India's gritty boys
Saturday in Nagpur was not a big test of skill. It was a slow and low pitch that it was difficult to get out on, which - if you look at it in isolation and as a neutral - has provided drab cricket. This was a different kind of test for two different kinds of men in two different kinds of predicaments. You can look at MS Dhoni's face when he is walking back, and not tell whether he has won a game or lost it, or even tied it. But turn to Virat Kohli and there is a full match report written on it. They have both been copping it of late, and not entirely unfairly.
Dhoni has led India to nine defeats in the last 10 Tests he has played against Australia and England. Any captain will be questioned after that, but the way it has been handled isn't been ideal. First we got the impression the selectors didn't want to touch him, then when they became former selectors they alleged they couldn't touch him because of the BCCI president's backing. All that in the lead-up to a Test India need to save to avoid a first home series defeat in close to nine years.
Kohli, the man most likely to replace Dhoni as captain whenever he is replaced, had gone through a perplexing series until today. One of the best traits of his batting is that he doesn't gift you his wicket. In this series, though, he had been playing loose shots. It was tempting to think Test cricket was getting to him, but that couldn't have been the case. Just before the series started, in a tricky but successful chase against New Zealand in Bangalore, he faced 15 dots before scoring a run under immense pressure from a good attack under overcast skies.
Lesser batsmen have been known to throw it away at such times, looking for release from that pressure. Suresh Raina did so with a shot that might have ended his Test career (maybe not, for you never know with Indian cricket). Kohli, though, showed no emotion or itch. He waited and waited before a ball arrived that deserved to be scored off, and came back with an unbeaten fifty and a Test won. Incidentally, his partner then was Dhoni.
Kohli is too good a batsman to keep getting out the way he has been, playing nothing shots outside off. It isn't the bottle or the technique that he has been lacking. Whatever it was, those who had not followed his efforts in Perth, Adelaide and Bangalore were questioning him, and his scores deserved those questions.
A current captain and a future captain were both losing trust, and they needed to do something about it. Okay so this was not a test of their pure batting skills, but it was a test of temperament, of patience, of mental and physical energy, and most importantly of staying in the present. Don't think of the past. Shut out Jimmy Amarnath, Sachin Tendulkar's wicket, the loose shots outside off. Don't think of the future. Shut out the ticking clock because this is not a pitch where you can score quick runs, and starting at 87 for 4 you can only cause damage by thinking of whether you will have enough time to force a result. Also forget that one of you plays possibly the best cover-drive in the world, and the other has never faced more than 187 balls in a Test innings.
The biggest target for India on day three was to end in a position where they could make use of it should the pitch break up and start turning. Had India trailed by 100 on first innings, which looked quite likely at the start of the day, no amount of turn would have helped them. Alternatively if the pitch doesn't break up, quick runs won't help anyway.
Dhoni and Kohli showed that if you just put your mind to defending, it's too difficult for a bowler to get a wicket. They just batted. Defend, defend, defend, sneak a single here, convert two into three there. And boy did they run? It wasn't pretty. This pitch isn't made for pretty. India need the unpretty. Batting like millionaires hasn't been working; they need to bat like paupers for a bit.
For a long period, it didn't seem even the centuries mattered to them. Kohli reached 90 in the 109th over and the hundred in the 115th. In between he hit Dhoni's bat with a straight drive, which cost him four runs. That was the only time his expressive face showed any sign of anxiety. Dhoni reached 90 in the 113th over and was run out for 99 in the 130th, but until that run-out you would have thought he was batting in the 30s.
Perhaps it was the non-expressive Dhoni face that led you to believe the hundred didn't matter. Perhaps it didn't matter. Perhaps Dhoni thought that was a normal run: remember he had to run slightly around James Anderson, and still he had reached the line when the stumps were hit.
Whatever the case may be, the two had fallen at crucial moments. From a position where they could have gone after quick runs on the fourth morning, they had been reduced to a situation where being bowled out is the best thing that can happen to them. As has been happening over the last 18 months - Raina bowling in the middle session on day four at Lord's, the hat-trick at Trent Bridge, the wickets of Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid either side of stumps at the MCG - India had come second-best in a critical phase once again. A side that has been losing a lot of its talent can't afford that.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo