James Anderson is unlucky. That ball was a gem of a delivery. He drew the Indian skipper Virat Kohli out of his crease in the last nanosecond, and made him play at a full out-swinger. The edge carried nicely to Malan at second slip. But as has been the tale of English slip catching in recent times, the ball ricocheted off his palm to kiss the grass underneath, which was waiting to catch up with its closest acquaintance by the slip cordon. Straight in, and straight out. Anderson has his head in his hands.
He walks back to his bowling mark muttering something inaudible even to the closest mortal soul standing by, visibly grumpy and agitated -- understandably so. Kohli was Anderson's walking wicket back in 2014, when he would just show up in front of India's best batsman and produce an out-swinger outside the off stump, which he would meekly edge to the slips with newly discovered English conviviality. Anderson nevertheless finds out, that four years down the lane, he is still producing the edge. But Cook and Malan have developed a crush on the grass underneath.
The episodes are not without a prologue. On England's tour to India in 2016, Anderson exclaimed that the dust on Indian tracks was hiding any 'technical deficiencies' Kohli owned. There was just not enough pace on the wickets to produce the edges as they did against Kohli in England. Before the start of this series, Anderson called his counterpart a liar -- without actually doing so -- when he said that Kohli will be nothing but 'desperate' to perform in England.
Well, but he should've known better.
Kohli has so far in this series made 440 runs from six innings, with an astonishing average of 73.33, and has accumulated more than twice the number of runs as the second highest scoring batsman, Jonny Bairstow (206). Satisfaction is scant for Anderson albeit leading the bowlers' charts with 17 wickets, for he hasn't been able to scalp that elusive wicket of Virat Kohli. Final frontier: conquered.
2014 was indeed a nightmare tour. Kohli was a chiefly front-foot dominated player then, widely regarded as Tendulkar's successor. It came naturally to him to play with an open front-foot, which also explains his dexterity playing the flick shot -- one with which he has pulverized numerous world-class bowlers including the great Lasith Malinga. There was no glaring technical error in his game, which was good enough to help him score 21 ODI centuries by then.
However, that was when he was granted the liberty to bludgeon the white Kookaburra on pitches that resembled roads, characteristic of modern-day cricket, in shades of coloured clothing. Now he found himself in a freezing island, against a searing pace attack that has always fancied playing in home conditions, clueless against the troika of Anderson, Woakes and Broad. And a Dukes ball that swung both ways.
If there ever was a perfect antonym of the word, 'purple patch', and it would not be derogatory to nitpick from the statistics of a legend, it could well be attributed to the 2014 tour of England for Kohli. He scored 134 runs across 10 innings, at an average of 13.4, dismissed on four occasions by Anderson.
His one-day game, which had aided him in scoring so many centuries that are today part of cricketing folklore was coming back to hurt him. His upper body was hardly moving along with his bat and his feet movement was discernibly skimpy.
The repercussions of India's dismal performance in England were outrageous. Kohli was inveighed, criticized, and slandered. Social media was abuzz with tweets and posts demanding his ouster from the team, and other inane speculations, based on unfounded and unsubstantiated allegations. His place in the team suddenly looked untenable.
Brash. Arrogant. Self-important. Those were some of the words meted out to one of India’s greatest cricketing icons. More than his bottom-handed grip and his technical deficiencies, what bit Kohli the most was his affinity for wearing his emotions on his sleeve. His only consolation was a combined match tally of 67 at the Rose Bowl in two innings, but for the vicious snake that Anderson is, he was still hurting Kohli with his late movement.
If the humbling at Southampton and then at Old Tradfford was not enough, disaster awaited India at The Oval. A loss by an innings and 244 runs. Virat’s scores in ten innings read an appalling 1, 8, 25, 0, 39, 28, 0, 7, 6, and 20. Kohli witnessed the lowest ebb of his cricketing career. But without dropping a shoulder.
