Silence descended on the biggest cricketing arena in the world. At this World Cup, rarely has an India game seen such a lull. More than a lakh lungs lost their voice. Virat Kohli stood there dazed, frozen, disbelieving what his ears, eyes told him. The LED stump lights were flashing after he had inside-edged Pat Cummins onto his stumps. A roaring Australian captain had long run past him. For some reason, Kohli had a despairing look towards square-leg before he reluctantly began to drag himself away from the crime scene.
On a very sluggish pitch where every batsman is bound to struggle, he had played a peach of a knock, but couldn’t convert it to a substantial contribution. Later in the innings, a reverse-swinging away-shaper from Mitchell Starc would consume KL Rahul, and the Indian innings began to meander.
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The hosts huffed and puffed to an inadequate 240, being bowled out for the first, and only, time in the World Cup. That the Indians managed just four boundaries after the first Powerplay indicated how much control the Australians exuded. The over a lakh Indian fans, who had for over a month got used to India’s overwhelming domination in their 10-match winning streak, weren’t getting to see the team they had watched on television.
As for Australia, they seemed to have saved the best for the last game. They were bowling with discipline and fielding like their life depended on saves and catches.
Rohit Sharma would fall to one such catch. After another attacking cameo, he had sliced Glenn Maxwell over the covers where Travis Head ran back for a lunging catch. The dismissal also showed that the pitch had begun to reveal its true face. The scraggy lines first appeared around the batting crease at one end; a black patch began to spread. The main turf, where the ball would land, would turn sticky, sucking the ball. It would peel off the surface ever so slowly, like a kid trying to yank off a chewing gum stuck on his bicycle.
Now it was game on. The Aussies had wondrously combined aggression with intelligence – bowling a variety of balls carefully curated for this pitch. The cutters; the bouncers that took their time to reach the batsmen, messing up their timing; the loopy off-paced curlers from the slower bowlers; even the occasional hit-the-deck pounders that would rear up at the pace the batsmen didn’t expect, and near the end it had also begun to reverse a tad – the cocktail was slowly poisoning the Indians.
Pitch of choice
Ironically, it was the poison India had consciously chosen. There has been talk that this was the pitch where India played Pakistan a few moons back. This was the track where coach Rahul Dravid and his support staff headed to on the first day they landed in Ahmedabad. Now it was threatening to backfire, but they had their best batsman, Kohli out there, and he produced a pearler of a knock.
It was a sluggish pitch, the kind of track that an older Sachin Tendulkar would be absolutely comfortable on. Carefully- chosen shots would be deployed: the paddle-sweeps, the press-back-wait-and-nurdle to square-leg, the angled bat nudging the ball here and there, the stand-at-the-crease punch to long-off, and the occasional stretch-forward push-drive through the off. Tendulkar had it all worked out, sponging out risk from the capricious art of batting.
Not many modern-day Indians exude that kind of mastery on such slow tracks. On Sunday night, Kohli came pretty close to doing a Tendulkar. Sensing the pitch’s character, he hit a flurry of boundaries early on, definitely extending himself more than normal, when Rohit and Shreyas Iyer fell. Then the pitch showed its colours, and Kohli now had to adapt.
He doesn’t have Tendulkar’s strokes, but he has the game. The struggle and the challenge was visible when Rahul was batting; Cummins would pound in a bouncer and Rahul had trouble delaying his bat swing to meet the ball coming slower than usual. With the spinners too, that bat couldn’t be let loose and nimble. Kohli showed the way.
He had his hands and brain on a leash, adeptly controlling the muscular twitches and urges to meet the ball at the appropriate time. Rarely did he look troubled. He showed how to wait for the ball and play it late.
The late Martin Crowe once explained the difference between playing late and being late on the ball. “If you read the length and the pace early, then you can wait and play late. If you don’t read the ball properly, then you would be late and hurried at the point of impact.” Kohli did exactly that, reading, waiting, and nurdling to near-perfection.
Mid-overs, he would walk across to Rahul for a chat, guiding him along. Slowly, Rahul too began to get over his instinctive urges, and fall in tune with the pitch. Rahul even began to pull out the paddle-shot, the first four in 97 balls arrived courtesy that.
It was then a shot that he had picked up from Tendulkar that would down Kohli. “Don’t turn your bat-face when you want to run down to third man, loosen the bat-grip and sort of go soft defensive on the ball, it will automatically go to third man’ – to paraphrase Tendulkar’s suggestion that Kohli had once shared. And so when Cummins smartly banged one short, Kohli went all soft with his hands, holding up the bat, and his feet movement suggested he was thinking about running for a single. But something went wrong. It collided with the inside-edge and fell on the stumps. In a blink, it was over. And Kohli, and India, couldn’t believe it.