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19 May 2024, Edition - 3232, Sunday

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The Kohli setup for an Eden classic



Prakash Govindasreenivasan

Virat Kohli walked out to bat when the Eden Gardens Test was at the crossroads. The last session on Sunday had nearly established that the pitch was easing out and so was Suranga Lakmal’s impact, thanks to a niggle. But the Indian captain arrived to a double turnaround. The cracks on the surface opened up and, as a result, so did Lakmal’s chance of a Day 1 reprise. In the space of 13 overs in the morning, KL Rahul was gone for 79, and two more of the top-five exited, putting India on thin ice.

Kohli appeared to have come in with a degree of apprehensions, and understandably so, after a 11-ball duck in the first innings. His back-and-across trigger movement appeared a bit exaggerated at the start, perhaps to put him in a better position to cover the line of the moving ball. And yet, the third ball he faced, Lakmal had him beaten outside the off-stump. The pacer would do that again in the following over, as Kohli couldn’t quite get his bat in the right position for the away-movers.

Sri Lanka’s first change of the morning came as Kohli’s cue. The Indian captain bullied medium pacer Dasun Shanaka, whose deliveries came gift-wrapped on occasions when they didn’t move off the pitch. Chandimal placed two fielders in the cover region and hoped Shanaka could tempt Kohli by bowling full on off-stump, but Kohli’s limited-overs instinct had kicked in. On any other day and situation, there wouldn’t have been a need for batsmen to go after those that come with a trap, but since Chandimal had moved his midwicket fielder to the catching position on the off-side, Kohli saw an empty space for a quick single.

In Ravindra Jadeja, Kohli found an intriguing partner. The first thought behind Jadeja’s promotion ahead of Wriddhiman Saha and Ravichandran Ashwin looked like a move to give the lead a strong nudge ahead, but that didn’t happen. Jadeja was ultra-defensive, but managed to stay on and halt the rut that saw Rahul, Pujara and Rahane depart in quick succession. It was a passage of play when Sri Lanka would’ve dearly missed another specialist bowler. Only Lakmal looked like a bowler capable of picking a wicket on the day, as Kohli punished the erring Shanaka and Gamage.

With his maiden fifty at the Eden Gardens, Kohli had successfully manoeuvred India away from the period where Sri Lanka got genuinely excited about going 1-0 up in the series. Or so he’d have thought. Three wickets on either side of the Lunch break tripped India on the way forward. At seven down, India’s lead of 159 still didn’t sound safe. This was a cue too, for Kohli to bring out a more elaborate version of his limited-overs self. Unknowingly, Sri Lanka played it into his hands after recovering some of the lost ground via those three breakthroughs.

“Luckily they took the new ball – the old ball was soft and wasn’t easier to get away – and I thought I might as well go for it,” he’d say later in the post-match presentation.

Against the new ball, Kohli quickly went from streaky to downright delightful with his shots, epitomised by a delectable straight drive off Lakmal. Kohli’s inter-format switch was truly complete in the following over against Shanaka, when he walked across and brought his strong bottom hand into play for a flick. But there was more. After the drinks break, he brought out his best shot of the innings – a lofted drive off the sweet spot of the bat into the stands where the fans turned up the noise. They were in for one more show of brilliance from the Indian captain – down the track and inside out on another uppish drive – to reach his 18th Test century – and 50th in international cricket.

A raised bat, a fist pump and a huge roar of ‘come on’ followed before a sprint back to the pavilion. And why not. Kohli had after all just pulled off a fascinating prelude to a stirring final session.

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