December 31 2017, New Year's Eve. Kohli found himself at the practice pitches in the Newlands Cricket Stadium, deliberating with his coach on what the ideal team combination should be. It had been an optional practice session. And 14 of the 17-men Indian squad had decided to take a day off. Yet Kohli finds himself on the practice pitches at Newlands, examining every inch of his reformed technique. He grinds it out in the nets for three long hours, simulating the bowling styles of Steyn, Philander, and Rabada -- the three bowlers he is due to face on Tuesday, the 5th. Ravi Shastri tells him it is getting dark, but Kohli wants to play for another over. He plays the ball on merit, leaves the ball outside off-stump, and exhibits not an iota of complacency.
He then stands tall on his front foot, and cracks a cover drive; the spatter off the bat is greeted with applause. He is way more upright on his stance, his head position cannot get stiller, and his back-lift is much lesser, in stark contrast to what he was in England three years ago. He shuffles across the off-stump to every delivery bowled at him, but his bat doesn't move along with his body. His feet movement is pronounced, decisive, and sharp -- juxtaposing intent with caution, aggression with circumspection.
His back is hurting. His calf is aching. But Kohli tells himself that matches are won on the practice field. He firmly believes that the great Indian overseas paradigm is not going to repeat this time. And Kohli is a vital cog in the wheel for his team's fortunes. It is South Africa, followed by England, followed by Australia. Technique sorted out, Virat lauds himself as he finally decides to return to the hotel.
Virat Kohli has been fortunate. After all, of the 72 edges or misses that have been induced off his bat over this series, only 5 have carried. And of that, only 3 have been taken. Moreover, of these 72, 46 were produced in the first Test at Edgbaston -- of which only one resulted in a wicket. But Kohli in the aftermath of all these plays and misses would have been confidence personified. He wouldn't have borne in his mind that he was riding his luck. 'The harder you work, the luckier you get' is a phrase that most sportspersons swear by. Kohli is no different either.
The most conspicuous of the technical alterations Kohli has made to establish his dominance in England, and make it a norm, is his stance. If there was aggression in his low, slightly crooked stance in 2014, today it boasts of a certain prudent wariness. It is upright and open, and his bat does not go down to make contact with the surface as he makes a retrenchment to his second stance. While the first is incalculably important in English conditions, where the ball climbs at you from a length more often than not, the second is a pre-requisite for keeping his head straight and still, which allows him to view the ball clearly and make a decision on whether to play or not, as well as in shot-selection. Interestingly, this revamped technique was developed only in South Africa, which is again characterized by boisterous, bouncy pitches.
Simultaneously, his front-foot game has also adjusted itself to the needs of Test cricket, by pointing more towards extra cover, rather than long-on or long-off, when he is on the drive. An inevitable setback is that he becomes more vulnerable to the flick and the pick-up shots on the leg-side, as emphasized by the fact that of the six times he has been dismissed, two have been LBWs. There is every possibility that this is just an exception, but it takes an incredible effort on part of your scruples to keep you from nitpicking in the armoury of a man at the top of his game!
Anderson 2014 has been nullified. If he was poking at short-of-a-good-length balls outside off stump in 2014, he's come out this time prepared to deal with Anderson and Co., with a clear mind and prescient thinking to leave balls outside the off stump. The 2018 tour of England will be remembered for times to come in the name of Virat Kohli.
But then, as Ravi Shastri pointed out, Kohli will come out to bat at Southampton only with greater greed and unparalleled passion. He will come out to bat as if he hasn't scored a single run in the series. His talent, besides being enviable, is absolutely wondrous. But the greatness of the man that Virat Kohli is, lies in the hours and hours of practice he commits himself to in the nets, weights and squats and crunches done in the gym, and unwavering adherence to an extremely fatiguing lifestyle, even as all the others choose to save their energy for the walk to the pub.
Kohli, in short, is a modern sporting phenomenon.