Day three of the India vs New Zealand Indore Test: The Kiwis were bowled out for a paltry 299 runs and surrendered a 258-run first innings lead. Over the last decade or so, enforcing follow-on has become a rarity. And expectedly, India didn’t go for it either.
Yet, at the same time, the equation seemed imbalanced. There were two days left in the game, and the pitch was starting to crack up. India had bowled 81 overs in the day, and only six more remained. Sure, the bowlers needed rest but a break overnight would have allowed them to go for the kill next morning, and send out an even more dominant message.
It didn’t happen, begging the question whether this is the same aggressive captaincy from Virat Kohli that has been talked up so much. There is a certain pattern here, in how the Indian skipper has set targets in this series, or in fact in two of the last three Test series as well.
In Kolkata, after Rohit Sharma dug India out of their second innings hole, he allowed the batting to go deep into the fourth day. In Kanpur, he waited for Ravindra Jadeja to get a half-century, and then declared. Even in Indore, there was some waiting around for Cheteshwar Pujara to get his much-elusive three-figure mark. It is not about personal milestones here, but putting as many runs on the board as possible, while there is time.
“We had batted them out of the game in the first innings, and this gave us a chance to express ourselves in the second innings,” Kohli said after the win in Indore.
The target in Kanpur was 434. It was 376 in Kolkata and 475 in Indore. India wrapped up wins in each game with time to spare, particularly in the last two matches. Roll back the pages, and you see something similar against West Indies and Sri Lanka last year. At St Lucia, India batted on Day five until the overall lead was 345. Against Sri Lanka, in the second Test in Colombo, they finished with a 413-run target, even as people wondered about the declaration.
“It gives our bowlers enough overs to bowl at the opposition. Secondly, it gives them enough runs to express themselves, but not bowling to a defensive field.” Kohli added, explaining his declaration strategy. It is a pertinent point backed up by Kane Williamson. “We couldn’t have defended for four sessions and had to play our shots. With so many fielders around the bat, it is impossible to stonewall all the time,” he had said.
Aggression may be a choice word to summarise Kohli, but it doesn’t completely describe his thinking process on the field. It isn’t portrayed in bravado against the opposition, getting in their face or arguing with the umpires about random issues.
Instead, as Kohli is growing into this dual role of captaincy and premier batsman, his aggression is quickly turning into a calculative mindset that is shutting off all escape routes for the opposition.
It is about setting such a humongous target there are only two eventual results – an Indian win or a draw after a back-to-the-walls job.
And then, it is about making it as tough as possible for the batsmen to survive in the middle, whether it is with a constant spin barrage, close-in fielders, reverse swing from pacers, or even getting the crowd worked up and cheering behind the bowlers.
The intersection of this captaincy approach with his batting is interesting. Ever since the West Indies series, the general talk emanating out of the Indian dressing room is one of patience and playing as many deliveries as possible. The onus has been put greatly on the top-order batsmen to do the bulk of the scoring.
In between his two double hundreds, from Antigua to Indore, Kohli lost form, perhaps becoming unstuck in a bid to adapt to this new ploy. While his first double hundred was a laid back innings, he was on a downward curve since, searching for that same ease at the crease. But every innings is different from the other – it is the thumb rule of cricket, and sport in general.
Kohli is a naturally aggressive batsman, and this trait pushed him to play certain shots, at times ones that he didn’t need to play. For someone so good at driving anything through cover for four, it takes time to curb his instinct and let the wide deliveries go, especially in home conditions where you have garnered runs blindly all your life. The second innings at Eden Gardens was a step in different direction – that of of perseverance, and it came to full fruition in Indore, when he made good use of a Day one pitch.
It is not to say that he cut out that cover drive, no. Kohli is yet to gain Tendulkar-esque control in his game. But the manner in which he started off his innings, looking to get set, and then progressed to run 115 singles out of 211 runs, suggested a leaf taken out of his limited-overs form. The only difference here was batting for time, again.
“I have scored hundreds many times but didn’t make big ones. I used to be disappointed with that. So I convinced myself to not look at milestones, and instead focussed to bat for long. It has to come before the innings, and if you get set, you play long,” he said, about his second double hundred in Test cricket.
Using the same reference point, the time factor, Kohli has been able to segregate the two aspects of his contribution to the Indian team’s success – captaincy and batting. It has been the current theme of his learning curve as skipper, and it coincided with recent Test series wherein his bowling attack’s dominance over the opposition (Sri Lanka, West Indies or New Zealand) allowed the luxury of having time in hand.
The next chapter in this learning phase for Kohli in this dual role will come when he is pressed for time, whether while batting or setting up declaration. Are England up to the task?