Sri Lanka in India

Virat Kohli's intent was the difference between a dull draw and the finale we saw at Eden Gardens

The Indian captain set things up with a century and then backed his bowlers to seek victory in the first Test.

After just 11.5 overs on day one and 21 overs on day two, it was tough to imagine that the first Test between India and Sri Lanka would have as exciting an climax as we witnessed on Monday.

When play began on the final day with India leading by 49 runs, the sense was that it would take an extraordinary show of intent from Virat Kohli’s men to force the result, knowing that the over-rates across this Test were poor and bad light was expected at around 1630 local time. That feeling escalated after yet another thrilling spell by Suranga Lakmal, as he accounted for KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane.

All three results did not seem possible, then.

Watchful start

Kohli, meanwhile, was off to a cautious start. Looking to avoid a second consecutive duck, he had a nervous moment when he guided a well-directed short ball Lakmal to the fine leg for a boundary – it looped of his gloves, and had Niroshan Dickwella put in a full-length dive, he would have walked back with a “pair.” From then on, he took the time to get his eye in. When the Sri Lankan pacers targeted his weakness wide outside off stump, he let the ball go – sometimes exaggeratedly, as if to make a point that he wasn’t going to indulge his desire. He ducked for the bouncers. When Pujara and Rahane were dismissed, he was on 13 off 23 balls.

A miraculous Sri Lankan win perhaps, but a dull draw with India batting out time – those seemed the logical conclusions then.

But not when Kohli is around.

In the first interesting development of the day, Kohli promoted Ravindra Jadeja to No 6. The move raised a few eyebrows – ‘hang on, is he still going for quick runs?’ And then, Jadeja went on to play an odd 41-ball innings for 9 runs before walking back to the pavilion. An interesting move, but one that perplexed.

But slowly, Kohli started upping the ante. During the partnership with Jadeja, he scored 26 off 36 balls. He was starting to take chances with his cover drives – one off Lakmal went very close to being caught at short cover, and one took the edge to find the boundary at third man.

Shifting gears

When Jadeja was dismissed, he then went back to focusing on getting his team to the lunch break without further damage. After lunch, he promptly lost R Ashwin and Wriddhiman Saha. India were now 281/7 with a session and a half to go. That miraculous Sri Lankan win had suddenly become that much more probable.

Kohli, at this point, was on 58 off 93 balls. A watchful innings, one that his team needed him to play if they had to bat out time. But at that instant, when the camera panned to his face after Saha’s dismissal, you could see a sense of purpose. He adjusted his gloves, just stared right ahead with very little emotion.

From that point on, he shifted gears. The cover drives were not tentative, the bottom-hand started becoming prominent again – a flick through mid-on was the pick of the lot. Suddenly, it was Kohli in T20 mode. His last 46 runs came off just 26 balls. He got to the century with a shot of authority, almost fittingly, against Lakmal – a worthy foe, vanquished with a lofted six over long off.

“As soon as we lost Wriddhi and Bhuvi, I started having fun,” Kohli would say after the match. “It was important to take our minds of the situation and the shots started coming off. Luckily they took the new ball. I decided, if we don’t show intent, there may not be much to offer. So yeah, that helped.”

That intent. That was the reason India could go from batting for time after Lakmal’s spell to be able to declare with 230 runs ahead.

The declaration

“Talking point: Would an Australian team have declared with a lead of 200 or waited for the captain to score a well deserved 100?,” tweeted Rajdeep Sardesai after the match.

Let’s see. When Saha was dismissed, India had a lead of 159 runs with three wickets in hand. Surely that’s no time to declare? When the drinks break was taken in the second session, India were 199 ahead. Safe, perhaps. From then on, Kohli needed just 7 more balls to get to his 100. In the bigger scheme of things, surely that’s not too much to ask? The very fact that an Indian team was in a position to declare at that point of time, instead of playing for a draw, was thanks to Kohli’s incredible century.

There are questions to ask Kohli, of course. About the slow over rate through out the match, except the final hour or so. About Jadeja’s odd promotion. But the timing of declaration? Hindsight, as they, is 20/20.

The fact that Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammad Shami produced spells of magic towards the end of the day and brought India so close to a famous win, should not take away from the fact that (first) Kohli’s batting and (second) Kohli’s intent to go for a win as the captain, was why Eden Gardens witnessed a finale to remember.

The captain, who egged on the crowd to get behind his bowlers as India charged for victory and Sri Lankan batsmen tried every time wasting tactic in the book, has repeatedly mentioned about the ‘intent’ to play for a win – and in a Test match where they were 79/6 in the first innings and where two days were lost, he inspired his team to live up to his word.

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