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Match Analysis

The Virat Kohli century that was a trip back in time

One of the best batters that India has ever produced played an innings that made the mind look back across eras

Eleven years ago in Adelaide, Virat Kohli pushed Peter Siddle into the off side and ran, screaming at Ben Hilfenhaus every step of his way to the other end. When he completed the run, he was still so caught up in this quarrel that two bits of information seemed to have escaped him.
One, there was a chance of an overthrow, and he finally turned to take it when he heard Ishant Sharma calling out from the other end. Two, he'd brought up his maiden Test century, but celebrations could wait. There was anger to vent first.
When he ripped his helmet off halfway through the second run, the celebration was just as angry and sweary. That was every Kohli celebration then, incandescent with west-Delhi machismo.
Now, when he brought up his 28th Test century with a flicked single, Kohli reacted very differently.
There was no swearing, of course. He stopped doing that years ago. This Kohli unstrapped his helmet methodically and raised his bat to India's dressing room with a relieved smile. Then he laid his helmet and gloves down, and reached into his collar to extract the chain he wears around his neck. Having pulled this out, he kissed the wedding ring he hangs from it a la Frodo Baggins. In every way now, he's less west Delhi and more western-beachfront Mumbai.
You felt yourself reminiscing fondly about the angry, sweary Kohli at this moment. You almost missed him. But this may have partly been because you were young then, and now you're... well, youngish.
Kohli is youngish too, but perhaps not in cricketing terms, and the 11 years between Adelaide and Ahmedabad may well feel to him like 20. Recent years may have dilated time even more. Before Sunday, he'd last reached a Test hundred in November 2019. That was before you'd heard of Covid-19. Do you even remember what life was like then?
Between then and this innings, Kohli had gone 23 Tests and 41 innings without a Test hundred. He'd averaged 25.70 in that period. In that time, his Test average had dropped from 54.97 to 48.12.
There were times during this phase when he'd looked a little out of sorts. There were other times when he'd batted beautifully without getting close to three-figures. Two Tests before this one, in Delhi, he'd played an innings like that, a 44 that was every bit as good as a century.
No matter how many glittering 44s and 72s you score, though, a lack of hundreds over such a long period can dim the halo around a great batter, even a halo that's been burnished so assiduously by the industrial complex that's grown around Kohli's name.
Halos, in any case, look less dazzling when you average 48 than they do at 55.
But everything is relative, and a large part of Kohli's career has coincided with one of Test cricket's most bowler-dominated eras. Bowling attacks have never been deeper, and pitches seldom as challenging.
Now you could argue that the last sentence is both an exaggeration and an example of recency bias. You could bring up a hundred examples of potent attacks and vicious pitches from generations past. But there's a simple counter to this. How often do you see a drawn Test these days?
I mean, look at the numbers. Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara are India's sixth- and eighth-highest run-getters in Test cricket. But look at where they sit among India's highest run-getters in drawn Tests - Kohli is in 15th place and Pujara in 23rd.
To arrange India's top ten run-getters in increasing order of percentage of runs scored in draws is to travel backwards in time, more or less.
It's no slight on Sunil Gavaskar and Dilip Vengsarkar that they scored so many of their runs in draws. They were great batters in teams that often lacked potent bowling attacks, and their runs often turned defeats into draws. You can only play the sport that exists in your time. You have to recognise, however, that Test cricket in Kohli's time is an entirely different sport to the one played in Gavaskar's time, and significantly different even to the one played in Sachin Tendulkar's time.
Watching Kohli progress towards his hundred on Sunday, then, felt like an experience from the past. India began day three with a deficit of 191, and with one of their middle-order batters laid low by a bad back. There was no way that Kohli would take undue risks, and there was little chance of Australia's bowlers - who had toiled magnificently on day three to keep India's scoring rate in control - giving him an inch.
Kohli simply batted time, and along the way collected whatever runs came his way. From 59 off 128 balls overnight, he went to 102 off 250 before he hit his first boundary of the day, and it came off a Mitchell Starc full-toss.
It was old-fashioned Test cricket on a flat pitch where the team batting second was still playing its first innings on day four. Great India batters of the past played a lot of Test matches like this. India in the Kohli era? Not so much.
Even on the flattest of surfaces, you need to bat really well to score a Test hundred. And you still need a bit of luck. On day three, Shubman Gill could have been bowled through the gate by Todd Murphy, or played on to Starc. He was fortunate that the Murphy ball bounced over the stumps and the Starc ball missed leg stump.
On another day, the uppish punch that sent Rohit Sharma back could have flown wide of short extra-cover. The misjudgment that ended with Pujara lbw to Murphy could have happened off a ball that turned sharply enough to miss leg stump. Both had seemed on course for bigger scores than 35 and 42.
Kohli looked all at sea when he first came to the crease. Nathan Lyon had seen him demonstrate a sound method of playing offspin on the sharply-turning pitches of Delhi and Indore, based on going back and across to most lengths and playing everything with the spin. Kohli had adopted an open stance for this, and stuck to that set-up here.
Lyon, though, was bowling from over the wicket, and he floated three successive balls well outside Kohli's off stump. From its starting position outside leg stump, Kohli's front foot was being asked to move a long way across. Kohli ended up doing this via a two-step process, across and then forward, and found himself moving a touch too late to get where he needed to. It can happen when you're new to the crease, and this out-of-tune footwork left him jabbing at the ball. He got a thick inside-edge to the first ball, which flew to the left of the fielder at short leg. He was beaten on the outside edge by the second ball, and he edged the third one just short of slip.
Batting is perilous by definition. One moment you're in, the next you're out. But with a bit of luck, good batters have the time to work their way into an innings on true pitches, and Kohli isn't just a good batter. He's one of the greatest India have had.
There have been times in the past when a Kohli century has seemed inevitable as soon as he's spent 15 minutes at the crease. It wasn't quite like that this time, but you sensed that while there was a gradually diminishing chance of Australia's bowlers getting him out, there was next to no chance of Kohli doing anything to get himself out. He was in to have his fill, and the circumstances allowed him to simply bat.
By the time he'd brought up his hundred, India had brought their deficit down to double-figures, and Australia had spent 138.2 overs in the field. Their bowling began to fray around the edges - the symbolic moment came immediately after Kohli had reached three-figures, when Lyon dropped short and Axar Patel slapped him for four.
Kohli took just 72 balls to rush from 100 to 150, and his highlights reel began to grow to proportions commensurate with the magnitude of his innings. There was a wristy pull with terrific use of the crease's depth to place Murphy between square leg and backward square leg. There was a step-out-and-reach-out flat-bat cover drive off Cameron Green. The shot he played off the next ball took him from 149 to 153: he shuffled across his stumps, met the full ball outside off stump, and clipped it between a diving midwicket and a chasing mid-on.
As Kohli and Axar hustled India into the lead and beyond, possibilities began to emerge. India's innings eventually ended with their lead at 91, leaving them just over three sessions in which to try and eke something out on a still largely forgiving pitch. There's a chance, then, that Kohli will end this Test match with an increased tally of runs in drawn Tests. There's also a chance, however, that he'll have added 186 to his tally of runs scored in victories.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo