WTC final: Calm Virat Kohli’s masterclass on gloomy Day 2
Dark, overcast skies, a pitch with a tinge of green and a ball that almost had a mind of its own. The first day of play and Day 2 of the World Test Championship final in Southampton was a reality check for batsmen. The brief to the bowlers is often very simple in these conditions—pitch it in the channel and let the elements do the rest.
They know every run comes with a price tag even when the ball holds its line. There was exaggerated swing though, inducing innumerable play-and-misses and inside edges. Some balls swung and seamed as well. Bouncers? They too. And yet, one day from completing a decade in Test cricket, Virat Kohli has never looked this assured with the bat.
With soft hands, perfect judgment of the carry that allowed for proper leaving of the ball but punished the slightly shorter ones, Kohli was that calming picture, possessing the controlled aggression necessary to get a decent first innings score. Runs came at a crawl though, at just over two per over. Between lunch and an early tea, that dropped to below two.
In Kohli’s unbeaten innings, he had hit just one boundary and scored only one run in the V. But he is at the front and centre of a promising 58-run unbroken partnership with Ajinkya Rahane.
Till Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill--they put on 62 for the opening stand—were at the crease, scoring looked easier but it was also New Zealand’s doing, taking the entire first hour to get a hang of length. By standing outside the crease, Gill and Sharma cast doubts in the minds of the Kiwis but the bowling looked more sorted once Kylie Jamieson came as first change. Moving the ball both ways, Jamieson ended with nine maidens and an economy of one, vindicating captain Kane Williamson’s decision to bowl first with an all-pace attack.
That the conditions were challenging would be putting it mildly. If the poor light wasn’t taxing enough, the Dukes ball kept swinging, seaming and darting off the pitch too, till the last delivery of the day, testing Indian batsmen’s patience and technique. At one point, New Zealand averaged 2.24 degrees of swing, the most in any Test innings since 2006, according to CricViz. Every batsman had his method. If Cheteshwar Pujara hung back in the crease, Sharma, Gill and Kohli stood outside. But no one was as decisive with his front-foot movement as the India captain, playing the ball under his eyes and intercepting it well ahead of the other batsmen.
Another area where Kohli excelled was leaving the ball well. Sharma too looked good at it till he hung his bat at a full, angled-in delivery from Jamieson. There couldn’t have been a better delivery to dismiss Gill, Neil Wagner swinging it in 3.1 degrees before it seamed away 0.2 degree to invite a tentative push. After taking 36 deliveries to open his account, Pujara fell to one of the oldest ploys in Test cricket. Softened up by a few short ones from Wagner—one clattered into his grille like the one from Jamieson to Gill—Pujara was cleaned up leg-before by a length delivery from Trent Boult that hit his back leg. And once again the job of resurrecting the innings was left to Kohli amid repeated reminders from the broadcasters that he hasn’t scored a century since November, 2019.
Kohli was in a different headspace though. What unfolded was a live demonstration of classical batting, laced with the right balance of caution and aggression. Late outswing. Dot ball. A nudge towards midwicket. Single. Then a tap. Another single. Slight shuffle across the stumps. A jab through onside for a quick two. Then a flick through square-leg. Three more. Meeting the ball as close as possible to the body or leaving it, Kohli repeated this drill over after over. That one boundary was so early in his innings it looked one-off. The ball was there to be hit though, a juicy half-volley from Wagner that Kohli drilled through deep extra cover for a boundary. Nothing too flashy after that. Kohli knew he couldn’t afford it.