As he walked into Perth Stadium for the first time, a day before this Test, Virat Kohli was reminded of the MCG. The grandstand, the big playing field, the order, the facilities, the multipurpose-ness, it all seemed similar. By the end of play on the second day, Kohli could point to happier similarities in his personal experience.
Four years ago at the MCG, the vultures were circling around Kohli when Ajinkya Rahane unleashed a counterattack that seemed to surprise everyone. The two then cracked the game open, despite having lost the toss and facing a large total, setting the foundation for a hard-earned draw.
All that happened when the series was all but decided, the tracks were docile and India had batsmen they could rely on.
On Saturday in Perth, they were batting behind a decent Australian score, on a lively pitch, in a live rubber, and with three really bankable batsmen, a lot of either unknown or out-of-form batsmen, and a long tail.
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Two of those three batsmen had come together at 2 for 8, and had weathered a storm bigger than the brilliant but short-lived one in Perth overnight. There had been a fascinating contest leading up to Rahane's introduction into the proceedings.
After two early wickets, Australia had tried to continue with their plan to Kohli: bowl straight, don't give him the cover drive and try the odd sucker ball. But they bowled too full and Kohli made them pay. He is that sort of batsman. You make one mistake, he hurts you so bad you end up making more such mistakes. Hitting four boundaries in the first 10 balls, Kohli had put Australia off their original plan, but he and Cheteshwar Pujara, the third reliable batsman, had to face a pretty stern examination.
Nathan Lyon held one end up, the fast bowlers kept bowling tight spells, the runs dried up, Pujara and Kohli were at their watchful best, the cricket was absorbing. But you knew when the deadlock was broken. A tickle down the leg side from Pujara had Australia sensing a big opportunity. This could well have been India's last stand of the Test, so to speak, and usually such sustained pressure over a period of time brings further success.
When Pujara got out, in the 39th over, India had hit only six boundaries, fast outfield and all. Five of those had come off Kohli's blade, four in that early 10-ball spell. India had scored 45 runs in 28.4 overs since the last of those hits to the fence. Kohli and Pujara had respected the good bowling, the bounce in the pitch and the match situation. They had known that even one mistake could have been fatal. In walked Rahane, under pressure, with no century in his last 23 innings, having lost his natural batting tempo.
But he found it immediately. One of the reasons for that could be his love for pitches with pace and bounce. It is the slow ones he struggles on. It helped that Australia did not bring Lyon on to upset him.
So Rahane was on. He wanted to dominate. He is at his best when he wants to do that and it was coming off here. In the first 22 balls Rahane faced, he had upper-cut one for a six, another for four, hooked one off the bat handle for four, flashed and missed, got a bottom edge and scored 23 runs, with Kohli just taking a breather at the other end. Perhaps he was admiring the intent; this is exactly what Kohli asks for in tight situations: fearless, clear-minded batting.
Once that was done, both settled down nicely to play normal Test cricket, respecting the good balls, putting the bad ones away, running hard, trying to make this a damned good one in case it was indeed the last stand for India. The effect of it could be seen on Australia. Their bowlers, who had shown patience so far, were now out of their comfort zones. They began to bang it short without any apparent field set for it. You could not look at the bowling and tell how they were trying to get a wicket. Lyon bowled from the wrong end. It was all hard-earned chaos.
The tempo of the game kept changing, the batsmen kept adjusting, hanging in there, absorbing the pressure, waiting for their moment to strike, showcasing the drives. Kohli was all method and correctness, Rahane all madness and chaos, and India ended the day with hope. Both still managed a control percentage in the mid-80s. The enormity of the task is apparent from how they were still 154 behind after having fought hard for 69 overs. There will be a new ball awaiting in 11 overs on the third morning, a final-innings chase even if they come close or take a small lead. The work is only half done, but done in some style.