<
>

Kohli insures five-bowler strategy with determined ton

play
Manjrekar: A stroll in the park for Kohli (1:03)

The ease with with Virat Kohli scored runs was the most striking aspect on his innings, similar to Sachin Tendulkar in his early days (1:03)

Four wickets down, 302 on the board. An excellent first day for a batting side, by almost any measure. Almost. India's number six was R Ashwin, a man who has played 32 Test matches, a man with undoubted batting talent, but also a man who had never batted anywhere in the top six before, and had batted at seven only twice. On Thursday, Ashwin walked in at 236 for 4, a far less secure situation than 302 for 4.

At the other end was Virat Kohli, batting on 99.

Kohli had just watched Ajinkya Rahane fall against the run of play to a long hop. Not too long before that, in the final over before tea, he had watched Shikhar Dhawan, who had curbed his instincts for four hours to score 84, fall to a high-risk shot: a sweep played to a ball pitched on middle stump, by a legspinner. Deliveries from legspinners pitching on middle stump often straighten to hit middle stump, or, as in Dhawan's case, the front pad. And just after lunch, Kohli had walked into the middle after Cheteshwar Pujara had got himself out to another long hop.

Three wickets carelessly given away, three wickets given away against the run of play, two of them close to breaks in play.

On the eve of the match, Kohli had spoken about the need to guard against that sort of thing.

"We have discussed this quite a lot, since the [2014-15] tour of Australia. We have felt the breaks - lunch break, tea break, drinks break - we tend to lose a lot of wickets around this time. It's a matter of experience. We were losing our concentration, and not realising how important those moments are in a Test match."

He had also spoken about India identifying the need to attack the opposition in the first Test of a series, and to play their best possible bowling combination in order to do so. He had backed his words in the most comprehensive way possible. Kohli's India had played five bowlers before, but one of them was usually an allrounder such as Stuart Binny or Ravindra Jadeja. Now neither was in the side, and the five bowlers were five bowlers.

This was why Ashwin was batting at No. 6. And he came in as early as he did because of three soft dismissals, two of them close to breaks, two of them watched from 22 yards away by the very person who had spoken of the need to avoid such lapses.

They had committed those lapses against a team that had seemed set for two days on the field, a team with one genuine fast bowler, one genuine spinner, and two 128 kph workhorses who were in the side in large part for their batting ability. It was a bowling attack of a team that seemed bent on drawing the Test before a ball had been bowled. Given the resources available to them - the one other fast bowler in their squad, Miguel Cummins, was yet to make his Test debut - it may even have been a prudent selection.

Shannon Gabriel, the one genuine fast bowler in the West Indies XI, had begun the day by removing one of India's openers in a nasty spell of short-pitched bowling. But that spell had only lasted four overs, and his next spell, close to lunch, only three. Every time he went out of the attack, the threat to India's batsmen dwindled visibly.

And so, when the third-wicket partnership between Dhawan and Kohli passed the 100 mark, West Indies almost seemed resigned to conceding 500. And yet, somehow, India slipped to 236 for 4.

For once, it was hard to read displeasure in Kohli's body language. He probably felt it. But all he could do was carry on batting. Just as he had done till then.

When Kohli came to the crease, India were 74 for 2 in 27.4 overs. They were going at less than three runs an over. Carlos Brathwaite, bowling wide of off stump and testing India's patience, had figures of 6-2-6-0, because Dhawan and Pujara had been as patient as the tactic demanded, with an early wicket down and the ball still new.

The first time Brathwaite bowled that line to Kohli, he took a long stride out, reached for the ball, and drove him into the covers for three. He was batting on 26, but he had done the same thing against Jason Holder, West Indies' other run-drying workhorse, when he had been batting on 0.

This need to feel bat on ball has been Kohli's weakness in conditions where the ball moves around, but here, with the sun out, the ball shorn of its shine, and against friendly medium-paced bowling, he probably reckoned it was a risk worth taking.

It proved to be so, and the reward was a strike rate that rattled along in the 70s. Twice - once off Gabriel when on 19, and then off Brathwaite when on 37 - he reached out and sliced the ball dangerously wide of gully. But those were the only false steps in an innings where he achieved a 94% control rate.

It was an approach that probably only Kohli among India's batsmen could have taken, for he has consistently shown across formats an ability to make risky shots look mundane during his ongoing, and seemingly endless, run of form. Take this shot he played against Devendra Bishoo when on 83. A well-flighted delivery, landing on a length that forced Kohli into a big front-foot stretch. It pitched on off stump, and Kohli flicked it between midwicket and mid-on. It wasn't the rubbery bottom-handed Kohli whip we are accustomed to seeing. This was a daintier creation, a last-second improvisation born of that long, smooth stride that brought his head on top of the ball, and the recognition - possibly off the pitch rather than out of the hand - that this was a googly.

Strokes of this kind peppered Kohli's innings. The loose balls disappeared as you might expect, and reasonably good ones went into gaps as well, manipulated by neat footwork and a pair of hands and wrists that is perhaps the best in the cricketing world today. Twenty-eight of his 143 runs came in twos and threes.

On a pitch that seemed to flatten out as the day went on, against a bowling attack with only one real threat, there were moments when batting almost seemed too easy for Kohli. But, as his team-mates showed, snares lay waiting for that one mistake, that one moment of carelessness. This, after all, was still Test cricket.