The second Test between India and Australia in Bengaluru last week was one of the most riveting contests in recent times, making it even more unique to experience from the stands. India’s 13-Test home season was always going to be crucial for Virat Kohli’s side to etch themselves into the hearts of cricket viewers, given that it was the Test team’s first extended period in front of home fans. And in Bengaluru last week, fan support reached a fever pitch, adding an extra dimension to a contest that was already enthralling on and off the pitch.
This was perhaps most evident in the two overs by Ravichandran Ashwin before tea on the fourth and what turned out to be the final day. When Ashwin had Mitchell Marsh dismissed, the crowd had already worked themselves up into a frenzy, realising they were actually witnessing something special. Kohli, sensing the pulse and the fact that the Australians were under the pump, geed them up further, orchestrating, as he does, more noise. It meant Matthew Wade walked into a pressure cauldron, with the anticipation of another wicket palpable. It came soon enough, Wriddhiman Saha taking an excellent catch, and a key moment in the game was won. Kohli had once again displayed excellent use of the crowd as 12th man.
There are few sets of fans more passionate about their cricket, but apart from the four matches against South Africa in 2015, the Indian faithful had very few opportunities to observe this entertaining, attacking Test side that Kohli had moulded in person. They watched on television and read up what they could about these feats, but with the bumper home season, with matches in six new venues, they finally had the chance to experience this much-vaunted Indian side from close quarters.
Kohli and co didn’t disappoint either, brushing aside New Zealand and England and surging to the top of the Test rankings. There were individual feats too, with Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja rising to the top of the bowlers’ charts, Kohli himself scoring double centuries against all of New Zealand, England and Bangladesh, and with the rise of youngsters like Karun Nair, with his triple century against England, and Jayant Yadav.
The visceral experience that the M Chinnaswamy Stadium produced for the Test was in the works from the Adelaide Test in December 2014, when Kohli displayed the essence of his captaincy and went for a chase of 364 on the final day. Later he said he was happy that the rest of the side had “bought into” his brand of cricket.
While the happenings on the field in Bengaluru were intense, there was ample evidence in the stands that it wasn’t just the players who had bought into Kohli’s mindset. The fans had too. And it is most evident in how they treat Kohli. The Indian captain is yet to match the heights he has consistently reached over the season — he managed just 12 and 15 in his two outings in the second Test. But the anticipation in the venue before each of the combined 42 deliveries he faced during the Test was palpable: Hushed breaths, attempts to unnerve the bowler before every run-up, shrieks of delight at a boundary, silence of despair at dismissal. Kohli took the crowd through a whole spectrum of emotions in those 42 balls. It was a frenzy that only Sachin Tendulkar, the man in whose footsteps Kohli seems destined to follow, once commanded.
But what sets Kohli apart is the fact that the experience isn’t limited to his batting. In the field, the crowd has an unhindered view of the Indian captain. His boundless energy and animated reactions are exactly what the fans want to see — it revs them up, they relate to the emotions he expresses so vividly, and believe it brings them closer to him. The boos that rang out when Kohli chastised Steven Smith for the now infamous 'Reviewgate' incident is a case in point. On the riveting fourth day, the crowd consciously became a force the Australians had to reckon with, and the visiting team struggled to cope.
Kohli, for his part, knows this all too well, and was always orchestrating the crowd’s noise levels ahead of crucial moments in the match. If ever the crowd tends to slumber, he takes it upon himself to charge them up — it’s a facet of captaincy that hasn’t previously been used to such devastating effect. He is the Pied Piper to the fans, and the volume control for any Indian stadium on match days lies solely with him. On the big screen, in the middle of all the action, there was a montage of Kohli’s reactions, close-up shots of the captain going through all the emotions. It wasn’t a coincidence that it was being shown — those handling the images were well-aware of the effect it would have on the crowd. Kohli was obviously a crowd-puller, and the organisers were ensuring they got the most of what they came to see. It was all part of the Kohli experience.
This isn’t to say that every venue over the course of the home season has been packed to the brim. Places like Pune, in the first Test against Australia, and Rajkot (first Test against England) struggled to attract big numbers, although that was largely because these are both venues that are significantly away from the city centre, and a logistical nightmare to reach. Those are aberrations, though. What is inescapable is the fact that Kohli’s India have injected much-needed health into Test cricket.
The merits of the decision to take Test cricket outside the main centres were there for all to see when in Indore, around 5,000 locals teemed into the stadium a day before the match to watch the practice sessions of both India and New Zealand. Members of the Indian team later said Indore was among the best crowds they had witnessed. In Hyderabad, over the course of five days, over 80,000 people turned up to watch India and Bangladesh. All the while, the supporters in Bengaluru watched and waited for their turn. When it came, they turned up in numbers, and went back home with a story to tell their grandchildren.
It only reinforced the point: Kohli’s twin centuries in Adelaide and his subsequent formula of going for broke in trying to win a Test has had a domino effect on the Indian cricket-watching public. And with Tests at Ranchi and Dharamsala still to go, long may it continue.