Kohli attains batting nirvana
Ever so rarely, a batsman attains batting nirvana. It usually happens in perfect conditions, but while threatening to win a match not many thought could be saved, on a day-five pitch, with menacing rough staring at him, the ball turning square, other batsmen struggling, scoring 141 off 175 with hardly a false stroke, Virat Kohli batted as if in a trance.
Every ball bowled in cricket can get you out in 10 different ways, each way having its own further subsets. On the last day, after the bowlers have pounded in and the batsmen have run on the pitch, the probabilities increase. Kohli transcended all that. M Vijay played really well for his 99 given the conditions, but he kept getting beaten once in a while. He edged a few that fell short. When he felt the pressure had become too much, he played a low-percentage shot, like when he was dropped by Mitchell Marsh. In isolation, it was still a remarkable innings given the conditions and the match state. In comparison with Kohli, it was a footnote.
The way Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara played - trying to reach the pitch of Nathan Lyon's offbreaks, but not always succeeding, not always sure of how much the ball would turn - was more par for this course. Not Kohli. He was on a different plane. He later said he had reached a stage where he was just reacting to the ball. He must have been picking the trajectory earlier than others. For when he stayed back to face Lyon hardly was it ever to a flighted or full delivery. When he moved forward, he did so with decisiveness, at times using his strong, malleable wrists to counter when he did not quite reach the pitch of the ball.
Later Kohli said his first thought whenever he faced a ball was how he could send it to the boundary. That, he said, put him in a better position to defend if need be. "If I was trying to defend already, I am giving the bowler a chance before I play the ball."
If Kohli hadn't thought that way, he wouldn't have been able to play the shot he played in the 80th over of the chase. India had just lost three wickets for 35 runs. Lyon was on fire. Every ball was exploding from the rough. India still needed 80 runs in 19 overs, with five wickets - four of them unreliable tail-enders - in hand. Kohli just reacted to this ball. He stretched forward, wasn't quite near the pitch of the ball, but used his wrists to drive it powerfully, all along the ground, past extra cover for four. If you look at the replays, you will notice a puff of dust where the ball pitched, and irregular bounce. Kohli may as well have been meditating.
This was the "zone" batsmen talk of, when conditions, match state, batting partners, bowlers don't matter. You just watch the ball, and react to it. No premeditation, not an eye on the future. In Lyon's next over, Kohli pressed forward again, and found out he couldn't have played a forceful shot. Then he brought out the strong wrists to keep the ball down as he defended. No other batsman looked as comfortable on this pitch.
All through the day, Kohli had just reacted to the ball. The draw forgotten, not thought much of the win, although it had always been the target as opposed to the draw, he said. It's easier said than done. He was captaining in his first Test. In Australia. He had been hit on the helmet the first ball he faced. They treated him a little patronisingly, he would have thought, by checking on him as if on a kid in an adults' game. He had reacted a bit like a kid with his in-your-face celebrations during Australia's second innings. Then he walked out at 2 for 57 with the ball playing all sorts of tricks. To have an empty mind then is some achievement.
Everything Kohli did since walking out, having waited his turn sitting in the dugout and not in the pavilion, was near perfect. Not to be missed is an addition to his game to counter what was threatening bowling. When Australia came to India in 2012-13, their bowling wasn't threatening. In facing 275 balls of spin, in scoring 179 runs, Kohli played a grand total of zero sweeps. On the final day he took 20 runs with the sweep, off 10 balls, pushing Lyon off his plans, getting outside the line of off every time and keeping every connection down. The only time he missed while being in line with the stumps was when Lyon went round the wicket, but Kohli's aggressive intent had meant such experimentation happened only after he had already reached 85.
When those watching you feel you can do anything you want with the bat, imagine the confidence the batsman must have. Accordingly, Kohli said he always felt India could complete this improbable chase. Even with the tail, he said, he felt he could do this. When he batted, the gaps just spread. When he hit, the ball almost always found the sweet part. When he defended, the ball didn't pop up.
And then, Kohli made one minor mistake. Possibly that pull was off a ball not short enough. Possibly the ball stopped on him a touch. He mis-hit, and saw it fly straight to deep midwicket. Marsh misjudged this one. The ball began to drop with Marsh out of position. As the ball proceeded on its downward flight, with Marsh trying to get even lower so as to catch it with fingers pointing up, Kohli became hopeful. You could see it on his face. When Marsh somehow held on to the catch, inches from the ground, the spirit left Kohli. He was hunched over his bat. He waited for a few seconds before walking off. Possibly a tear escaped his eye. Possibly we imagined it.
How much it meant to Kohli was for all to see. After five days of an emotional ride that yo-yoed madly, having become the only man since Greg Chappell to score two centuries on captaincy debut and the first visiting batsman since 1961 to have scored two centuries in a Test in Australia, having brought India so close, Kohli watched the rest capitulate. Later, when Channel 9 interviewed various Australian players, Kohli serenely stood, all alone, waiting for about 10 minutes for the presentation to begin.
Kohli said he was proud of the way his team played, proud of the fact that they lost going for the win not while shutting shop. He took the sole responsibility for selecting debutant legspinner Karn Sharma over offspinner R Ashwin, and defended the move. Without even being asked about it, he said Australia were way better at grabbing their chances, and overall "much better".
Looking at some of his celebrations on day four, you would have thought Kohli had some growing up to do. Not so much when you saw him attain batting nirvana on the final day. Or how he, a 26-year-old, nearly shepherded home others, many older than him, under extreme pressure. Or with the grace he displayed after what must be one of the most agonising and gut-wrenching defeats of his career.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo