An old cricket cliche is that batsmen regard poor deliveries as their bread and butter. Virat Kohli, however, seems to prefer it the other way around. He likes a challenge. He wants every bit of his considerable skill tested. It is almost as if he feels shortchanged when things are easy. At Wankhede stadium, Kohli rose above scoreboard pressure on a turning track to make his 15th Test century in front of a packed crowd. In doing so, he became the first Indian captain in 35 years to make 500 runs or more in a series and took his team into the lead.
Mumbai has a history of being a very difficult place to bat in the third and fourth innings so even the slimmest of advantages can prove decisive. That was incentive number one. Incentive number two was the opportunity to make tough runs, Kohli’s favourite kind. There was quick turn and steep bounce. England’s spinners exploited them to pick up four wickets for 45 runs in the middle session. India, at that point, were 307 for 6 and 93 runs behind. Four good balls would have had them on the mat.
But Kohli had his plans. Simple ones. He moved back and across to the offbreaks of Moeen Ali, knowing the bowler doesn’t use his wrong ‘un often. So he was always in a good position even when a few deliveries kicked up off a length. He would lean over the legbreaks of Adil Rashid and from that position his powerful wrists were able to do what they wanted. Those skills were bolstered by a new-found restraint.
He was careful outside his off stump, even his leaves were characterised by a giant front-foot stride and the bat stabbing at the air above him, and was content despite scoring only 11 runs off 47 balls in the first hour after lunch. Kohli recognised that England had hit their rhythm and the sensible thing to do was to wait it out. He was having the time of his life doing it all, of course, winking at his partner after hitting boundaries and sticking his tongue out at the pitch when it misbehaved.
It didn’t hurt that there were nearly 20,000 people at the ground chanting his name. Kohli draws from them. He did at Eden Gardens, where India became the No. 1 team in the world. He did in Visakhapatnam, where he produced a couple of masterclasses on a slow and low surface. At Wankhede, when he got his 100th run, he screamed in delight, leapt up to punch the air and spread his arms in triumph. The noise was deafening. He batted through the entire day and remained not out on 147.
England had to deal with another Indian batsmen showing his class on Saturday. M Vijay made 136 sublime runs. They were important runs too, with his partner Cheteshwar Pujara falling off the second ball of the day.
Alastair Cook taking a punt. He had a man with 467 wickets at the ready but chose the one playing his first Test since his debut in July to bowl the first over. Jake Ball repaid that trust quite emphatically when he bowled Pujara neck and crop. The batsman had shouldered arms, having misread the line of a delivery that pitched on fifth stump and seamed in.
At this point, India had a choice to make. It was very early in the day. They were 254 runs behind on a turning pitch. Their usual No. 5 Ajinkya Rahane, who averages 47, was injured. So their middle order comprised of Karun Nair, playing his second Test, and Parthiv Patel, recalled this series from an eight-year cryogenic freeze. But this team is probably allergic to taking steps back.
Kohli guided Ball to the third man boundary twice in the fourth over after the breakthrough and then thumped a fist onto the face of his bat when Vijay hoisted Moeen Ali for a straight six. India went from 150 to 200 in only 66 balls – after the wicket had fallen.
Vijay got to his hundred off the 231st ball he faced, benefiting from an outside edge as Moeen tried bowling around the stumps and got one to hold its line. He celebrated pointing to his left shoulder, while looking at someone in the dressing room. Soon after, he took a perfectly good delivery from James Anderson and lofted it back over his head for four.
It would sicken England that they had a chance to dismiss both of India’s centurions for a lot less. Rashid fumbled a tough return catch offered by Kohli on 68 and watched the wicketkeeper Jonny Bairstow fumble a stumping off Vijay on 45.
It was even more of a shame because England’s spinners had put in an impressive performance. They worked the rookie Karun over beautifully. Rashid beat the outside edge three times in a row before Moeen, bowling around the wicket, had him lbw with a good length delivery that straightened sharply enough to overrule the on-field umpire’s not-out decision when England went for DRS. They had their revenge over Parthiv Patel, who questioned their quality last evening only to fall to part-timer Joe Root’s first over of the day. R Ashwin was caught brilliantly by Keaton Jennings at short leg, the fielder staying in line with a full-blooded flick and being rewarded for it when the ball just stuck in his midriff.
At that point, England had a sniff at securing a lead but handy cameos from Ravindra Jadeja and Jayant Yadav meant India pulled ahead. Their seventh wicket added 57 runs in 82 balls and the eighth an unbroken 87 off 145.