In their own backyard, Australia fought valiantly with their backs to the wall in the first Test in Adelaide. After being reduced to 84-4 on Sunday, they found a way to stitch together small partnerships. Not match-winning ones but just enough to keep them in the match and India on the edge.
Initially, Kohli seemed nonplussed. A big partnership would have seen him get extra defensive but his bowlers kept getting wickets before things got really dangerous. They were chipping away with determination and patience. The wickets kept their spirits up. From 84-4, they went to 115-5. Then to 156-6... 187-7.
But as the lower order started to score runs, Kohli seemed to start getting a touch nervous. If the ball would go a vacant position on the field, more often than not, the Indian skipper would put a fielder there for the next ball. Pat Cummins was holding up one end while Mitchell Starc decided to chance his arm a little. A four here, an edge there, a two, a single.... suddenly the scoreboard started moving again and not at a pace that India were comfortable with.
In the first innings and even early in the second innings, India’s bowlers had given nothing away. They stifled the Australian batting order into committing mistakes. Usman Khawaja, Australia’s most in-form batsman, for instance, had thrown his wicket away earlier while trying to break the shackles. Too defensive in the first innings and trying to be a touch too aggressive in the second.
But, late on Monday, Starc’s strike-rate was worrying. The wicket seemed to have eased out and the ball wasn’t doing much either. This is where Kohli started feel the heat a little. In the recent past, he had seen India come close to winning only to be denied in the end.
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After losing the fourth Test and the series against England at Southampton, Kohli had spoken about it at length.
“We can look at the scoreboard and say we were only 30 runs away or 50 runs away, but we have to recognise that when we are in the midst of the situation, and not later,” Kohli had then said. “We know that we have played good cricket but we cannot say again and again to ourselves that we have competed. ”
“When you come so close, there is an art of crossing the line as well, which we will have to learn,” Kohli insisted. “We have the ability, which is why we are getting close to a result, and we have belief in that ability. But when a pressure situation comes, how we react to it... is something we have to work on a bit, and everyone is ready to work on that.”
Sneaking through to a famous win
And now, just a few months later, India once again found themselves under pressure in a close game. Admittedly, Australia were under even more pressure but this was India’s match to win or lose and as the hosts got closer, a few nerves started to surface.
Then, Shami struck to send back Starc. The confusion just seemed to ease a bit. 228-8.
Cummins, meanwhile, got stuck in with Nathan Lyon, who has been taking batting lessons from his brother Brendan. Now, Lyon clearly didn’t just want to hang around. So while Cummins went for the dead bat approach, Lyon actively looked for scoring opportunities.
The runs started coming at a faster clip now. The commentators started talking about the workload of the Indian bowlers, the field settings were being questioned, the bowling changes too – should India attack with two pacers instead of Ashwin from one end?
Kohli had one eye on the scoreboard too. He started having animated discussions with bowlers about field placements. He looked grim... some might even say angry when runs were being scored. But perhaps the experience of the recent close games stood India in good stead. They weren’t clueless about what to do, they had an idea. So they stuck to their guns; to the task at hand and it bore fruit this time around.
Perhaps the belligerence of Lyon got Cummins out of his shell. When Jasprit Bumrah gave him the width and the batsman chose to try and flay it behind point. It was a shot he had avoided throughout his innings but now he went for it and Kohli took a simple catch in the slips. As he celebrated, he banged the ball into the ground.
One wicket away from a famous win. Almost there. 259-9.
Australia still needed 63 runs to win at this point. A lot of runs with just one wicket in hand, right? But Lyon was still scoring runs and Josh Hazlewood was intent on hanging around. The runs required slowly came below 50, then 40, then the crowd started applauding defensive shots; they started applauding the runs; they started applauding every run.
Just around over 10,000 people had turned up but perhaps for the first time in the Test, Australia might have felt they were playing at home. This is the drama that Test cricket creates; this is the drama that only Test cricket can create.
Soon, it was almost time for tea. The second session had already been extended and India were starting to look like a side who could use the break in play rather than go for the kill.
Then, the moment arrived. Hazlewood edged Ashwin to KL Rahul at second slip. Victory was India’s.
Lyon, at the other end, fell to his haunches. Hazlewood looked to the sky in disappointment as Kohli and the Indian team burst into a spontaneous celebration. It was too close for comfort but India had won.
291 all out. The victory margin was ironically 31 runs – the same margin by which India had lost the first Test in England. Perhaps some lessons have indeed been learned.
India coach Ravi Shastri was ‘very, very happy’ with the win.
“It was a tough, tough Test match. The boys were disciplined and they stuck to their task. We lost in England by 31 runs, we lost a close first match in South Africa by around 60 runs but this is a very good win, feels really good,” said Shastri.
And this is the feeling that India will want to remember for a long time to come. History was made, nerves were conquered and a close match was won. These are the moments that play a huge role in transforming a good side into a great one.
This is just the beginning and Kohli will know that better than most because he wants to lead a side that win series’ and not just the odd Test. But what a beginning it was.