India’s pluck to reach 146 for three was a highlight on the delayed opening day to cricket’s world test championship final in Southampton.
After New Zealand captain Kane Williamson asked his opponents to bat under overcast skies, and in temperatures where a sleeveless if not a sleeved pullover was de rigueur, they unfurled their mettle.
Curbing aggressive instincts in a foreign clime was key.
Openers Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill operated with a degree of monastic discipline early. They established a GPS positioning on their off stump and limited their navigation accordingly. The urge to lash must have been tempting on occasion, but a 62-run opening partnership justified the means. They eventually wafted their bats to feed the cordon, but the general intent was commendable in the circumstances.
Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane rallied later with an unbeaten fourth-wicket stand of 58. Kohli played with balance and fortitude in the eye of forensic interest back home; Rahane’s determination was steeped in inside knowledge as a former Hampshire overseas professional on his home ground.
The opening spells of Tim Southee and Trent Boult initially asked lenient questions, before interrogating with more vigour later, fortified by the efforts of Colin de Grandhomme, Kyle Jamieson and Neil Wagner.
Southee’s 14th over, the 58th of the innings, was a particular gem. He forced first Kohli and then twice Rahane into two minds flirting outside off stump. They were fortunate to get mulligans.
Yet time and again, India brimmed for the contest. That added further fuel to why these sides, irrespective of a Covid-truncated competition, are worthy showpiece adversaries.
For example, if New Zealand fans donned impartial hats rather than Black Caps at a rakish angle, what team would they most want to watch?
The answer for this writer is India.
The current outfit exhibits enviable test qualities. There’s soul for starters, notably via consecutive 2-1 series victories away against Australia in the past three-and-a-half years. Last summer’s feat was particularly gritty, recovering from their all-time lowest test total of 36 in Adelaide – and the subsequent absence of Kohli to paternity leave – to become the first team since the West Indies in 1988 to win at the ‘Gabba.
That’s why the incumbent batting pair are so critical to India’s chances at the Rose Bowl over the next few days.
Rahane’s resolute leadership, starting with 112 in the win at Melbourne last summer, has been pivotal to the country’s sustained success.
Likewise, Kohli’s batting ability has been enhanced with the captaincy. One of the most powerful leaders of any sports team worldwide averages 59 with the responsibility and 41 without.
This writer witnessed the energy he can generate during the New Zealand-India fixture at Kolkata’s Eden Gardens in 2016, one of the greatest cauldrons in the game. Kohli stood in the slip cordon and raised his palms skyward. The higher they went the louder the crowd roared. He was a human amplifier.
If Kohli embraces fans’ love for the game and defends against slipping into a cult-of-personality, he will become respected abroad as much as he is revered at home. There’s no more pivotal focal point than this week’s crowning finale. At 32, Kohli’s a poster child for a savvy generation of Indian millennials. They know the power they wield and defer to no-one. He just has to avoid getting lured into any form of narcissistic echo chamber and believing the hype.
Over the course of this test, Kohli’s qualities of passion and independence must permeate the Indian dressing room to feed the team culture. Their combative approach needs to simmer but never boil over into toxic aggression.
Those next steps start again tomorrow, weather and light meters willing.
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