Virat Kohli walked. He had poked outside off, Jos Buttler pouched the ball, the cordon went up in appeal in chorus to the ringmaster, Jimmy Anderson, and India’s fight in the third Test was dead in the water. Except it was not. Doing his duty as vice-captain and non-striker, Ajinkya Rahane prevailed on Kohli to review the decision.
The third umpire saw clearly the same daylight between bat and ball that Rahane had, and technology confirmed that the sound that so enthused England and foxed the umpire came from bat brushing pad. It was the last ball of the 87th over and, for India, hope floated.
Except it did not last long. Seven balls later, Ollie Robinson presented one in the channel and Kohli nicked off for 55. This was as good a time as any for Kohli to end his near two-year, 50-innings streak without a hundred, but no. In the same period, players under much more pressure to keep their spots, such as Cheteshwar Pujara and Rahane, have changed the course of matches with hundreds.
Kohli values his wicket. So much so that he reviews decisions against him almost by default. Since 2017, Kohli has reviewed 13 times, and his earlier success against Anderson was the first one reversed. To see India’s captain walk here illustrated two things. Firstly, it showed that even the best batsmen in the world do not necessarily know whether they have got bat to ball at times. And secondly, the stomach for the fight was perhaps less in evidence at Headingley than at Lord’s, when Kohli asked his bowlers to unleash 60 overs of hell at England.
This can happen when you are bowled out for 78 on the first day after choosing to bat. In the immediate aftermath of the toss, Kohli’s decision looked brave. But, given India had a non-firing middle-order and more No 11s than the average intra-office tournament, it was a gamble. Not necessarily one not worth taking, but one that backfired irreversibly.
To borrow from Kevin Pietersen, it is not easy being Kohli. As a batsman he has set impossibly high standards, and in today’s world possibly faces more scrutiny and critique than Sachin Tendulkar, the most watched cricketer in the history of the game. But the manner in which Kohli has been dismissed all series begs the question of whether he has worked out a method to bat in English conditions.
When he struggled in 2014, Kohli’s best score was 39 from 10 innings. In 2018 he redeemed himself, making 149 and 103 as well as three half-centuries, including an innings of 97. The narrative was that he had worked out English conditions, and equally Anderson.
But 2021 has shown that declarations of mastery are neither reliable nor permanent. Just as Kohli has evolved, grown and overcome, so have opposition bowlers. What is particularly worrisome is the repetitive nature of Kohli’s dismissals in this series. He looks as determined and committed as ever, but is hanging his angled bat outside off-stump to deliveries that a batsman of his quality should leave well alone.
And this is not limited to his batting. When India are on top, Kohli is the man to lead them. But as this Test has shown, when they are behind the game he is short of ideas, as evidenced by his use of Ishant Sharma when the bowler was clearly off colour, or in his lack of imagination in not finding a place for Ravichandran Ashwin and his change of demeanour.
It is easier to be the aggressor and rant and rave when you are backed into a corner than to channel the same force when you are 1-0 up and need to tick the right boxes. This is why historically so many political parties find themselves ideally suited to being in opposition, all fire and brimstone, but find the world a rather more difficult place to navigate when on top.
In Revelation, the poet Robert Frost wrote: “We make ourselves a place apart/Behind light words that tease and flout/But oh, the agitated heart/Till someone find us really out.”
It is too early to say conclusively that Kohli has been found out, but for the moment it does appear that England’s bowlers have a clearer understanding of where the off-stump is than the Indian captain does.
There are two Tests to go and Kohli will no doubt go back to the drawing board with his coaches and colleagues. But for the moment, he is searching – even outside off-stump – rather than seeking, and therein lies India’s biggest problem.