There are 19,400 voices in the stands. A majority of them shout “Kohli Kohli” as Adil Rashid bounds in. Sound doesn’t escape the Wankhede Stadium because the stands are almost vertical. Virat Kohli is on 98. He has stopped celebrating hundreds of late. Says they are nothing special and that he needs to make sure hundreds don’t satisfy him. Job not done. You wonder if he will make an exception this time. This is a pitch where the ball has been turning square. Turning square and bouncing. Turning square and turning fast. This is a pitch on which India have conceded 400.
Rashid pitches too full, Kohli works it into the vast open spaces on the leg side, and hares off immediately. The crowd leaves the seats. Kohli sees Jos Buttler running in from deep backward square leg, and settles for one. You still wonder if this hundred is more special to him than Indore or Visakhapatnam. You have to wait for the next over when the “Kohli Kohli” will resume.
The chant began in the morning. After the second ball of the morning when Cheteshwar Pujara was bowled shouldering arms. This is the ground whose favourite son started the trend of Indian stands cheering the fall of the second wicket. Three years since that man retired, that pedestal has been occupied by Kohli. Pujara had barely walked half his way back when the chant began.
India were still 254 behind. A hundred here couldn’t ensure India a win in the Test – they have to bat last – but a failure could lose it for them: there was no Ajinkya Rahane to follow him; Karun Nair, playing his second Test, was one of the five specialist batsmen in the side; and – good as it might have been – the lower order couldn’t be left with too much to do on this pitch.
Kohli fed the frenzy as he nicely guided the 10th, 12th and the 16th ball he faced for fours, not through the cover drive but through a steer. England wanted him to cover-drive, bowling outside off with two slips and a strong cover field. This is how the quicks have been testing his patience. Kohli has shown patience all series long. He showed it here too but whenever Jake Ball pitched slightly short, Kohli opened the face and had those three boundaries without having to go looking for runs.
If there was his name on that ball, it wasn’t Kohli’s signature. He was not touching them
Kohli had reached 15 off 27 when his partner M Vijay drove into a big gap in the covers. Vijay is 32 years old, he had a dodgy back coming into the series, he is more in the Cheteshwar Pujara league of runners, but he touched down for a second and set off for a third. Kohli, though, already had his hand up because Vijay would have struggled to make it. Two balls later, Vijay looks to go hard to convert one to two, but Kohli lets him know when crossing him that one is okay. Some time ago, Kohli would have become agitated at a run missed. Now he runs at his partners’ pace. Partners he had dropped in the West Indies in favour of more attacking batsmen. Now they adjust a little, and Kohli adjusts a little in return.
This has been the year of Kohli’s adjustment in an attempt to become a complete batsman. In Kanpur, after India had taken a first-innings lead against New Zealand, Kohli fell trying to hit a spinner in the air as he looked to dominate. He has stopped hitting them in the air since. A batsman who scored 973 runs in the IPL this year vowing not to hit spinners in Tests. Not when he is playing only five batsmen in a bid to push for results. This is a batsman at complete peace with his game.
Kohli is an excellent frontrunner, but there wasn’t much frontrunning to do here with a long way to go to parity. So he dug in. He applauded some attractive strikes from Vijay – as he does every now and then for release – but he kept waiting for the loose ball. As Parthiv Patel said at the end of day two, the loose ball kept arriving every now and then. He played 111 balls to reach his half-century, respecting the match situation, the pitch and his team composition. He spent 46 balls in the 40s. Surely he considers a 46-ball hundred slow in T20s?
Sure enough the loose balls arrived, but there were also the likes of the 85th he faced. A sharp spitting legbreak. Turning. Bouncing. Turning and bouncing fast. Kohli didn’t follow such balls with his hands. If there was his name on that ball, it wasn’t Kohli’s signature. He was not touching them. He was not going to panic if they turned past him.
The last mental error that resulted in Kohli’s dismissal before he had made an impact was in Kolkata, in the second Test against New Zealand, when he followed a sucker ball during a short-ball attack. Since then he has perhaps made one mental error, failing to keep a hook down in Visakhapatnam, but Rashid dropped him there. Five Tests since then is a long time to go as a batsman with few mental errors. Kohli is just an obsessed man.
Kohli was 64 off 146 when he lost R Ashwin. India were 307 for 6. Kohli was now not going to wait patiently while the others fell: the last four had gone for 55 as he watched; he certainly couldn’t have afforded a repeat. So he took Rashid on. It didn’t matter that he was bowling from round the wicket to choke his runs. The puffs of dust didn’t matter. He swept out of the rough. He punished anything short, splitting the reinforced leg-side field. This was a man who has all the shots but he had willingly shelved them. Lest anybody forgot.
This charge completely negated the pitch and the field placements and the loss of another wicket. He hit one shot so hard the ball hit the hand of Rashid, the bowler, more than him dropping the catch. Poor Rashid, yet again. In these 40 balls, Kohli had gone from 64 to 99. This time Jake Ball ran in. Nineteen thousand four hundred in the stands. A loud chant of “Kohli Kohli”. You thought you had seen something special. You wondered if Kohli felt this hundred deserved a celebration.
Kohli leant into a length ball, pushed it wide of mid-off, charged through, and raised his arm even before he reached the crease, unleashing a leap into the air. He removed his helmet, acknowledged the dressing room, and then took his time acknowledging the generous applause. We were back to the exuberant Kohli. The man himself felt this was something special. He had made all the physical and mental adjustments required to succeed on a difficult pitch in what he feels is the most demanding format of the sport.
The job wasn’t done yet, though. India were still 32 behind. Kohli had reached that rare zone where a cricketer does as he likes. Driving a legspinner against the turn, running hard deep into the sixth hour of his batting in the humidity of Mumbai, Kohli took India to a lead of 51. Towards the end he allowed himself a little indulgence. Impishly, he rubbed it in with a DRS signal when England had wasted theirs and now didn’t have any left to call for a review when Jayant Yadav nicked one.
Having reached 138, the lead 36, Kohli lofted Rashid back over his head and stood and admired his shot. Surely he felt many a time previously that he could do this as opposed to putting balls into gaps and then running his runs? These are not the best spinners he has faced, but he respected the sport, the requirement for the decisions he had made as a captain. So he played the loft only when his team had reached safety. For the first time since September 25. Only once in 805 balls of spin he had faced since then.
Of course Kohli should have made an exception for such an effort and celebrated it the way he did. The way the innings deserved.