Virat Kohli started the first day of the final Test of this series against New Zealand by winning his seventh consecutive toss in Tests in India. He ended it on 103 not out with his side set up for yet another win in Tests at home, as the newly-crowned number one Test team in the world had the best of the opening day of the first ever Test match in Indore.
It has been slim pickings for Kohli in this series so far, going into this innings he had just 81 runs at an average of 20.25. Kohli had gone seven Test innings without passing fifty. For a man who has dominated international cricket in 2016, this represents a slump by his extremely high standards. He made 200 against the West Indies in July so to suggest that he was on a poor run of form is a touch ridiculous, but it has been a quiet few months when compared with what he achieved at the World T20 and Indian Premier League. His century is an ominous sign for opponents and bodes well for India for their long home season.
This was a patient Kohli, who was happy to bide his time against a New Zealand attack that bowled pretty well having been asked to field first for the third time in the three Tests in this series. He had faced 73 balls when he reached 30, he got to his fifty off 108 balls and had faced 191 balls by the end of day one.
The New Zealand spinners found some turn even on this first day pitch and there were moments when their seam bowlers found a touch of reverse. Kohli was becalmed throughout in an innings that was much more about steady accumulation than flashy strokeplay, facing 121 dot balls. It was more Rahul Dravid than Virender Sehwag.
For all of Kohli’s undoubted brilliance he has a reasonable, rather than outstanding, Test record. His average has hovered around 45 in this format over the last three years. We are in an era when pitches have been flat and outfields fast. As a result, the benchmark of a truly great Test player is an average in excess of 50. Those that maintain an average at or above that number are ones that can quickly assess conditions and adapt accordingly. While Kohli has been able to do that in white ball formats, his returns in Tests do not do him justice. He will retire with a record that is the envy of any player, but he hasn’t found Test cricket as straightforward as ODIs where he can already be considered an all-time great.
Kohli was out in the middle earlier than he would have hoped when both Indian openers failed to make significant scores. The first to go was Murali Vijay, who clipped a ball from Jeetan Patel off his pads and straight into the hands of Tom Latham at forward short leg during the fifth over of the day.
Gautam Gambhir lasted a while longer, facing 53 balls for his 29 before Trent Boult dismissed him lbw. It has been two years since Gambhir played a Test, getting four innings against England on the back end of India’s tour there in 2014, but it was all the way back in 2012 that he was last a regular in the India Test side.
He began his career well enough, but declining returns saw him eventually be left out of India’s team in all formats. It has been seven years since the last time Gambhir made a Test hundred, an innings of 167 versus Sri Lanka in November 2009.
Despite decent returns in the Duleep Trophy where he made four half centuries in three matches, including two innings that ended with him in the nineties, he is in effect India’s fourth choice opener. Vijay is the first of them, and only injuries to KL Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan brought Gambhir into the frame.
He looked pretty good while he was at the crease, especially when he pulled consecutive balls for six off the bowling of Matt Henry. He looked to be well settled before a brilliant ball from Boult that swung back into the left-hander did it for him. The swing was late and the ball didn’t bounce as much as he may have expected, and there was little that Gambhir could have done. However, having waited so long for this chance, he will be disappointed to have gone once he had a start.
While Kohli was the star he was brilliantly supported by Ajinkya Rahane, who became the 36th Indian player to reach 2000 runs in Test cricket during his innings of 79 not out. At times Rahane looked more fluid at the crease than Kohli as they shared a partnership of 167 that made this India’s day. They came together with India at 100 for three and in danger of squandering first use of this pitch that isn’t easy to bat on but will only get tricker in the days to come.
Rahane gave a chance when he was on seven, top edging a ball from Boult that Henry misjudged in the deep, but that aside he was resolute. This was his 20th Test fifty and his second in this series having made 77 in the last match in Kolkata.
Kohli won the toss, scored an unbeaten hundred — his sixth as Test captain — and saw his team to a strong position from which they can put this Test beyond their opponents. If this match does finish as an Indian win, he will have played seven Tests as captain at home, winning six and drawing one.
Being captain of the Test team is a very straightforward affair.