That Mitchell Starc over to Virat Kohli towards the end of the day was one of the classic duels of modern cricket…..
The scoreboard showed 200-plus. The wickets column had ticked over just twice. If one looked just at the total, the advantage seemed to be with India.
But, the match situation was quite different. Every run had been earned with the sweat of the brow. There was none of the proverbial devil in the wicket, other than the occasional hint of uneven bounce. But the Australian attack of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon had bowled with incredible discipline. Cummins, in fact, had been exceptional. Even Mitchell Marsh had given nothing away, going for just 23 runs off 15 accurate overs.
Hanuma Vihari had survived for a long, long time, but the 66-balls he had faced had brought forth just 8 runs. Debutant Mayank Aggarwal had looked solid, and played some memorable drives, especially off Lyon, before perishing to the brilliant Cummins at the stroke of tea. Cheteshwar Pujara had been composed, but sedate and slow … and even Virat Kohli had not been able to break free.
86 overs had been bowled, and Starc was running in with the new ball. India were on 209 for 2.
The problem with slow scoring. Even if you don’t lose wickets, the opponent is right there in the game. One wicket as the day nears an end, and a nervous new batsman will be making his way to the crease. And another strike before the call of stumps, or early on the morrow with the ball still new, and the same robust score will look rather unhealthy. India has had a problem with a less than prolific lower middle order, and a tail that wags almost as much as that of the normal Doberman Pinscher. In fact, that was the root of the problems, alongside a long, long sequence of disastrous starts. India were ultra-cautious, precisely keeping all these factors in mind.
Hence, even at that late stage of a day in which not too many runs had been scored not and too many wickets had been taken, there was plenty to play for. And if the asterisk signifying unbeaten could be wiped away from its threatening presence beside the name of Virat Kohli, the visitors would end the day on the backfoot in spite of their obdurately long, painstaking vigil.
So, Starc ran in, striving for that extra bit of effort in the dying minutes of the day. He had already sent down two testing overs with the second new ball, 11 of the deliveries to Kohli, and the Indian captain had played out of his skin to survive.
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Now, the first ball of the 87th overcame in late, and sharply. Kohli’s willow went through the arc of the attempted push through the on side. The ball beat the inside edge and pinged the great batsman on his pad. A trifle high? Perhaps. Also, Tim Payne had been on his way down the leg-side to collect the ball. The ball had been a peach, but the appeal was ephemeral.
The next delivery was quick and slanted across the batsman. Kohli, having negotiated some scorching incoming offerings, was not quite expecting this. The attempted drive was played anticipating another inswinger, and was snicked. It went quick and low towards first slip. It would have fallen short. Paine flew across and got one hand to it at full stretch. The fast-travelling ball hit the palm and bounced out. A groan went around the ground, a sigh of relief ran through in the other direction. The best batsman of the world had been dropped.
Starc fumed as he went back to his bowling mark. In he charged again. A length ball, just outside the off, and Kohli shouldered arms. And it took off, flew high over the wickets, over a helplessly leaping Paine and sped to the fence, leaving the bowler with an embarrassed, guilty grin on his face.
In ran Starc again, continuing an over as vicious as can get. The ball sped through at 147 kmph, reaching Kohli almost at Yorker length on his legs. The broad blade could not quite get down in time. The ball brushed the pad on the way behind the wicket. Paine dived to his left and appealed. Not with conviction. Kohli impishly looked on, trying to will the Aussies on to go for a fruitless review. They did not.
The following ball was even faster, clocking in at 150.4 kmph. A yorker at that, excellently directed. Most batsmen around the world would have succumbed to it. Kohli just managed to bring his bat down, and it was squeezed out of the danger area through an inside edge.
Starc turned for the last time in the over. Another quick delivery, at 147.1 kmph, another one zooming in for the blockhole. And Kohli got on the front foot and drove straight to mid-on. And after it had been fielded, the Indian captain threw his head back in disappointment, at not having managed a boundary off a ball most batsmen would have been happy to have kept out of their stumps. He probably knew that was as close as Starc would come to bowling a hittable ball before stumps.
An over of drama, spine-chilling excitement. One of the best fast bowlers of the world, steaming in with the new ball, trying to dislodge the premier batsman of the world. The result – six tantalising exchanges between willow and leather. The bottom-line – four byes.
Test cricket at its best.
On a day with less than its share of notable events in terms of wickets or boundaries, drama and suspense were at the peak even as the day drew to a close. Even if all that yielded nothing but four measly byes.
This is what makes the sport special.
The day ended with India 215 for 2. Just two wickets lost, but as explained, without having secured any sort of advantage. They have been cautious and will have to bat extremely well once again, much of it against a still new ball, to ensure that their approach today does not backfire tomorrow.
But the asterisk signifying unbeaten is still there beside the name of Virat Kohli. Just about, preserved after one of the most scintillating duels of the modern game.