“The truest superpowers are the ones we all possess: willpower, integrity, and most importantly, courage”, someone once said.
It had nothing to do with Virat Kohli, or even cricket, but could so well have been referring to the India captain’s magnificent century at Edgbaston – his first in England, after having scored 134 runs in 10 previous innings. A century in the making for more than four years.
Never mind that Kohli got 655 runs when he last played against England in Tests, including a masterly 235 in Mumbai that sealed the series for India. Never mind that he had scores of 54 and 41 on one of the most treacherous surfaces that India have played on all year – in Johannesburg – and never mind, of course, that he came into this series as the No.2-ranked batsman in the world.
It was this final frontier that was somehow supposed to define his legacy as a batsman.
And so, when India found themselves 59-3 after being 50-0 at one stage, with the 20-year-old Sam Curran swinging the ball prodigiously after his senior partners James Anderson and Stuart Broad had failed to pick up an early wicket – a signature engraved in stone almost every time they take the new ball for England – Kohli walked out with a lot to prove.
Kohli had declared before the Tests that the series was not going to be about him scoring runs, but Anderson believed that the Indian captain must have been lying in saying so. A nice non-war of words there.
Nevertheless, even if Kohli didn’t want his runs to matter – they had to on the day considering the match situation – England wanted his wicket. Anderson had already bowled seven overs by the time Shikhar Dhawan was caught in the slips by Dawid Malan – who had quite a big role to play in the day, at this time unknown to him – but the old warrior was gearing up for eight more. What followed was the first part of a series of duels that would define the day in many ways.
A 36-year-old fast bowler bowled 15 overs on the trot, broken only by a 40-minute lunch interval and one over by leg-spinner Adil Rashid, to try and dismiss a batsman who did not have a half-century in Tests in England. Says something?
For the first half-hour or so, at least until the lunch break, it seemed like Kohli indeed was the batsman who didn’t have a half-century in England. Edges flew off his blade – a few of them landed short of fielders, and one of them was dropped shortly after lunch, by Malan, when Kohli only had 21.
England is a place where even the slightest chinks in your technique are laid bare, even more when the hosts have their two all-time leading wicket-takers and the most exciting all-rounder of our times in their midst. Anderson had done that to Kohli in 2014 and was ready to sap out the last morsel of patience from the Indian captain by bowling a frustratingly consistent fourth-fifth-stump line, giving Kohli no room to breathe.
When both Kohli and Anderson are done with their careers, they might realise that what they had on Thursday was a headmaster-student bond in the name of a rivalry. Anderson, the wily customer, with answers to everything that his students, Kohli included, could ask him, teaching his pupils how to go about the art of Test batsmanship in testing conditions.
Kohli braved and survived, owing to the only factor that is independent of a batsman or the opposition’s skills – luck. And India reached 100, but only to stay there for four overs as Anderson and Ben Stokes came charging after India in the most intense, aggressive spell of bowling all summer. India lost Ajinkya Rahane and Dinesh Karthik, nearly lost Hardik Pandya but for a review, and Stokes got his 100th Test wicket.
India went from 100/3 to 102/5 in the space of six overs, but Kohli survived.
Anderson had bowled 15. Joe Root had to take him off. Stuart Broad replaced him and Kohli could breathe again. Kohli crossed 39, until then his highest Test score in England, lost Pandya to Curran in the fourth hour, but brought up his fifty off 100 balls. He was reminded immediately, though, that the job was far from done, when on the very next ball, an outside edge flew to Malan – yes, again – whose outstretched hands could not grab it. Kohli might have given Malan a treat after the day ended, who knows?
If the first 50 runs were hard graft, the next 99 runs were a result of remarkable man-management and risk-assessment. India lost Ravichandran Ashwin shortly after tea, still 118 runs behind England’s 287, with only three fast bowlers – Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav – left.
Shami walked out to face the music, and Curran and Anderson, who wanted Kohli but got Ashwin as a consolation gift, were at it again.
There began part two of the Kohli v Anderson duel. Immaculate consistency matched immeasurable patience. Glares met glares. Even smiles were exchanged. And with each passing moment, Kohli became better and better, even nonchalant, laughing after missing, sharing a joke or two with Jonny Bairstow behind the stumps, and making sure the tail-enders didn’t take much of the strike.
This was the 21st-century version of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object – only that there was no collision, no noise, no unnecessary chatter. Just Test cricket, in its purest form.
Shami fell to Anderson, Sharma fell to Rashid, but Kohli stood tall. By now, Kohli had started toying with the bowling. He was taking singles off the fourth, fifth or sixth balls, with England trying and failing, mostly, in their pursuit of having Yadav on strike. That they were trying to have the bowlers and not Kohli was a sign that perhaps the hosts had conceded Kohli was too good, even for them, on the day.
Kohli knew it, and so when a tired Stokes came back for his last burst of the day, he was driven and pulled for boundaries. Rashid was heaved over extra cover and pulled over mid-wicket for a six. Kohli carried India from 169/7 to within 13 runs of England’s first-innings total and he did it without any mic-drops or abuse.
India do have many problems to counter still and this Test is far from over, but on the second day at Edgbaston, Kohli conquered his demons with one superpower that was never really associated with him: Patience. And showed why he is one of the best in the world.