Enforcing the follow-on in the Melbourne Test was never going to be a cut and dry option for Virat Kohli. He'd be quartered and hung to dry for India being reduced to 54 for 5. But ultimately, when cricket calls are taken and ascertained, his was the right one. And inevitably so.
In fact, captains rarely take that call to follow-on by themselves these days. They consult senior bowlers, main bowler, coach, bowling coach, physio (most importantly) and a whole lot of others before making the decision.
India’s skipper Kohli would have done all of the above, assessed the situation, and then decided against enforcing the follow-on. This despite running up a massive 292-run lead and having the home team on the mat, so to speak.
The worry would not have been about losing the Test. In fact, very rarely have teams rallied from hopeless situations and turned the tables on the dominant team. The last instance that comes to mind is that magnificent fightback staged by VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid against champion side Australia in Kolkata in 2001.
That was a great Test, made so by that great win. But that was strictly a one-off ‘come-back-from-the-dead’ kind of win.
To say that international captains are scared of losing because of that one great freak victory would be nonsensical. That was a one in a 100 result and very rarely, if ever, would it be achieved anytime soon.
Sure, teams and skippers would love to be ruthless and smash an opposition team when the latter is down and out. Nevertheless they would still be a lot reluctant to enforce the follow-on in modern-day Test cricket.
The reasons for this are many. But the number one factor would be concern for the welfare of bowlers. A captain would not like to overwork his main bowlers in an attempt to rub an opponents’ nose in the dirt.
He’d need to look at the big picture and do what is best not just for the Test at hand but for the series and other matches in his team’s schedule.
A big impediment to stretching key personnel and bowling them to the ground would be modern scheduling which lists back-to-back Tests as standard fare. In the current series, the Melbourne Test is scheduled to finish on December 30 while the next one starts in Sydney three days later. This is a far cry from the days of television commentator Sunil Gavaskar when there were seven to 10 days gap between Tests on the West Indies tour in 1971. Besides, every Test also had a rest day worked into it.
Kohli, on the other hand, has no such cushions. He needs to ensure that his bowlers stay fit and fresh for the forthcoming Sydney Test and for cricket beyond. Consequently, Kohli cannot run the risk of squeezing every ounce of energy from his bowlers in this Test itself. He needs to handle them with care and nurture them for other battles too.
In the olden days, captains could flog their main bowlers without fear of him breaking down and not being available for future matches. To start with, there was a rest day splitting the five-day Test. The rest day has now been done away with while hours of play have been extended to ensure 90 overs a day or six hours of play, whichever is more.
It was not just the slow, unhurried pace of play that epitomised cricket in the not so distant past; there was also a high percentage of drawn Tests. This made follow-on an attractive proposition for aggressive teams, especially when it came to injecting some urgency into proceedings.
These days though, a draw is a rarity and results are almost guaranteed. Thus enforcing the follow-on to force a result is just not required. The result would come almost always unless the weather interferes.
Kohli’s primary focus would be the Test win. But with it, he also needs to keep the series win in mind. He cannot afford to win the battle and lose the war. He needs to work out his overall strategy in such a manner that he wins both.
Cricket aficionados may be agitated because India are pegged down at 54 for 5 in the second innings. But they are 346 runs ahead and with two days of play still remaining, the initiative is very much with India.
Sure some may argue that India’s bowlers sent down just 67 overs in Australia’s innings and they ought to have been able to shoulder a greater burden. But they would do well to remember that 25 of those overs came from Ravindra Jadeja who had issues with his shoulder in the lead up to the tour and Test. The pace bowlers too are not all cent percent fit and any rest to get their breath back and stay fresh would be welcome.
India, unfortunately, have gone into the Test with just four bowlers and it is very important for the workload to be shared between the four. Anyone of the four breaking down would place great stress on the others and the team.
Additionally, there is so much of cricket to be played on this tour of Australia and New Zealand and with IPL and World Cup following it, Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri have a responsibility to take great care of key players.
The Indian captain thus had no option at MCG today. He did not need to do a statistical analysis to ascertain that his bowlers deserved all the rest he could squeeze out for them. Not enforcing the follow-on was a hard decision and Kohli and team need to be complimented for allowing the head rather than the heart do the talking. Way to go skipper.