Match Analysis

Kohli, Axar and an India fightback of two parts

Coming in at two different times when the hosts looked down and out, they each found a way to counter the Lyon threat and keep the Test alive

February is perhaps the best time of the year to visit Delhi. The bitter cold and toxic smog of winter have been left behind, and there's still a while to go before the air-fryer conditions of May and June. There's a nip in the air in the evenings and early mornings, and a pleasing warmth in between.
February's spring weather has seemed to have an interesting effect on the pitch at the Arun Jaitley Stadium. On days one and two of the second Border-Gavaskar Test match, batting has been at its trickiest in the morning session, a time that has happened to coincide, on both days, with the ball being hard and new. It may have something to do with moisture in the topsoil, from dew settling on the pitch during the chilliest time of day as well as overnight sweating under the covers.
On day one, India's spinners derived extra turn and bounce during the first session. On day two, Australia's spinners got the newish ball shooting quickly off the surface, while attacking the stumps relentlessly. It amplified the danger of every misjudgment from the batters. And every error from India's top order, it seemed, was ending up as a Nathan Lyon wicket.
Less than a week ago, there were questions over Lyon's effectiveness on pitches where bowled and lbw dismissals are greater threats than bat-pad catches. In a seeming riposte, Lyon, bowling quick and at the stumps from around the wicket, took out each of India's top three in the space of ten balls, all three either lbw or bowled. Five overs into his first spell of the match, he had figures of 3 for 8.
Not long after, India were 66 for 4, when Peter Handscomb took a freak catch at short leg off the middle of Shreyas Iyer's bat. They were 66 for 4, trailing Australia's first-innings total by 197 runs.
India turned this situation around, and eventually conceded a first-innings lead of just one run. It happened over two phases, each as crucial as the other.


Axar Patel is so similar to Ravindra Jadeja in so many ways that it's possible to treat them as one entity: a two-headed, Gujarati-speaking beast of an allrounder who bats left-handed and bowls fast, accurate left-arm orthodox.
There are differences, of course, and one of them may have played a significant role in their batting fates on Saturday.
The bulk of India's batters defend against spin with a long front-foot stride and with bat alongside pad, and while it has been no hindrance to their building highly successful careers, it was a dangerous method on this pitch, and contributed to the lbw dismissals of KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli and Jadeja.
Axar is different - he's younger, and he's spent a bigger chunk of his formative years in the DRS era. Where Jadeja tends to take a long stride down the line of the stumps while defending spinners off the front foot, Axar tends not to move his front foot across the stumps unless he can get his pad outside the line of off stump. Otherwise he keeps his pad away from the line of the ball, and uses his height and reach to get his head over the ball and play with his bat in front of his pad.
This method has its disadvantages, of course: it can leave you a little more vulnerable against the ball turning away and testing the outside edge, and also to bat-pad catches at short leg. But on this day-two Delhi pitch, you were likelier to be lbw or bowled than have an edge carry to slip.
On Saturday, Axar had his outside edge beaten numerous times by Lyon, and on a couple of occasions by Todd Murphy and Travis Head. He even edged Lyon towards slip when he was on 28, but the ball died as it reached Steven Smith, ducked below his fingertips and rolled away for four.
"Let's be clear, they're not the lower order. They have a very long top order, let's just say that"
Nathan Lyon on the Axar-Ashwin partnership
There was far less drama past the inside edge, the ball comfortably on its way down the leg side on the odd occasion when it hit his front pad.
This defensive technique played a significant role in Axar scoring 74, and putting on a century stand with R Ashwin after the two came together with India 139 for 7. It was yet another case of India typing in their lower-order cheat code in a home Test.
"They're not the lower order, let's get that clear," Lyon said during his end-of-day press conference. "Axar and Ash could easily bat in the top six in a few teams in Test cricket around the world, in my eyes. Let's be clear, they're not the lower order. They have a very long top order, let's just say that."
A lot of work has gone into making Axar look like a top-order batter. Some of it - in an interesting case of T20 preparation contributing to Test-match success - taken place at Delhi Capitals, his IPL team. Speaking at his press conference after the day's play, Axar detailed how conversations with his India team-mates and with Ricky Ponting, the Capitals head coach, had helped him take his game to the next level.
"I felt that whatever I did, I was doing halfway - if I scored runs, I was getting out for 30s and 40s, and at crucial times, I was not able to finish matches when I needed to," Axar said. "The main thing was mindset - what's going through your mind.
"As an allrounder, sometimes you can feel you've taken wickets, you've done your job, and you can become a little casual. I wanted to improve that aspect of my batting - my concentration levels after getting to 30, to tell myself that I should carry on and finish this match. This is how I think when I bat now, and this is the difference that's come into my batting in the last one-and-a-half years."
Among other things the Capitals coaches worked on with Axar was his alignment, to open up his front shoulder and broaden his range. From being too side-on - which hampered his strokeplay down the ground and through the on side, while also leaving him prone to getting cramped by the short ball - he's now more neutrally aligned and is able to access nearly all areas of the field.
One stroke on Saturday was a clear illustration of this, a perfectly balanced, head-over-the-ball, straight-bat punch off Pat Cummins. It was more push than punch, in truth, but it sped unstoppably down the ground, straight of mid-on, a piece of pure timing.
There were other shots, too, that made you gasp: two fierce square-cuts off Cummins; a back-foot drive off Matthew Kuhnemann, bisecting deep point and long-off; and best of all a dancing, effortless, inside-out loft over wide mid-off off Murphy. He didn't reach the pitch of the ball, but it didn't matter; he simply extended the arms, made the sweetest of connections, and held his pose, watching the ball soar into the stands.


By that point, Axar was making batting look exceedingly simple, but he had also been fortunate to arrive at the crease when the ball was nearly 50 overs old, when the bowlers had all those overs in their legs, and when the day's early moisture must have mostly left the pitch.
"The new ball is skidding a little and leaving the pitch with pace," Axar said. "As the ball gets older - even the pitch is getting slower - the ball isn't coming [quickly off the pitch], so you need to vary your pace more - a little quicker, a little slower - and because of this I think the semi-new ball has been getting more wickets, and then it gets a little easier. We've seen on both days that batting has become easier in the last two sessions."
The batter he replaced was in large part responsible for the timing of Axar's arrival. That batter, Kohli, had been the first member of India's top order to demonstrate a method of surviving a rampant Lyon and scoring runs against him.
This method was to go only get on the front foot when he felt he could get close enough to the pitch of the ball to smother it. Otherwise, he went deep in his crease and across his stumps, starting from an open stance so that his front pad was not in the way of his bat coming down straight to defend, or to work the ball into the leg side. On a handful of occasions, when he sensed that the ball had enough hangtime to allow it, he used his feet to skip out of the crease.
He made every effort to play Lyon, and Murphy, with the spin - he didn't attempt a single cover drive against either, and any invitation to play that shot was met instead with a wristy whip that sent the ball rolling down the ground to long-on or deep midwicket.
Australia, with the cushion of a 200-plus total, used in-out fields even in the early part of Kohli's innings, and each single he took was met by a roar from an adoring crowd that had packed the roof-less stands at the Arun Jaitley Stadium.
This sort of reception meets Kohli everywhere, but Saturday's atmosphere had a heightened electricity. Weekend, India batting, Kohli, local boy - each of these ingredients amplified the effect of the previous one.
Having a method is one thing. Kohli was showing the exceptional judgment of line and length needed to make it work. Against the offspinners, he was barely ever on the wrong foot, and his head never tipped over to the off side of the ball on all the occasions when he went back and across to them.
Batting in the toughest part of the day, when the bowlers were still fresh, he achieved a control percentage of 91. Axar, batting at an easier time, finished with a control percentage of 86.
But Kohli's exhibition of skill and technique would only last 77 balls. And his dismissal left a feeling that while he had mastered the offspinners on the day, he hadn't quite done the same against the left-arm orthodox spinner - a style of bowling that has troubled him in recent months. He stretched out to Kuhnemann on 44, but failed to get close to the pitch of the ball, allowing natural variation to do its thing.
He played for turn, with bat next to pad, and the ball went on straight, squeezed between bat and pad, and hit both. We will probably never know for sure whether it hit bat first or pad, but Nitin Menon gave Kohli out, and it wasn't within the DRS's power to reverse the decision. The same thing has happened to Kohli before, against Ajaz Patel in Mumbai.


If you're a Kohli fan, you don't need dates and venues to know what those numbers are. Those numbers probably leave you with a bittersweet feeling and a sense of life's unfairness.
Kohli hasn't scored a Test hundred since November 2019. Since that innings, he has an average in the mid-20s. But he's also played a number of innings - the above four, above all - where he's not just looked good, but looked incredibly good, compiling technical masterclasses in challenging conditions. But they've all been masterclasses in miniature.
On Saturday, Kohli played another innings like that, but there's a chance it could be different from the others in one significant way. The 74, the 72, the 44 and the 79 were all part of India defeats.
Thanks to what came after it, Saturday's 44 may yet leave his fans with a less bittersweet feeling

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo