Six years ago, when Virat Kohli averaged 9.20 in the 2016/17 Border-Gavaskar Trophy, India needed KL Rahul to produce the performance of his life and Cheteshwar Pujara to play two of the most important knocks of his career to narrowly secure a 2-1 victory over Australia.
At that point, even at home, Kohli was still the nucleus of the batting and neutralizing him nearly paved the way for the Aussies to secure a series win in India. They were this close.
How things change!
On Friday at the Vidarbha Cricket Association Stadium in Nagpur, six years on, Australia once again managed to dismiss Kohli cheaply.
However, the magnitude, significance and prominence of the wicket was no longer what it once was.
A visibly delighted Todd Murphy, on debut, jumped in joy knowing he’d just dismissed an all-time great but deep down, he and his teammates knew that the breakthrough ultimately did not mean a lot in the bigger scheme of things.
‘We’ve got Virat, yay! But there are far bigger fishes that need frying. We move’.
Admittedly, Kohli has declined as a red-ball batter. Part of the reason why his wicket is no longer the brass ring is his dwindling numbers.
Across his last 21 Tests, Kohli averages 25.81, having struck no tons.
In the entire world, since the start of 2020, no batter that has amassed 850 or more runs has fared worse.
Six years ago, Kohli getting out under 15, particularly at home, used to be a shock. Now it’s just another Friday.
But, more than anything, Kohli’s wicket no longer being the be-all and end-all is a testament to how far India’s batting has come in the past half-a-decade.
India, as a batting unit at home, have outgrown Kohli and are currently in a position where they can afford to have the former skipper as a luxury player in the XI. They are so strong overall that Kohli’s wicket — the runs that come off his bat — can be considered a bonus.
Sounds silly, absurd and ludicrous, but that’s the truth.
The transformation of Rohit into a world-class opener/subcontinent GOAT, the emergence of Shreyas Iyer and Rishabh Pant, the metamorphosis of Ravindra Jadeja from a lower-order batter to a full-fledged specialist, the everlasting presence of R Ashwin and the inclusion of Axar Patel has taken the side’s ceiling with the bat (at home) to a whole new level.
Kohli doesn’t need to get you. Because Rohit will. If he doesn’t, Pant and Iyer will. No Pant and Iyer? No problem. At least one of Jadeja, Ashwin and Axar certainly will.
How do you even hurt such a batting line-up?
The Aussies are still trying to figure.
When Nathan Lyon castled Suryakumar Yadav, India had lost half the side and were still trailing the visitors by 9 runs. On paper, it is not unreasonable for the bowling side to start thinking of bowling the opponent out within the next 20-25 overs or so, ideally keeping the deficit under 50.
Except when Lyon bowled Suryakumar, in walked Ravindra Jadeja, a batter who in his previous 9 home Tests had averaged 75.12.
After him? A debutant wicket-keeper with a first-class average of 37.95 and a triple-century in his CV, and another all-rounder whose seven previous knocks at home yielded 185 runs @ 37.00.
This, only thanks to injuries. Had India been full-strength, Australia would have had to deal with Shreyas Iyer and Rishabh Pant instead of Suryakumar Yadav and KS Bharat. Let’s not even get there.
The second day in Nagpur demonstrated just how difficult it is for opposition sides to bowl India out at home these days, even on wickets that supposedly are a bowlers/spinners’ paradise.
On wickets like the one at the Vidarbha Cricket Association Stadium, bowlers are supposed to have a clear edge. Like India did on the first day, when they bowled Australia out for 177.
And yes, their hold in the game is supposed to get stronger and stronger with time, due to the deterioration of the wicket.
Try telling Australia that.
While all their batters bar Alex Carey — even the ones who managed to score runs — got beaten left, right and center by the turn (and natural variation), Rohit Sharma made the Nagpur track look like SCG.
All by himself, Rohit scored 67.79% of the runs Australia managed — extras included — and against the spinners, he collected 72 runs.
For the first 143 balls of his innings — up until the drop by Smith — Rohit was untouchable, invincible and impenetrable. It eventually needed Cummins to bowl the best ball of the match to send the Indian skipper back to the pavilion.
You’re not supposed to bat the way Rohit did on tracks like these.
You could probably play down Rohit’s innings by claiming that the Australian spinners (Lyon, in particular) were not threatening and that he benefited from the Aussies not having someone who could spin the ball away from him.
But here’s the thing: two years ago in Chennai, Rohit played an even better knock on an even tougher track. And yes, for the record, in that particular encounter, he came up against a lethal left-arm spinner in the form of Jack Leach.
11 days post the Chennai masterclass, he scored 66 (45% of the team’s total) on an Ahmedabad track that was so bad that Joe Root took 5 for 8. He followed this up with another match-defining 49 on a much less worse, albeit still very bowler-friendly wicket in which England suffered an innings defeat despite India scoring only 365 in their first innings.
It’s just who he is now, Rohit. Arguably the best opener in the world; undoubtedly the single best batter in home conditions.
Flat wicket? He’ll bully you. Spinning track? He’ll bully you. Rank turner? Thank you very much, he’ll still bully you.
Anyway, back to Day 2 of Nagpur. You’re Cummins and you’ve just castled Rohit with a beaut. Murphy gets debutant Bharat soon as well, and at 240/7, you’re thinking of keeping the lead under 100 (it’s currently 63).
Except it’s not happening because Jadeja and Axar are together, and they are making the track look even flatter than what Rohit did.
All the talk heading into this Test was how batting versus spin was going to be impossible for left-handers due to the calculated watering done by the ground staff. That plus two off-spinners that turn the ball away from the leftie (one of whom was brimming with confidence having taken five), the odds were stacked in Australia’s favour.
But what happens?
Jadeja and Axar put together an unbeaten 81-run stand, and both bat with a control percentage of over 94% against the Aussie spinners. It’s not until the final two overs of the day they are troubled, by which point they’ve already successfully mentally and emotionally exhausted their opponents.
Simply cruel, if you’re the bowling side.
Kohli might no longer be the red-ball batter he once was, but opponents still have to encounter a subcontinent GOAT in Rohit, two monsters in Iyer and Pant and then a lower-middle/lower-order which, at home, is as potent as most teams’ top-order.
Australia have lucked out in Nagpur, with India missing both Iyer and Pant, and yet they’ve only managed to take seven wickets on a pitch tailor-made for spinners.
All this and we’ve not even touched upon the drop in form of Pujara — for the past two years, like Kohli, India at home have been dominating without any contributions from the veteran, who not too long ago was the side’s most important batter in the subcontinent, alongside Kohli. Replace the term 'Kohli' in the second part of this article with 'Pujara' and everything that's written will still hold true.
India’s batting at home, as things stand, seems unstoppable and immovable at the same time. Going through it, in all likelihood, will require the Aussies to produce their best-ever showing with the ball.
From what we’ve seen thus far, however, the visitors’ standards are nowhere near where they should be, in order for them to pose a threat to this indomitable Indian side.
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