In a series that has been dominated by talk of Virat Kohli even if his bat has not done the talking in the manner he would have liked, the final chapter unfolded with the protagonist forced to take a back seat. And, as they have done all series, Kohli’s mates picked up the slack, giving themselves every chance of forcing a result, even if predicting such things at the end of one day of five is fraught with risk.
Kohli has been central all of India’s tactical moves since he took over as captain, his wanton pursuit of victory even if that meant courting defeat being a hallmark of India’s play. Not having Kohli in the team for a decider at the end of a long home season meant India were missing more than just their best batsman.
It is Kohli who has taken the lead with DRS calls through this series. It is Kohli who fussily moves fielders one foot to the left or right after the bowler has his people where he wants them. It is Kohli who breathes life into dull passages of play, egging the crowd on to slow-hand-clap the bowler as he runs in trying to break a partnership. It is Kohli who gets in the faces of the Australians when they have something to say and it is Kohli who goes straight to the umpires when he sees something on the field that he doesn’t like.
To fill a Kohli-sized hole in the team would take some doing and although the talented Shreyas Iyer had been called into the squad as cover, the team management – Anil Kumble and the non-playing Kohli would have had significant inputs in stand-in skipper Ajinkya Rahane’s choices – made the bold and imaginative decision to play the extra bowler.
While all conventional logic dictated that the absence of Kohli and the blooding of a stripling would mean playing an extra batsman, India went with Kuldeep Yadav, and the Uttar Pradesh boy showed what a lethal weapon a chinaman bowler can be. In keeping with Kohli’s horses-for-courses bowling selections, India also left out the hit-the-deck Ishant Sharma for Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s hooping swing. With luck, this could have paid dividends off the very first ball, as a dozy Karun Nair was unable to latch on to a sharp chance off the bat of David Warner.
If India were forced to barter the fire of Kohli for the ice of Rahane, described by Steven Smith as “a more a chilled-out guy” than the man he replaced, they did not have to settle for a less aggressive approach. Certainly, there was no hint of confrontation, no barbs exchanged or insults traded on the day, but the manner in which Rahane leaned on Australia when they were doing well, strangling wickets even when runs came, showed that aggression can be purely cricketing.
While Rahane did not want Australia to run away with the game, after they frolicked to 131/1 at lunch, and instructed his bowlers not to concede more than 60-70 runs in the second session, he did not fall back on negative tactics. Rahane did not mind conceding the boundaries as long as the batsmen were forced to take risks, and the close-in catchers never left their stations.
Smith’s romance with India may have bloomed further – he now has seven centuries in his last eight Tests against India and averages 88.25 against his favourite opposition – but even that could not help Australia take full advantage of winning yet another important toss.
Rahane may not say very much standing in the slips, taped fingers directing the traffic, but the intent with which he plays cricket is a form of aggression that is becoming all too rare in the modern era. With the bat in hand, when he’s wearing whites, Rahane rarely hits a shot in anger, but lurking beneath this polite exterior is a competitor who gives no quarter and asks for none.
When the bowling is quick and at him, Rahane has not flinched and has had to wear a few blows on his chest; when the ball is swinging or seaming excessively, Rahane has not fallen to temptation; when spin has been the theme on rank turners, Rahane has not looked pretty but he has found ways to make crucial ugly runs.
While this India-Australia series will always be remembered for the manner in which Kohli was forced into a harsh and critical limelight, so much so that he was “surprised that so many people are getting affected by just one individual” the fable that will grow ripe in the telling is how he carried drinks at the time his team carried him when he needed it the most.
(This article first appeared in The Scroll on March 25, 2017)