Virat Kohli’s 100th Test: Milestone match marks a new phase for the former India captain

Sample these few deliveries from Mohammed Siraj to Virat Kohli in the Mohali nets on Wednesday afternoon. One zipped from short of a length past Kohli’s outside edge. Moments later, a slightly fuller one zipped through again and sent off stump for a walk. It seemed to take an eternity for the stumps to be put in place. Finally Siraj bustled in once more and bowled a perfectly acceptable good length ball. Kohli’s front foot sprung into action and the cover drive slammed into the side of the net. How many times have we seen that response in Test cricket from him. You keep beating him outside off, but all he needs is for you to give him that inch of an opening – it is not even an opening for most batsmen – and he hits the gap at extra cover.

It was certainly not Kohli’s day in the nets, though, especially against the spinners. R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Saurabh Kumar, all of them troubled him, even a local left-arm spinner bowled him twice. It is another matter that Kohli went after the last one mercilessly thereafter.

Too often, we talk about the ‘hows’ when a player recovers from a bad patch. Or when he extends a purple patch. Fair enough, the mechanics are important and need to be understood and explained. So for instance, Kohli stood out of the crease in England to counter swing, he tried to play close to the body, he left more deliveries outside off stump, he had a neat forward press that allowed his front foot more flexibility to react, and so on.

But to execute the adjustments and self-denials needs the supreme athlete’s supreme confidence foremost that you will be able to execute them under the pressure of a match situation. If ‘how’ was all there was to it, analysts could have had the best Test averages.

It is the capability to stay the course that also counts. A course can be that of an entire career, a full series or as brief as the space between two deliveries that can mess up with your head.

“You have to have total confidence and belief in your own ability. That’s basically what gives me clarity… it boils down to belief. Even on a flat pitch, if you don’t have belief, you’ll get out, even if the ball is doing nothing. If you have belief you can score a big hundred on a green wicket as well. It all boils down to what you think in your head.”

Virat Kohli during Indian team’s practice session at PCA Stadium in Mohali ahead of the Test match against Sri Lanka. (Photo by Kamleshwar Singh)

This was Kohli speaking in Birmingham a day before the start of the five-Test series against England in 2018. Those were the days Kohli’s belief alone seemed capable of overcoming all obstacles. Test captaincy seemed to have liberated that belief beyond all reasonable possibilities of doubt; in 2016 and 2017, he averaged 75.93 and 75.64 in Tests.

In the run-up to England 2018, he was reminded of England 2014, the terrible tour he’s called the ‘lowest point’ of his career. He was reminded of his then nemesis Jimmy Anderson running in again in helpful conditions. It was then that he spoke about his belief, that it had the capacity to transcend conditions and opposition, even if it was Anderson in England. It sounded incredulous then – pre-series bluster even – but Kohli would go on to score 593 runs in that series, four and a half times as many as the 134 he’d managed in 2014. The next-best tally on either side was Jos Buttler’s 349.

This fanatic belief in himself is one of the – if not the – defining characteristics of Kohli. It has carried him through 99 Test matches. And as he stands on the cusp of hitting three figures in Mohali, it is what will have to carry him through the remainder of his career as he faces challenges he’s never had to before.

That belief was apparent to his team-mates in the 2008 Under-19 World Cup. It was apparent when, during a torrid introduction to Test cricket in 2011 where Fidel Edwards harassed him with bouncers, he said he wanted to be an aggressive captain. Most top players have a deep faith in their abilities, but a raw 22-year old having problems with the bouncer talking matter-of-factly about how he would lead his country? It was also apparent when he made 115 and 141 in Adelaide in his first Test as captain, and added 147 a month later in Sydney in his first Test as full-time captain.

But his concentration suddenly seems to encounter a brief burst of static these days. He went through hours of denial in South Africa, refusing to play a stroke. And against the trend, would arrive a shot way too ambitious to bring his downfall.

Going into the 100th Test, he hasn’t had a three-figure score since November 2019. Surely that has to be somewhere in your mind when you possess 70 international centuries. That, of course, could be the least of his worries right now.

Only a couple of years ago, he was the most powerful cricketer in the world. In the span of a few months, he is the former India captain in all three formats, two resignations in between a sacking. Both his long-time contemporaries in the middle order are not around him now. It is an all-new situation for him, and in a rather unpleasant way.

He will be playing his 100th Test under a man who comes the closest to his superstar status in this team. It is an understatement to say that the team dynamic has changed.

Captain and former captain intently watched each other’s batting stints. Kohli imitated the start of Jasprit Bumrah’s run-up, and joked heartily with Ravindra Jadeja, but otherwise kept to himself.

Kohli’s in-your-face aggression on the field may have subsided, but the intrinsic swagger remains. His was an almost-detached, but unmissable, presence in the nets two days before his landmark game. There was the old painstaking purpose in how he put a grip on a bat, or in how he strode into the net for his stint, a bat resting on each shoulder. The troubles in the spin net appeared to have momentarily taken some sting off the swagger. But as he made the walk back from the nets across the outfield towards the dressing room at the other end of the ground, that familiar gait had returned.

Conditions and oppositions around the world have long been overcome by that marrow-deep ‘total confidence’ Kohli has always had. Will it be enough yet again to help him navigate through the latest, but utterly unfamiliar, storm in his career? At 33, after 99 Tests, he will truly be entering another era starting Friday against Sri Lanka.

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