Virat Kohli, soul provider of India's batting
Virat Kohli has made a little pre-ball routine his own. Before facing up, he stands upright in the crease, holds the bat upwards and twirls it clockwise in quick motion. No gardening, no adjusting gear, no fidgeting around the crease. And then he is ready, standing as tall as possible, feet apart, bat raised to the stump level. It's the build-up of a warrior: everything about it radiates intent.
On the field, his passion sometimes gets the better of him. He must be a part of every piece of action, he must have the last word in every confrontation. He appeals for leg-before from cover, and drops a lot of catches in the slips - perhaps he has too much of nervous energy to field there.
But batting focuses his rage. His movements are fluid, precise, and for a batsman so wristy, the bat swing has no exaggeration. His eyes aren't burning, they are almost looking inwards. He doesn't mind a chat and he lets it rip upon reaching a landmark, or after pulling off yet another chase, but while batting, all his energy and all his emotions are channeled into that fateful meeting with the ball. When things are aligned for him, he is a magical, irresistible force.
And what a difference a few months can make. As the English summer wore on earlier this year, it seemed that the English seamers, led by James Anderson, had only to put the ball in the channel around the off stump to get him to nick on the off. It was in Australia in 2011, when the grandest of Indian batsmen collectively slumped into terminal decline, that Kohli announced himself as an emerging talent in Test cricket. Now back as the lone survivor from that top order and as the leader of a young batting group, he has owned the stage. Something would have to go horribly amiss for him to not be placed alongside the greats he has succeeded when he finishes his career. But on this tour, he has already managed to achieve what none of them did: three Test hundreds in a series in Australia. And three innings remain still.
Many Australian commentators have described his second hundred in Adelaide as the finest fourth-innings performance they have seen on these shores. And his hundred at the MCG on Sunday must rank among the finest by an Indian batsman chasing such a tall first-innings score. His 262-run partnership with Ajinkya Rahane was reminiscent of a similar effort from Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman in Adelaide in 2003. Dravid and Laxman came together when India's situation was more dire, and the partnership became even more memorable because it led to an unexpected and unforgettable win. While building that partnership, however, Dravid and Laxman's sole focus was to keep India in the game. The thought of a win was remote.
What set this partnership apart was the charge it contained. R Ashwin's claim last evening that India were going for 650 had seemed both fanciful and boastful. But it was perhaps reflective of the outlook of this bunch of players. At no point during the last day in Adelaide did they abandon the quest for victory and throughout this innings, the tempo has been dictated by the desire not merely to get close to the Australian score or surpass it, but also to gain time to be able to force a win that will keep them in the series.
And no one has personified that resolve with more intensity than Kohli. In Brisbane, the second-innings collapse began when Kohli was dismissed - he was forced to bat first up in the morning after Shikhar Dhawan pulled out in the final minutes leading up to play. Here, he entered at the third ball, after an airy waft from Cheteshwar Pujara, and punched three fours within five overs, leaning forward on each occasion and driving on the off side.
He has made adjustments to his stance after his horror run in England. He now stands closer to the off stump, which brings him in line with the imaginary fourth stump when he shapes to play, and today he stood outside the crease to most Australian quicks to make their good length his driving length. Barring one edge that Shane Watson grassed in the slips, his judgement of both line and length, and the driveable ball was faultless.
But playing against Mitchell Johnson, with whom he had a war of words all day, it was never going to be merely about the drive. Throughout last summer, Johnson pinned his victims back by aiming at their throat and not a single England batsman found a counter. Kohli and Rahane dismantled him breathtakingly because they refused to be either bullied or quietened by the short ball. Every bouncer was treated as an opportunity to score and, even when they were not being hit to the fence, the deliveries were being tapped down for singles. M Vijay was hit on the side of the head this morning, but these Indian batsmen have let Johnson know, through words followed by action, that he holds no terror for them. That is the first, and a major, battle won.
By the end of the day, they were the ones bullying Johnson. With the second new ball just nine overs old, and the field set for the bouncer trap, Kohli produced three consecutive pull shots that evaded three fielders stationed to swallow them. They were all played in the air, but none without control, and each went where it was intended to go. And when Johnson threw one up on off stump, that, too, went through the covers for three. In the following over, Rahane simply dismissed Johnson with disdain, opening his stance and carting him wherever he wished. Three Johnson overs produced 31 runs in that spell and, at that stage, India were not merely running Australia ragged, they were simply doing as they pleased. Johnson's 20 overs cost 109 runs today, and Kohli rampaged 68 of them off 73 balls. And he still dished them out to him at the press conference.
India are still behind in this match because once again their lower order has been no match for Australia and, since they are to bat last here, it is possible for them to fall behind 3-0 on day five. But, barring the collapse in Brisbane, this young Indian top-order has already won hearts and admiration. And Kohli has provided it soul, charge and substance. Last time, India went home from Australia despondent. Irrespective of how the series ends, this team will go home with promise. And Kohli with his reputation not merely restored, but considerably enhanced.
Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo. @sambitbal