Kohli's magic trick is his suppression of ego

Mark NicholasCricket presenter for Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK7 Minute Read

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Let's continue from where this column left off after Lord's. The suggested call to arms for the two captains, whose fortunes were far removed in the wake of England's monumental innings-and-159 victory, was "It's never as good as you think it is and it's never as bad as you think it is."

Both clarity and balance of thought are a sensible foundation for the post-mortems that necessarily follow any major sporting performance. England's cricketers had been flattered by the way in which the conditions favoured them at Lord's; the Indians had been nonplussed. Two-nil down and embarrassed, Virat Kohli's answer to the question "Will your injured back come right for Trent Bridge in six days' time?" was non-negotiable. "It will have to," he said through thin lips. Joe Root agreed that the pursuit of 5-0 was an exciting ambition but added that his message to the players would be to not get ahead of themselves.

Now here we are, ten days on, beggaring belief at the role reversal. One imagines Root is kicking himself for not batting first upon winning the toss at Trent Bridge. Certainly his bowlers did not shine as they had done in the previous two Tests. Hackneyed as it may be, the old mantra that nine times out of ten you bat first and on the tenth, you think about it and bat first has some relevance - most particularly to the present England team, who bat much less convincingly when behind the game. It appears Root and company prefer the set-up to the chase, and the figures substantiate this.

In England, since the start of the Ashes summer of 2015, if the opponent has made 300 or more in the first innings of the match, England have averaged just 220 in response; when England have batted first and made 300-plus themselves, the opponents have averaged 263 in reply. To further illustrate, England have not lost at home when holding a first-innings lead since the 2014 India Test at Lord's. (For what it is worth, England have not lost a Test at home when they have held the first-innings lead after batting first, since the concession of their 22-run advantage over West Indies at The Oval in 1988!)

These facts alone might have persuaded Root to see the coin at its apex and shout "We'll bat" but add in Saturday morning's dry and woolly-looking pitch, the windy conditions and, wait for it, humility, and it should have become a no-brainer.

Ah, humility. The most complex and elusive attribute. Especially for the successful sportsman, whose journey can be overwhelmed by ego: see psychoanalyst dictionary definition - "the part of the mind that mediates between the conscious and the unconscious and is responsible for reality testing and a sense of personal identity". There is nothing remotely immodest about Root but he doubtless fell foul of the idea that the Indian cricketers were down and the moment was ripe for knocking them out. Ricky Ponting did the same at Edgbaston in 2005 and Shane Warne has still not forgiven him.

The feeling lingers that the captaincy weighs heavy on Root and that the move from four to three in the batting order has in no way relieved it. Kohli, in contrast, relishes the job in the way that a chancellor relishes the collection of taxes: his place at four is set in stone, his clarity and cold-blooded sense of mission an irresistible example for his team. Kohli would no more be moved from his chosen spot in the order than give his wicket away lightly, whereas Root is more conciliatory, or more diplomatic shall we say, and happy to please. At present, Kohli is king of India in all but name. Root began as a bright young prince of English cricket and, deep down, is still in that skin.

Of the great batsmen in the modern age - and some might argue a golden age - from Sobers and Graeme Pollock, through the two Richardses, Greg Chappell and Gavaskar, Tendulkar, Lara, Sangakkara and de Villiers - Kohli might one day be judged the most ruthlessly single-minded. In a way that few others have managed, he can park his A game and adapt his B game to the needs of the moment. This is incredible given the definition of ego quoted above. With Kohli, reality overrides any expression of talent, and identity is only related to achievement.

To do a job that is at the nub of the daily life of hundreds of millions of fanatical people, the Indian captain needs a massive ego. No problem there for the present incumbent. But in the job, he must show next to nothing of that ego at all. That is the Kohli magic trick, the suppression of ego. Of course he wants to take on the England attack - he aches to close it down with drives and pulls and sweeps and flicks of those strong and supple wrists - but his reference is to the greater good not the private vendetta. Doubtless this was Don Bradman's great trick too, and there is something of Bradman in Kohli's remarkable hunger.

For a long while on the fourth afternoon at Trent Bridge, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler adopted the Kohli template by parking their big-shot-playing egos, resisting all other temptation and resorting to the simpler premise of survival with progress. Stokes displayed the straightest of bats and the slickest of feet, Buttler the keenest of eyes and the quickest of hands. It was a magnificent partnership, deserving more than it was able to complete. There is an art to batting that includes knowing when to make your move. Brian Lara had a straightforward rule - "The bowler gets the first 40 minutes. If I'm still there after that, it's over to me."

For most players - that is, those not touched by genius - batting in Test matches is as much, or more, about famine as feast. Rarely has this been more evident than on the pitches at Edgbaston, Lord's and Trent Bridge. It is not soft to say that these pitches have been wickedly difficult and required immense skill, patience and no little amount of luck for batsmen to score runs. Luck comes in many forms, catches offered and dropped among them. These surfaces have not been unfair, no more so, anyway, than a flat pitch is unfair to bowlers, though India's first innings at Lord's pushed that barometer close because of the added and most unusual circumstances in which it was played out late on the second day.

The fact is that batsmen are dismissed for one of three reasons - the bowler outwits them, the luck goes against them, or they make a mistake. In the "mistake" clause come technical errors and ego, or hubris. A wild guess says that ego has become the greatest taker of wickets at this time of the game's bewildering development, during which batsmen simply cannot help themselves. Think of it: in the most celebrated modern format of T20, the loss of a wicket is hardly more of a concern than the dot ball it led to. Given that Kohli is the king of that game too, his magic trick is even more amazing.

Almost certainly, Buttler and Stokes have watched him closely, and the more they have seen, the more they have liked. There was a suspicion in the England dressing room that the Kohli rating came exclusively from dry pitches on the subcontinent and the good, hard pitches in Australia. Wait till he gets back to our patch, they thought. Well, the truth is that Kohli has been waiting too - indeed, has been kept awake by little else - and used the time to prepare in detail. He is not now about to waste his moment.

Only once before has a team come back from two-nil down to win a Test series - Bradman's side at home against England in 1936-37. Sir Donald, of course, was the master batsman of the age; a title now owned by Kohli, who has England in his sights in the way that Bradman must have done then. It is all boiling up rather well. The question is whether England can react to defeat with the same urgency and impulse we have seen from India and whether the lessons of Kohli become England's lessons of life.