Mental toughness guides Virat Kohli
On the surface, there were similarities between the two. One was playing his third Test, the other his fourth. Both had won Test honours largely as a result of eye-catching displays in one-day colours. But while R Ashwin - who sat out the World Cup final - had taken to Test cricket with élan, picking up 18 wickets, Virat Kohli's arrival at the crease was effectively an audition for next month's tour of Australia.
Kohli has fond memories of this ground, having played a crucial cameo in the World Cup final. But in the Test arena, he has yet to find his footing. A debut series in the West Indies that produced just 75 runs in five innings had the critics carping, and he had no part to play in the debacle that subsequently unfolded in England.
Both he and Ashwin starred in the one-day successes against England, but only one man was a certain starter in this Test series. While Kohli watched Yuvraj Singh fluff his lines in Delhi and Kolkata, Ashwin was ensuring that he would be one of the first names written down for the Australian touring party.
With Rohit Sharma in the squad for this game and Ajinkya Rahane also in the reckoning, Kohli knew that failure was not an option. "When I came into the team, we had this team meeting with someone new in the team giving a speech," he said after a fourth day during which his 52 and a 97-run partnership with Ashwin saved India from the ignominy of the follow-on. "They made me do that again. I said that my first series was a disappointment and hopefully I can get things right this time around.
"I was in a good mental space before this series. I got runs against England, but it is a totally different ball game - Test cricket. It was difficult for me because I was thinking too many things. I put myself under pressure in the West Indies, thinking too many things, not sure what I wanted to do."
The cat-on-hot-tin-roof feeling was apparent again at times today, and in stark contrast to the nonchalance with which Ashwin went about his business. "He came out and started playing shots," said Kohli with the merest hint of a smile. "I am standing at one end trying to handle pressure, trying to get the situation right, and he gets five fours in 10 balls. He was pretty relaxed and confident because of what he'd done with the ball.
"It was good he was in that kind of space. He came out and timed the ball well. It was good to have him scoring from one end. I could bat myself in and spend more time in the middle. It was a very good innings."
His own innings had started in Sachin Tendulkar's company, with a large crowd throbbing with excitement at the prospect of history being made. Within the hour though, expectancy had given way to anxiety. "It's not an easy position [No. 6] to bat in Tests," said Kohli. "When I went in, I was playing with a set batsman. As soon as two batsmen got out, I had to be the one to play with lower-order batsmen. It was a complete transition in half hour."
The partnership with Tendulkar was brief, but he apparently had a big influence in the way Kohli approached this game. "I spoke to Sachin, and he told me to do the same things I do normally, on any given day," he said. "I went in a difficult situation in the morning, but I cherish playing under pressure."
With Ashwin playing the aggressor's role, Kohli could ease his way into proceedings, and he got as far as 52 before a miscue to mid-on off Devendra Bishoo. "Definitely, the way I was going, the way the situation was, it was the perfect scenario for me to get a big score," he said. "I wanted to go with the turn, but did not get too much elevation. I middled the ball but it went it straight to the fielder."
The biggest challenges had come much earlier, with the West Indies bowlers targeting a perceived weakness against short-pitched bowling. "I was tagged as someone who cannot play the short ball after West Indies, so when I went in, I knew they were going to throw short balls at me," he said. "I am more of a mindset player. I need to be in the right frame of mind. Today was one of those days when I thought that it didn't matter if they bowled short. I was going to get a full stride out. I had a blank mind before playing every ball - that kind of helped. It's all a menta -toughness game out there."
Lessons have been imbibed from a dressing room that knows a thing or two about toughness. "I never thought I would even get to meet these people face to face," said Kohli. "Now I'm sharing the dressing room. You learn so many things from them, especially in practice sessions. They will take a certain number of catches every day, they will hit certain amount of balls. It's not something they are complacent about. That's what makes them great players."
For India to pull off an unlikely victory on Saturday, they need wickets to fall in a heap in the morning. "Our aim was to get early breakthroughs, which we did," said Kohli. "We would have loved to have them four wickets down, but it did not happen. Tomorrow could be interesting if we could get early wickets and may be get one-and-a-half sessions to bat."
He batted over a session today and may just have sealed a spot for himself in the Boxing Day Test. On a day when Ashwin stole the limelight from everyone, Kohli's understated impact could have similar long-term ramifications for a side in transition.