India vs Australia: Teams firing even without Virat Kohli, Steve Smith negates ‘head of snake’ chatter

Before this series, the term ‘head of the snake’ meant more to gamers than cricketers. It was an update in the computer game Guild Wars II released only last month. Now though, think ‘head of the snake’, and India thinks of Virat Kohli. Along with ‘brain fade’, it has become one of the series’ catchphrases.

India’s success in gargantuan proportions in their home season has been largely thanks to Kohli’s runs. The Indian captain (along with Ravichandran Ashwin) has been almost eponymous with India’s record, scoring 1,179 runs in eight Tests before this series at an average of 98.25. He has four hundreds, three double-tons, and three series wins under his belt. It was not surprising to hear Nathan Lyon refer to him as the ‘head of the snake’ ahead of the second Test in Bengaluru, especially considering that a twin Kohli failure in Pune had underlined India’s first Test loss since 2015.

We are now past the third Test of the series, and Kohli’s top score from his last five innings stands at a measly 15. Unlike India’s tour of England, where Anderson exposed a technical failing to dismiss him time and again in the same way, Kohli has looked like he has been in fine touch while batting. A couple of ‘brain fades’ (I promise you I will not repeat that phrase in this piece), a dodgy decision, and a rash shot have meant that he has contributed primarily as captain of India, not as India’s best bat.

And yet the Indian team have not floundered or fretted. The batting unit has got its act together since the Pune debacle and the shaky start in Bengaluru. KL Rahul has bucked his own trend of scoring more hundreds than fifties, and also added consistency to his resume. Murali Vijay continued his trend of getting out while closing in on a century. But more importantly, these two batters, who earned their stripes through the hubbub of runs in the Indian Premier League (IPL), have provided a measure of stillness at the top of the order.

Ajinkya Rahane’s series has been mediocre, but his biggest contribution came a time when India needed it most, and precipitated a momentum shift in the series. And Cheteshwar Pujara will be very happy to be back to his mega century-scoring ways after his double hundred in Ranchi, a masterclass in survival and concentration.

Then there have been the bowlers. Although Ashwin has been slightly off colour, he still has one five-wicket haul under his belt. Jadeja has grown in stature, establishing his credentials as a bowler who can take wickets even in unhelpful conditions. Umesh Yadav and Ishant Sharma deserve special mention; the entire season they have shown that they will not bowl the one bad ball in an over, something they were guilty of more often than not in the past, and have consistently picked up wickets in spin utopia.

Wriddhiman Saha has been outstanding behind the stumps; they say a wicket-keeper has done a good job if no one notices him. Not only has Saha’s glovework been impeccably invisible, but he went one better in Ranchi and ensured that there was no nostalgic talk of MS Dhoni’ at his home ground with his third Test hundred.

“A lot of people are talking about the head of the snake but the snake did pretty well by itself”, said Kohli of Lyon’s comments after winning the second Test, in a press conference remembered for other reasons entirely. “It’s not just about one individual here, I’m pretty happy if they keep focusing on the head of the snake, but the snake can sting from a lot of directions here.”

When Lyon used those words to describe Kohli, he was actually paraphrasing Dale Steyn, who had called Australian captain Steve Smith the same when South Africa toured Australia last year. Smith had responded to that in much the same way Kohli did.

“Pretty interesting. I think we’ve got a lot of batters in our line-up capable of getting runs. They (South Africa) can think that way if they like. Hopefully they get rid of me and think the rest is going to happen … that’ll be nice.”

While that series did not go to script for Australia, they have certainly made an impact on this tour. And the cornerstone of that performance has been the runs of Steve Smith himself. Smith’s 371 runs in three Tests dwarf his counterparts’ paltry collection of 46. Smith also sits on top of the run-scoring charts, and has made pivotal contributions in all three games. His dismissal in the second innings at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium gave India a crack in the door, which they wasted no time in wresting open.

So when he suffered another cognitive blank (there, I didn’t say it) in the second innings in Ranchi, more than a few pundits (and myself) predicted that India would run through the Australian resistance. But Shaun Marsh and Peter Handscomb denied India, and giving Australia their first match-saving draw since Michael Clarke earned one with a century against Sri Lanka in 2011.

Shaun Marsh was picked ahead of the in-form Usman Khawaja as a specialist against spin. If he were a Pokemon, he would be regionally exclusive to the subcontinent; his record in Asia (average of 49) considerably better than his record elsewhere (average 37), even at home. Handscomb, billed one of the best players of spin in the Australian domestic circuit, has finally turned ability into meaningful runs. The biggest surprise has been Matt Renshaw though. While Handscomb had a reputation of playing spin well, Renshaw has now built one, so much so that he has masked the absence of runs from David Warner. And Glen Maxwell played his best innings in the most un-Maxwell-like manner, to solve (temporarily at least) Australia’s number six worries.

India have thrice in the last six Tests surmounted first innings totals in excess of 400 to get into positions from where they cannot lose. On two of those occasions, Virat Kohli’s contributions were 15 and 6. They have proven that it is time for the ‘head of the snake’ chatter and narrative to be shelved. And by showing spine in the second innings in Ranchi, Australia have shown that there is more to them than their captain as well.

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