Virat Kohli’s celebration as he brought up his 25th Test ton with a sumptuous straight drive off Mitchell Starc at Perth on Sunday said it all.
The India skipper’s gesture of letting his ‘bat do all the talking’ was apt after the stellar 2018 he has enjoyed. Kohli’s 123-run masterclass saw him become the second quickest batsman in Test history to bring up 25 centuries.
The 127 innings taken by the cricketing demigod to attain the mark is second only to the legendary Sir Don Bradman (68) and three better than his India compatriots Sachin Tendulkar and Sunil Gavaskar.
It was the seventh ton registered by Kohli against the opposition and his sixth on Australian soil. Only two visiting batsmen in history have now scored more Test centuries in Australia than the India batsman.
However, more than the incredible statistics of Kohli’s feat, it was the sheer manner in which his innings had been constructed that got the sparse crowd at Perth on its feet.
While his status as an all-time ODI great had been all but cemented already, Kohli’s Test credentials keep touching new heights with each passing series.
In 2018 alone, the India skipper has scored 1,223 runs in 21 innings – ahead of the visitors’ second in Perth – at an average of over 58 with the help of five tons and four half-centuries. What is even more special about those statistics is that 19 of the 21 innings have come away from home.
It has been a year where India’s overseas credentials have been tested to the limit with tours of South Africa, England and Australia. Although the team might have failed to cover itself in glory so far, the skipper has come out with his batting reputation enhanced exponentially with the ‘King Kohli’ tag bestowed on him becoming all the more befitting.
The mind-boggling numbers, however, do not do enough justice to Kohli’s magnificence in 2018. In arguably the three toughest overseas tests available to an Indian batsman, Kohli has played perhaps his three greatest innings in the format.
Two of those three tons have ended up in memorable away wins for India. At Centurion in the start of the year, he waged a lone battle with the bat for the tourists with a marathon 153 that was constructed in the most treacherous of conditions.
He then followed up it up with an excellent individual tour of England where he banished the demons of his previously abysmal record in the country with a superlative 149 at Edgbaston.
There would be one more ton for Kohli on that tour but it is his Birmingham innings that will remain permanently etched in the memories of Indian cricket fans given his momentous battle with old nemesis James Anderson.
At Centurion, Edgbaston and now Perth, Kohli has displayed a warrior-like facet previously not seen in his batting. In each of the three innings, he found himself at the receiving end of some hostile and excellent bowling in adverse conditions and each time he found a way to counter the tide and rise above it.
He copped body blow after body blow at Centurion and was lucky to survive Anderson’s assault at Birmingham at times. At Perth, he was given a thorough working over by Pat Cummins in a testy period on day two.
However, each time, Kohli remained undeterred in the face of continuous pressure before coming out triumphant with three sublime innings.
Unlike Centurion and Edgbaston, the 29-year-old might even find himself on the losing side at Perth despite his monumental innings but that will not take away anything from his undoubted genius and brilliance.
A fighter at the crease in the truest sense, Kohli is now slowly translating his brilliance to the red-ball format and his No1 ranking and sensational 2018 are a testament to the greatness towards which he is fast ascending.
That he is now entering his ‘peak’ years in the cricketing sense augurs well for India and if 2018 was just a small taste of bigger things to come in the future, cricket fans around the world could be in a for a treat for many more years.
India recorded a confidence boosting six-wicket win over hosts Australia in the deciding T20 to end the three-match series on a high. But for the persistent rains in the second T20 at Melbourne, the tourists could have even ended up with a series win.
Now, the attention shifts to the hotly anticipated four-match Test series which gets underway at the Adelaide Oval on December 6. Very rarely has a touring Indian team been considered favourites in a Test series in Australia but that is the tag that Virat Kohli and his men find themselves labelled with.
With the hosts still feeling the aftershocks of the ball-tampering scandal with the international bans handed out to Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft in force, many former players including Shane Warne see India as the favourites to triumph in the Test battle.
Australia have failed to really get going under new head coach Justin Langer with victory over Pakistan in a one-off T20 in the UAE being the only bilateral series the side has won across all formats in his tenure so far.
However, despite how beleaguered the hosts might look, No1 ranked India can’t take it easy in the Test series. Here, we look at three reasons why.
AUSTRALIA’S PACE TRIO
India’s batsmen remain vulnerable against pace in red-ball cricket as shown by their displays in South Africa and England where only Kohli was able to come out with his reputation intact.
Australia have plenty of firepower in their fast-bowling arsenal in the form of Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood. Hampered by injuries, the pace trio have been wrapped in cotton wool in the lead up to the series with Australia resisting the temptation to unleash them in the dusty and slow pitches of the UAE against Pakistan.
Even when Starc was given a surprise T20I recall in the series decider against India, he showed how menacing he can be by taking the wicket of a well-set Shikhar Dhawan in a tight spell of fast bowling.
The three pacers will prove to be a handful on home conditions and will be raring to have a go against the Indian batting card after an extended period of rest and rehabilitation.
AUSSIE BATSMEN’S STRONG HOME RECORD
The absence of Steve Smith and David Warner from the Test squad is the biggest factor which has seemingly skewed the balance in India’s favour.
The duo are undoubtedly Australia’s two best batsmen and their loss would weaken any Test side, let alone the hosts’. Australia’s batting struggled at times against Pakistan in the absence in what was their maiden Test series under Langer’s tenure.
The Marsh siblings – Shaun and Mitchell – were criticised for their dismal performances with the bat in the two-Test series but closer inspection shows that the brothers can be a force in home conditions.
In the most recent Test series on Australian soil (the Ashes), the Marsh siblings struck two tons each as the hosts romped to a 4-0 win. Usman Khawaja is another batsman who relishes home conditions and he will be coming into the series with some confidence after his superb efforts in the series loss to Pakistan.
Aaron Finch is still taking his initial steps in the Test format but he could prove to be dangerous in home conditions if he gets going.
AUSSIES SEEK REDEMPTION
It has been a bleak period on and off the pitch for the Aussies ever since the ball-tampering saga at Newlands. The scandal continues to engulf Australian cricket even after all these months.
Cricket Australia’s review into the episode opened up more can of worms which saw some high-profile resignations. All in all, Australian cricket is probably at the lowest it has been in many years.
However, there can be no better way for Australia to turn the mood around than beating the No1 ranked Indians in front of their own fans. A series victory against the Indians might be just the tonic Australian cricket needs to come out of its shell.
It also helped the Men in Green level the three-match series at 1-1 and set things up perfectly for the decider in Dubai on Sunday.
For all their domination in the T20 format where they are the undisputed No1 team, Sarfraz Ahmed‘s men have failed to translate that form to one-day cricket. Despite having all the makings of an excellent limited-overs squad, Pakistan have failed to really impose themselves in the ODI format with their recent showing in the Asia Cup a testament to their woes.
Skipper Sarfraz had touched upon the importance of transforming their 50-over fortunes in the build-up to the ODI series against the Blackcaps. One of the aspects the wicketkeeper batsman had stressed upon was the need for his top-order batsmen to fire in order to reduce the pressure on the rest of the batting order.
The 31-year-old lamented the lack of partnerships at the top and has highlighted it as one of the reasons for Pakistan’s struggles in the format.
With what he saw on Saturday in Abu Dhabi, the Pakistan skipper can very well be pleased. Set a tricky target of 210 to chase, Pakistan openers Fakhar Zaman and Imam-ul-Haq set things up perfectly with a half-century stand between them before the latter was struck by a vicious Lockie Ferguson bouncer and had to retire hurt.
Imam’s start to his international career has been sensational to say the least and his partnership with Fakhar at the top has all the makings of an excellent long-term opening combination for Pakistan.
The in-form Babar Azam then took charge at Sheikh Zayed Stadium after Imam’s retirement as he stitched together a century stand with Fakhar that all but won the game for Pakistan. While Babar was his usual composed self, it will be the form of Fakhar which will please Sarfraz and the team management most.
The explosive opening batsman has been off colour of late in ODIs following his heroics on the tour of Zimbabwe where he became the first Pakistan batsman to register a double ton in the format.
Since then, the left-hander has failed to fire with his patchy form costing Pakistan dear in the Asia Cup. His 88 on Saturday was his first ODI half-century on Asian soil and it could not have come at a better time for Pakistan.
With the series on the line on Sunday and Imam a major doubt after the blow to his head, Pakistan will need Fakhar to fire if they are to quell the Kiwi challenge.
Babar is in excellent form while veteran Shoaib Malik can be relied upon in any give situation in the middle-order. The bowling department has a solid look with young Shaheen Afridi looking mightily impressive in the two matches so far with his eight wickets.
The left-arm pacer’s stellar form has been the biggest positive for Pakistan in the series so far although it is puzzling that Sarfraz has opted to not utilise his full quota of 10 overs in both games.
Hasan Ali remains an experienced campaigner with the white-ball while Faheem Ashraf provides another seaming option. The spin department remains one of Pakistan’s biggest strengths on the slow tracks of the UAE with Shadab Khan, Imad Wasim and Mohammad Hafeez forging a solid unit.
The win in the second ODI could very well be the turning point for Pakistan’s fortunes in the format as they get ready for the series decider. However, this form will once again be dependent on their top-order and how Fakhar and Babar fare on Sunday could very well be the deciding factor.