well. I have scored eight centuries, I kept telling myself. Started really believing in myself once again, and neglecting all the other pressure." Kohli, like Laxman all those years ago, was fighting to get accepted.
And fight Kohli has. In the second innings at the WACA he got into a position where he would have thought of a century, but was left stranded on 75, with three tailenders falling in the same over. Perth earned him an approval that doesn't come easy - Richie Benaud's.
Adelaide is now the third Indian innings in a row that Kohli has top-scored in. It's not just the numbers, though. It's the clarity he has played with that stands out. It's the clarity that has deserted the veterans of the side on this tour, barring at times Sachin Tendulkar. The shots were crisp, the leaves better. The flick to the left of square leg worked like Laxman's. He dominated the lesser bowlers as Australia waited for the new ball. For the first time in this series, Kohli put together a session where an Indian wicket didn't look around the corner.
Australia have apply pressure through tight lines all series, but they have got away with loose deliveries too because the batsmen have been put in too tentative a mindset to capitalise. With Kohli today, almost every loose ball was punished. He got those loose balls because he had withstood the early seam bowling. The pulled six off Michael Clarke's not-short-enough delivery was perhaps the most positive an Indian batsman has been through the series.
A little too late in the day perhaps, but it did get to Australia. They looked a bit flustered. It made you wonder if there might have been a better fight if more Indian batsmen had played with clarity sooner in the series.
You couldn't take your eye off Kohli in the 90s, with the tail, barring Ishant Sharma, refusing to hang around. This was all too similar to Perth. Two of them fell in two balls. He was on 91. Not again, he thought. Somehow Ishant saw through an over, and in the next Kohli pulled off shots, and reached 99. Then came the near run-out, and verbals from Australia. It was a small win for Kohli; he had got them out of their comfort zone.
It was high drama. Then Kohli got to the century, and found release. Kohli's celebration wasn't the way Laxman celebrated, but there was the same relief of a man who thought he belonged after he had been made to feel unwanted. Of a man whose place was threatened by Rohit Sharma several times this series. The overriding thought remains that if Kohli had been denied an opportunity to make a Laxman-like century in Australia, it would have been due to India's insistence on playing Laxman.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo