<
>

The season of Kohli, and all his men

play
Manjrekar: More depth to this Indian team (4:40)

Sanjay Manjrekar talks about India's performance in the home season, the variety of pitches, and key moments of the Test series against Australia (4:40)

Men in yellow vests on cricket fields are usually ignored. There is no reason to look at them, but when Virat Kohli runs out with the drinks, people take note. This is the deciding Test of the home season; it will determine either a clean sweep of four straight series wins or losing to what some said was the worst Australian team to tour India.

Kohli isn't playing, he isn't in charge; he's ferrying out drinks to his team-mates, but it is still all about him. This was the biggest season of Indian cricket ever; it was Kohli's season.

****

There is dust everywhere, and R Ashwin is screaming. Ashwin has had Kane Williamson dropped; he's beaten him in flight, on the outside edge, and has done everything but taken his wicket. In the first innings in Kanpur, he had to bowl a magic ball from out of the rough to get Williamson. But this one isn't that special; it's just a good quality ball. The first puff of dust is when Ashwin lands it outside off stump, and the second is from Williamson trying to move his feet when he realises he is nowhere near the ball. He barely plays a shot in the end and he becomes Ashwin's 200th wicket, and there goes New Zealand's last real chance in the Test.

There was no doubt, the first star of the season was Ashwin.

In some ways, once you have Williamson out, you have the majority of the New Zealand batting dismissed. Though Ashwin got Williamson four times in four innings, he also chipped in with 23 more New Zealand wickets.

After that series Ashwin slowed down, because had he kept going at that rate he would have been the first player to take a 100 wickets in a season of Test cricket. Instead, he was only the first bowler to 82. He would cross 200 and 250 wickets in the same season. With someone like Ashwin, who has a mathematical mind, numbers are important. So, in all, he bowled 4430 balls, took 26% of his wickets lbw, averaged four less against right-handers than left-handers, took Ben Stokes out five times, dismissed 14 batsmen for ducks, and did not have one stumping.

The last time he was truly at his best was at Wankhede Stadium. In what became the coronation for India's complete dominance of the cricket world, Ashwin was pretty much unplayable for the entire match: he took a wicket every 32 balls on average. He was like a mad scientist running algorithms so dastardly that the England batsmen were trapped in a maze of destruction. At that point in the season, he had played seven matches and taken 54 wickets.

But Ashwin would finally slow down; the stress and strain of bowling more balls in a season than any man before him suddenly wore down who is, let us be fair, not the most finely-tuned athlete in cricket. No man has ever looked like they have aged more from a 187-day season.

By the time the series against Australia was on the line in Dharamsala, Ashwin had been relegated to third change for the second innings, after a debutant, and with Shane Warne suggesting he was being hidden from Glenn Maxwell. But, he still got Peter Handscomb, and then Maxwell, ending Australia's hope in the series. He also took the final wicket, it was maybe lbw or caught, and probably bowled as well. It's hard to remember, the entire season we have seen his hand go up behind the umpire's back, that little chicken shoulder move, and then a perfect-placed offbreak.

Kohli seemed to want to bowl Ashwin until his limbs fell off, and even if that happened, Kohli would have demanded Ashwin blew the ball out of his mouth until his last breath was gone. Ashwin was his prize steed to glory; Kohli rode that glorious stallion as hard as a bowler has ever been ridden.

****

Things are flying in different directions. Mohammed Shami and Wriddhiman Saha going to the left, the same direction as the bail. The top of the off stump is flying to the right, and the only things still are Alastair Cook's defensive shot and the base of the off stump.

Kohli was quite clear on this: teams came to India with plans to counter spin, and everyone undervalued the quicks. Perhaps that is because of history. Why would you go to India and worry about quick bowlers, even if they are handy? Plus, we always hear of the first great wave of Indian quicks arriving, and when they arrive, they aren't the first great wave of Indian quicks. Maybe these guys aren't, but they certainly look like the closest we've seen.

Shami was the pick of them and is probably the most suited to Indian conditions. He swings the ball naturally and can reverse it too. He attacks the stumps and took two-thirds of his wickets bowled or lbw. This season, he never took more than three wickets in an innings, and only 18 in total. However, he was tight, aggressive, and ended with a bowling average of 27 and an economy rate of 2.77. The top order struggled to score off him, and he was brutal against the tail.

The worst numbers belonged to Ishant Sharma, who, despite the faces he pulls, or as good as he bowls, never seems to get his reward. His spell after Matt Renshaw pulled away on the final morning in Ranchi was the only time India looked like winning that day. It was he who broke through on the final day against Bangladesh, when Sabbir Rahman had joined Mahmudullah for the kind of partnership that could have drawn the lone Test. And it was Ishant and Umesh Yadav who bowled lion-hearted spells in Bengaluru to make sure Australia would not win the second day and, maybe, the series.

Umesh played all but one Test in the season, bowled 2135 balls, and should have been locked in a hyperbaric chamber crying in-between matches. Instead, he kept charging in - he wasn't always taking wickets - but he was always important. His early summer of toil was worth it, though, when on the first day against Australia, on a pitch made for vicious turn, he took four wickets. He went wicketless in only one innings all series and took the most wickets, by a distance, among all seamers in the series. He looks, as cricketers like to say, different gravy from the cricketer MS Dhoni captained.

But his magical day was the third day in Dharamsala, when he came out to bowl with only the slightest lead and ended up bouncing India into winning the series. The sight of Australian batsmen jumping around, when an Indian fast bowler in India ran in, seemed ridiculous. But then, so did India having four fast men who would be a major part of winning the series.

Before Dharamsala, Bhuvneshwar Kumar's biggest contribution was destroying New Zealand's top order and setting up the win in Kolkata with his precise swing bowling. But here he was in Dharamsala, steaming in and hitting David Warner on the crest over his heart. It was the last shock reminder that Indian quick bowlers weren't what they used to be, and they may never be as underrated ever again as they were this season.

This explosion of India's seam bowling might yet be what Kohli needs to conquer the world. He used them like snipers at times at home, but when they tour, they will be his front line.

****

When Cheteshwar Pujara made 83 from 177 balls against Bangladesh, people said he batted too slowly. I don't have any quotes on that, there is no research involved, just an opinion based on the fact that every time Pujara bats, he's told he is too slow. That innings against Bangladesh set up the massive total that won India the Test. His hundred against England in Rajkot was too slow, although it obviously was the reason that India didn't ultimately lose that match. His hundred against Australia in Ranchi was too slow, although it meant they couldn't lose the match and, then, ultimately gave them a chance at winning it. And his fifty in Dharamsala tired out the Australian quicks too slowly; he should have tired them out quicker, before ultimately setting up an innings that helped the Indians take the lead.

He was the ultimate batting monk all series, and scored more runs - 1316 - than anyone else this season. But they don't put his face on a million billboards because he made them too slow, and made them three runs slower per 100 balls than Ajinkya Rahane and KL Rahul, and only three runs quicker than M Vijay.

Vijay had a middling season for a man of his talent; he made three hundreds, but still ended up averaging less than 40 - the lowest among the Indian specialist batsmen. Saha made two hundreds, but his replacement Parthiv Patel also put pressure on Saha's batting, a concern that will continue to bother the latter despite his decent run this season. Rahane, too, struggled, and no matter how well he ever batted, he always seemed more like the support act than the main star. And, perhaps, his most significant innings was the 52 in Bengaluru that gave India the lead to win.

"They may never be Kohli but, in this Test and series, they have proven what they can do when Kohli doesn't score."

It was Rahul who started that rearguard, hiding Pujara from Nathan Lyon with cunning batting intelligence, and then going on to make a half-century himself. Somehow, a man who made a name for himself with a 199 was known as a half-century specialist. He would have had the weirdest pattern of the season if not for Karun Nair's triple-century followed by abject despair. The problem for Rahul was he had half-centuries on tough pitches that were worth way more to his team, but then he also made half-centuries when batting was easy and he should have gone on.

The one time the half-century mattered was on the last day in Dharamsala, when he finished his half-century by running a three when only a two was needed to win and then jumped in jubilation in the direction of the players' balcony.

The non-Kohli batsmen don't get the credit they deserve, but considering the number of times their team went in a specialist batsman short, they did an outstanding job. Rarely are they too slow, mostly they are too ignored. However, they were the backbone of so many victories this season.

It's easy to notice only one guy when he has such gravitational pull, but this core group of batsmen will be making runs around the world for a long time. They may never be Kohli but, in this Test and series, they have proven what they can do when Kohli doesn't score.

No, seriously. Where is Ravindra Jadeja? Kohli is bowling his two quicks into the ground, Ashwin has bowled non-stop, and Jadeja has bowled only four overs, for one wicket, in over 50 overs of cricket. In Bengaluru, it looked like a three-man bowling rotation. It wasn't that big a surprise to see Kohli overlook or underestimate Jadeja; that has often been the case.

Jadeja's ESPNcricinfo profile starts with a Gandhi quote, he is known as Sir Ravindra Jadeja, he was once suspended from the IPL, and he's made more first-class triple-centuries than Sachin Tendulkar. We are lucky there is only one of him because two could cause a rift in the space-time continuum.

When Jadeja played for Dhoni, he was seen as little more than a puppet who did what his master asked him to. Australia were still sledging him about only being useful at home, in a series in which he destroyed them. When Ashwin takes a wicket, it's because of a big-data scientific approach, but when Jadeja does so, it's because he can rip the ball hard. When Kohli finally found Jadeja in Bengaluru, he ripped through with 6 for 63, in less than half the overs Ashwin took for two wickets.

Jadeja finished with 71 wickets, the second most ever picked up by an Indian in a season, but was more than just Ashwin's less-sophisticated bowling buddy. Jadeja, with his sword of justice, was the sort of batsman, like in Ranchi, Hyderabad, and Chennai, who would dance on the bodies of the tired bowlers and entertain the troops with a show. But he also played proper innings, like the one that set up the win in Mohali, and should have scored his first Test century. Knowing that he was batting at No. 8 or 9 meant that India had the kind of depth that teams dream about.

Jadeja was a genuine match-winner with the ball too. England were 103 for 0 in Chennai when Jadeja got Cook in the second innings; they were all out for 207 when he got Jake Ball to finish with 7 for 48. He took his wickets at a better average and economy rate than Ashwin, and was more consistent across the season.

The other thing was the number of young guys who came to the ground with Jadeja-type moustaches. By the end of the Australia series, he was India's number one match-winner, and he was also the facial-hair icon of the nation's youth. He was no longer the running joke or Dhoni's pet; he was now Kohli's wind-up toy of destruction.

****

Rahane won the last Test as captain even as some commentators - some paid in booths, some unpaid on sofas - decided that he didn't have the team up, that their attitude was lacking and that they were, as Matthew Hayden said, 30% down on energy. Somehow Rahane led a team without its best batsman and, arguably its best seam bowler, to a series victory.

In the press conference afterwards, Rahane said nothing, because he was not at the press conference. Kohli was. Because this was his season ever more than it was India's. Kohli's face was plastered on every item that ever existed and people seemed to be inventing new products so that he could endorse them. Ben Horne, of the Murdoch press in Australia, referred to Kohli as the Donald Trump of cricket, which, in the ways Horne suggested, was silly, but when compared in the metric tonne of media coverage, Kohli was probably only bettered by Trump.

Kohli started his own media empire with a double-hundred in Indore, which started with India in a tricky situation and then ended with India declaring for over 500. He would score 167 and 235 against England, but his 81 in the second innings in Visakhapatnam was, perhaps, his best knock. For a while, it looked like he was batting in another dimension with different gravity laws governing it. Against Bangladesh, he made 204, and that meant that he had scored double-hundreds in his last four series.

The series against Australia was partly notable for his lack of runs, but he was still in everything.

Leaving straight balls in Pune, charging over to Steven Smith to point out his DRS "brain fade" in Bengaluru, the press conference afterwards where he almost said a word, the tumble and injury in Ranchi, the mock of the Australians mocking his shoulder injury. The camera was on him when he clapped, ran drinks, or just about anytime anything ever happened in any match he played in, and then, the last press conference where he suggested with as much heat as his eyes could muster that this series had ended his friendships with the Australian players.

This was the most remarkable season of Test cricket, and we might never see anything like it again. But, mostly, it was Kohli's season. India won four series and 10 Tests, Kohli won everything. Kohli was the batsman even when he wasn't. Kohli was the captain, even when he wasn't. Kohli was always the story.