The timeless human drama of Edgbaston 2018
In the end, a fine cricket match was won by the better team. By no means was it as simple or linear as that but the facts are worth a moment's reflection. Moving swiftly on, Edgbaston 2018 will be forever remembered for high drama, ongoing uncertainty, Virat Kohli, and England's escape from the catalogue of mistakes that interspersed the otherwise effective and interesting cricket they played.
Not until the denouement could we be sure of the victors - indeed, the question "Who's winning?" was asked even more often than "Why isn't there a third man?" - though only just. Exponentially, it appeared to be Kohli's match, wresting it as he was from Sam Curran's eager young arms. But at 11.47 this Saturday morning Ben Stokes trapped him in front of the stumps he had protected so vigorously and successfully since he first arrived at the wicket during the first session of play on Thursday. It is reasonable to say that over the 200 runs he made in the match, he played at a level that made those around him appear pusillanimous. It is as if Kohli is Jason Bourne - the result of his efforts is predictable but the journey there is not to be missed!
Not for the first time, Edgbaston provided an interesting pitch. Marking it, the match referee, Jeff Crowe, will have to decide where the balance lay between bat and ball. Only when those scales are balanced perfectly can the judgement be raised from good to excellent; given this one marginally favoured bowlers, Crowe will probably have to settle for a mark a little less extravagant than much of the contest itself. And by heaven, the contest was extravagant; eccentric even, as 21 of the 22 players were seemingly unable to believe it was there for the taking.
Perhaps the pitch was the reason and only Kohli was able to transcend it. He understood its moods and, therefore, that boundaries could be struck with élan equivalent to the ease with which the ball so frequently passed the bat. To illustrate this, Curran finished an over bowled by R Ashwin with a six and a four, only to miss every single delivery of the next over, bowled by Umesh Yadav. Indeed, the most relevant feature of Kohli's two innings was his ability to put the previous ball behind him, whatever had happened to it. In summary, it was a darn good pitch, but one that could not quite be trusted, suggesting as it did both Elysian field and dystopia.
From 216 for 3 on the first day - the result of a sublime 104-run partnership between Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow; Elysian moments then for sure - England really should have put the match to bed. But Kohli's first Bourne move - the chase, fetch and deadly throw - stunned the crowd and, more specifically, the England captain, who left the field in high dudgeon and low spirit. The collapse that followed served as a reminder that his team's batting inconsistencies of late lived on, and that those who play against England are never out of the game.
Thus we were hurried along to the potentially defining match-up between Kohli, bat in hand, and James Anderson, swing and seam at the ready. Life on Mars knew the history, now two magnificent cricketers - warriors both - looked to update it. Anderson pitched up, Kohli moved forward; Anderson dropped back a yard, Kohli angled to third man; Anderson pitched up, Kohli played and missed; Anderson went straighter, Kohli worked off his hip; Anderson over-pitched a fraction, Kohli drove - thus a rhythm evolved and not a single person on the ground could take their eye from it.
Then Anderson pitched full and the ball nipped a little, Kohli went with it, fatally, and the edge flew nicely at shin height to second slip where Dawid Malan let it slip to the ground beneath. Immediately, Malan wished that same ground would swallow him up. Kohli had 21 at the time. Thirty Kohli runs later, Malan dropped him again - a hard chance away to his upper right side. But it was the 21-er that messed with minds - Anderson's and Malan's, that is - and gave Kohli the lifeline of all lifelines. Had the catch been held, Anderson would have simply been continuing the persecution of four years ago, and Kohli, whatever the denial, would have known it.
It was a surprise to hear the Indian captain call it his second best innings, after Adelaide in 2014, where he almost beat Australia single-handedly too. Then he carried all before him; here at Edgbaston it took him until passing a hundred to become truly fluent. We must suppose that the sheer satisfaction of resisting England's lively and accurate four-pronged pace attack, while at the same time keeping his team firmly in the match, meant more than the aesthetics.
In the aftermath he was asked if the feeling was bittersweet but he could see no sweet. It's the winning that counts. He gave England credit for the relentless nature of their attack and the clinical finish. He inferred his batsmen had better learn quickly from some obvious shortcomings.
He also, like Root after him, talked about the joy of the match and the theatre that came with it. Yes, there was ebb and flow, hill and valley, good and bad, smart and daft, painful and painless, but above all of it stood the human conflict that hooked a global audience and prompted text, email and social-media exchanges the like of which could never be seen in the shorter forms of cricket that don't allow for an experience of such breadth and depth.
Such Test matches sustain cricket's appeal on its highest plane and make one wonder why it is not always so. Of course the matches are not all like this one, nor the pitches. Time after time we are reminded of the need for bat and ball to live in respect of one another and players to have the courage to extend their reach beyond the routine or humdrum.
Root, by the way, was ecstatic. Still finding his captaincy legs, he must have worried that England's careless - nay, artless - batting was to cost them the start to the series they so desperately wanted. Happily, he said he slept well last night - "Rather better than the night before actually!" He then heaped praise upon his bowlers, said the pitch was very good, and that the general standard of batting did not always reflect as much. No kidding. At 87 for 7 two balls after lunch on Friday, and just 100 ahead, he probably figured his team was doomed. After which, Curran briefly became Sobers and raced to 50 in the most marvellous style. Suddenly Root had a lifeline of his own.
Having studied the way in which Kohli had moved his fielders during England's second innings as if they were chess pieces, he went about setting right the wrongs of the first innings - a third man, bejesus! - and cleverly dried up the Indian stroke-makers, whose discomfort was soon evident. Each ball of the chase was as riveting as the last, each burst of triumphant activity from one side prompted tones of despair from the other. Supporters, attached and unattached, journalists, administrators, former players of both these great lands, and two dressing rooms lurched from ecstasy to agony and back again, bounced around as if in a pinball machine and laughing nervously at their predicament in the manner that "nervocited" people do.
There were two Root master strokes: one, the change from Anderson to Stokes at exactly the right moment - bang, Kohli gone; bang once more as Mohammed Shami the same - then the call-up to Adil Rashid, who trapped the obstinate Ishant Sharma in front of all three. Eureka, Joe, eureka.
Finally, fittingly, fascinatingly, Stokes steamed in to the bubbling Hardik Pandya and let fly a delivery that fairly sped from the edge of the bat to Alastair Cook at first slip. Cook grabbed safely and stayed calm in his relief. Everyone else went off the rails. England had won by 31 and Edgbaston had matched many of its previous thrillers with a modern-day spectacular. For the neutral, it was shame to talk of a winner and loser. Kohli had spoken for the partisan Indian, Stokes for the nationalistic local response that greeted the final wicket and completed victory. He now takes a rest from one stage and must attend another, less appealing. We cross our fingers for him.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK