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KOHLI, BAIRSTOW AND THE HUMANISM OF TEST CRICKET

India are in charge of the Edgbaston Test after three days having increasing their lead to 257 following a stunning 106 from Jonny Bairstow.

Virat Kohli Jonny Bairstow
Virat Kohli looks on as Jonny Bairstow celebrates his fifth Test hundred of 2022. (Image: Getty)

Seldom has Test cricket this year engrossed one as much as this rescheduled final match between England and India at Edgbaston has over three days. Like a good Stephen King novel – and, mind you, the master storyteller’s voluminous body of writing has as much to do about humanism as it does the creepy, supernatural and freaky – this Test match has spun one heck of a story.

It has been old-school in that the contest between bat and ball has been engaging. Like King’s forte, this match has thrown at us suspense, intrigue and a liberal dose of character. Catering to the populist flavour of T20 cricket these days, much like King’s pulpier work, it has had some dazzling strokeplay; chiefly an 111-ball 146 from Rishabh Pant and stand-in India captain Jasprit Bumrah’s 31* off 16 balls which included the most expensive over in Test history to stir memories of Yuvraj Singh hitting Stuart Broad for six sixes way back in the 2007 World T20.

At the core of Test cricket is the human to human relationship. Competitiveness, weaknesses, ego. The platform for one cricketer to succeed and another to fail. Three days of this brilliant Test match have underlined just that. Pant’s audacity to Jack Leach’s ineffectiveness. Mohammed Shami’s cussed unluckiness to Jonny Bairstow’s stirring ability to overcome adversity. Ravindra Jadeja’s stonewalling to Alex Lees and Zak Crawley fumbling in their attempts of survival. James Anderson’s insatiable appetite for wickets to Mohammed Siraj’s resurgence as a wicket-taker. Virat Kohli’s frustration to Matthew Potts’ elation. Shardul Thakur’s shoddiness to Ben Stokes’ impetuosity. Cheteshwar Pujara’s new lease on life as a Test cricketer to Shreyas Iyer’s potential earning him a first overseas Test. Some have excelled, some have crumbled. This what no sport other than Test cricket reveals, highlights and produces.

If day one was about Pant’s stunning century cancelling out Anderson’s success and day two about Jadeja and Bumrah seizing the moment, the third day in Birmingham was the most human of the Test so far. It had personal ambition overcome periods of self-doubt. It had ego get in the way of pragmatism. It had instinct get the better of talent. It had the seeds of redemption beginning to flower from the moist soil of ambition. And it was riveting, so bloody riveting.

The most striking contrast was the day that Kohli and Bairstow had, respectively. Whether or not you can attribute it to Bairstow turning a corner emphatically and storming to his fifth Test hundred of the year is pure conjecture, but you do wonder what the thinking was behind Kohli having a go at the leading run-getter of 2022 when he was battling for survival on the third morning.

During a riveting passage of Test cricket under Birmingham’s hazy sunshine, Shami was finding a bit of movement to repeatedly wobble the ball past Bairstow’s outside edge. Bumrah was cutting the ball into Bairstow and Stokes, who was floored by one that jagged back and hit him mid-ships. After that Bumrah over ended with Bairstow beaten off successive deliveries, an animated Kohli from slip had a few words of advice for the Englishman.

Bairstow replied something inaudible, and then the stump mic picked up Kohli asking ‘what’s that?’. What Bairstow said next was also not discernible but the moment he put out his right hand to Kohli’s chest and gestured for the former India captain to go back to his place in the slip cordon, things turned tense. Kohli, while walking backwards, seemed to be telling Bairstow, while pointing at him, to shut up and stand at the crease.

Kohli Bairstow
Virat Kohli exchanges words with Jonny Bairstow. (Image: Getty)

The terseness of what was said between Kohli and a struggling Bairstow forced the umpires to intervene. Kohli was no doubt trying to get under the batsman’s skin during a very testing period of play, and Bairstow’s response, initially, was to swipe and miss once again. Seeing this, Kohli in the slips did not hide his amusement.

This was a continuation, it seems, of stumps on Saturday when Kohli walked upto the departing Bairstow, put an arm around his shoulders and said something with a smile. Bairstow did not much react as the rain fell, and you wondered what he made of Kohli’s gesture.

As it turned out, following Kohli’s animated reaction from slip when Bairstow wafted and missed again, the momentum shifted for the batsman when he flashed a drive over point and ran three. From 13 off 60 deliveries, Bairstow scored 78 off his next 53 balls faced to go into the lunch break on 88. After the interval, Bairstow punched his way to a third successive Test match hundred and was not long after out to the unrelenting Shami, poking to who else but Kohli at first slip. Kohli, far from humbled after Bairstow’s belligerent reply with the bat, sent him off with a flying kiss.

Later in the day, when it was his turn to bat, Kohli unfurled three eye-popping drives but then fell in a manner which has become his bête noire: pressing forward to a ball from Stokes that reared up and took his edge to settle in first slip’s palms off a rebound from Sam Billings, the wicketkeeper. Another failure for Kohli and off he trudged, at an all-time low as Kohli 2.0 (that is, post the 2014 tour of England). One man did the talking, the other’s bat did the talking. As Kohli trudged off, without a century since November 2019, the cameras showed Bairstow as calm as can be. Has there been a more symbolic day than this in recent times?

Then there was the more conventional contest between bat and ball. In a period in which Bairstow began playing controlled chip shots against the quicks to break the shackles, a massive opportunity came from the other batsman. On 18, Stokes made room and tried to hit Shami, bowling his 18th over, over the infield. Up went the mishit, high in the air, and Shardul had plenty of time to settle under at at mid-off. He dropped it. Shami entered this rescheduled final Test having removed 11 England batsmen in three previous matches of the series at an average of 27.54. He had bowled a brutal spell on the second evening, and was luckless for so much of his outing.

Moments later, Stokes made room and drilled Shardul to Bumrah at mid-off who spilled it. You wondered for a moment if this was going to the day that ushered out Shardul from India’s overseas Test plans. But lo, Stokes attempted the same shot to the next ball and this time Bumrah had to leap across to his left to take a sharp catch. Redemption for catcher and bowler, and the end of a very sketchy innings from England’s captain.

In the final session, there was Pujara’s attempt to fight his way out of another shaky start. Used as opener for this Test – his 96th – Pujara has added steel to India’s top order where a familiar shade of susceptibility overseas has reappeared. Dropped for India’s home series versus Sri Lanka in February, he was not in India’s plans for the immediate future but was recalled for this one Test because of the volume of runs he scored for Sussex a few months ago.

Cheteshwar Pujara Latest Test
Cheteshwar Pujrara brought up a 33rd Test fifty late in the day. (Image: Twitter)

After failing in India’s first innings, Pujara bedded down in the second to steer the lead to 257 in a refreshingly familiar manner. Hard work is no issue for him. When he was at the height of his batting powers, Pujara was that zen-like figure that abrasively rubbed bowlers into the ground. First he made them blink, then he lulled them into his world, from where he nudged and deflected for hours and occasionally unfurled a twinkled-toed cover drive to swoon over. In batting out session after session in this manner, Pujara used to put India in positions from where they could push for Test wins. During India’s landmark tour of Australia in 2018-19, in which Pujara batted 1258 deliveries for 521 series-winning runs, a frustrated Nathan Lyon quipped to him after he scored his 18th Test hundred: “Aren’t you bored yet?”

That 193 in the final Test at the SCG in January 2019 remains Pujara’s last hundred. His future is not secure, yet in battling his way to 50* by stumps on Sunday Pujara has underlined his value in such conditions. He may not get to three figures, but the fact that he will be there to face up to Anderson and Broad and Potts on the fourth meaning means a lot. The man India dropped for their previous series after an extended run of low scores has bailed them out in an unfamiliar role, in the same country in which such innings are revered. Hows that for storytelling?

One of King’s seminal works, far removed from the horror genre he is best known for, is a novella by the name of Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, which is, as the title alludes to, about redemption for several central characters but also about hope. Like in King’s book and the brilliant film that it was adapted into 12 years later, this Test match between England and India has in some ways intertwined redemption and hope. Two days remain, with India three wickets down and owning a lead of 257. Two days, weather permitting, of further character study and ambivalence and genius and absorbing narrative.

Written by Jamie Alter

Sports writer, author, actor, anchor, digital content creator and TedX Talks speaker.

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