India and Virat Kohli enhance reputations despite failed search for greatness

Tim Wigmore
The Telegraph
India's over-reliance on Virat Kohli was again laid bare in this Test - AFP
India's over-reliance on Virat Kohli was again laid bare in this Test - AFP

Ben Stokes kicked the ground. England’s players had their hands on their hips. The big screens at the Ageas Bowl flashed up the reason for their angst: the 100-run partnership for India’s fourth wicket, compiled over 248 painstaking balls.

Three balls later India were 123-3 - more than halfway towards their target on a day of unblemished resplendent sunshine. India were now favourites, England - and their fans - increasingly tetchy. “Crap bowling, come on!” chuntered one a few minutes earlier, when Adil Rashid was bowling too short. 

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Very good Test sides, like India, eviscerate all-comers at home. Great ones also win in alien conditions abroad. 

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India know it, too. “It's a conscious effort from this side to be the best travelling side in the world. Not just at home,” Ravi Shastri, India’s head coach, declared after the emphatic victory at Trent Bridge.

But as Ravichandran Ashwin trudged off with the ground basked in early evening sunshine, the triumph in Nottingham, and valiance in Birmingham and Southampton, were all futile. Instead, there was only the cold reality of 3-1. 

<span>Twice India let Sam Curran lead England back into the match</span> <span>Credit: Reuters </span>
Twice India let Sam Curran lead England back into the match Credit: Reuters

For India the road to this unrealised promise was familiar. The 2-1 defeat in South Africa in January had been this series in microcosm - from the substandard preparation to the over-reliance upon Virat Kohli, the opposition recoveries after early wickets for Indian seamers and, more than anything, the lingering sense of a defining victory squandered. 

This defeat qualifies as more exasperating, given that England lack a pace attack as unrelentingly hostile as South Africa’s. Three times this year - in Cape Town, Edgbaston and the Ageas Bowl - India have failed to chase 245 or lower, subsiding after Kohli’s dismissal; either side of his wicket, their two second innings collapses in Southampton amounted to 10-83. For all India’s outstanding new-ball bowling, they have twice allowed Sam Curran to orchestrate audacious heists - 63 from 87-7 at Edgbaston, 78 from 86-6 at Southampton. 

Curran was not short of luck in either innings. India were short of it all series, losing the toss in all four matches. 

But some of their misfortune has been of their own making. India cannot blame anyone else for organising such shoddy preparation for this tour: a perfunctory 18-a-side three-day game against Essex was like spending a day in preschool to cram for University finals. Tellingly, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ishant Sharma, who had stints in the County Championship, have enjoyed fine series.

<span>Virat Kohli was wrong to review the decision to give him out</span> <span>Credit: getty images </span>
Virat Kohli was wrong to review the decision to give him out Credit: getty images

Perhaps even Kohli himself is a little culpable. With 544 runs at 68.00 - more than twice as many as anyone else on either side - he has gone beyond what was expected and actually enhanced his greatness. The over-dependence upon Kohli is a reflection both of his own brilliance and the failings of his team-mates. But this does not quite justify his apparent insistence upon reviewing every decision when he is given out. Kohli’s erroneous review after he gloved Moeen Ali to short leg deprived India of a review to use later; they had none at all left by the time Ishant Sharma and Ashwin both received incorrect decisions. Kohli leads by example phenomenally with the bat and with his fitness, just not with how he uses the Decision Review System. 

And so India are left with the stench of defeat. Honourable defeat, yes, but defeat all the same. A botched assault on greatness. 

“During a match when we are in a driving position we should be able to capitalise upon it,” said Kohli. “As a group we need to be more relentless at the start of the series.” 

The only solace was that “We definitely feel that we have pushed the home side to earn victories and we haven’t thrown in the towel.” Paradoxically, India have arguably enhanced their status as the best in the world during their fiercely contested defeats in South Africa and England this year, so meek is everyone else in unfamiliar conditions. 

Yet for India the real prize is not the summit of the world rankings, but leaving a greater imprint upon cricketing history. And this series held out the promise of making the leap from being the best in an age of flawed Test cricket to a genuinely great Test side. Instead, a trip to Australia over Christmas now looms as a last chance for this side to seal a defining triumph abroad - a seminal triumph of the ilk that no amount of home mastery can ever match. 

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