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India and Kohli make the most of home comforts

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There was once a time when it felt like abject cruelty to stick a 21-year-old in the middle of a giant green field only 22 yards away from a West Indian fast bowler.

Things are a bit different now. Yashasvi Jaiswal was moved to defence a mere seven times in the first hour of play. It wasn’t like he had made a conscious effort to bat this way. He was just reacting to the knowledge that the conditions were entirely in his favour.

Rohit Sharma took even more liberties. Once he combined the ills of playing away from his body and against the swing all for the meagre reward of one run through square leg. But he absolutely middled the shot.

The hundred came up in the 21st over. It should’ve felt manic but never really did. At least, not until the collapse.

India racked up 32 false responses in the morning session in Port-of-Spain. None of them led to a wicket. By the time they offered 12 more, they’d lost not one, not two, not three, but three of their best men.

Into this mess walked Virat Kohli. He spent 20 balls on zero and in that time Kemar Roach got two to straighten past his outside edge. The tempo of the game had changed and it needed an experienced hand to ride it. Good thing that he’s done this 500 times.

Kohli stood firm because he knew that was all he needed to do. The urge to get off the mark was there. He tried to drop and run to point several times but the field was too close in. He had to wait, but it didn’t throw him. West Indies played on his patience and they lost, emphatically too because his first runs came through a gorgeous straight drive that went all along the ground and all the way to the boundary.

From 0 off 20, Kohli was suddenly 41 off 72. He held the post on his cover drives. He took pride in his running between the wickets. He even returned to the pavilion with a souvenir, the front of his shirt and his trousers muddied from a dive to complete a second run that few would have made. On 87 not out, this was Kohli just bubbling. An innings with enough of his signature moments but still very much incomplete.

It helped, perhaps, that he knew the route to take to lead India’s recovery mission. The pitch bore striking resemblance to those found in the subcontinent – there were already footmarks outside the left-hander’s off stump for R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja to work with – and West Indies extended their hospitality further by opting to bowl when they won the toss.

In the era of the World Test Championship, almost every team has been trying to maximise home advantage and give themselves the best chance of accumulating enough points to make it to the top of the table and then the final. But here was a Test match in Port-of-Spain being played on India’s terms. There was spin on the first day, Jomel Warrican pressed into action as early as the 10th over and made to shoulder nearly 30% of the bowling workload.

Back in the day, batters visiting these parts were owed ballads if they could merely resist the fury that was headed their way. Even one of the greatest ever never really tamed this place, or this team. In fact, the most memorable innings that Sachin Tendulkar ever played in the Caribbean yielded only 44 runs.

Here’s the current India coach talking about it. “I saw so many great innings but if I could pick one it would be an innings of 40 he made in a one-day match against West Indies in Trinidad and Tobago.

“It was a tough wicket, we lost the toss and the Windies had excellent fast bowlers in Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh and Ian Bishop. The ball was moving all over the place, some were bouncing, taking off, and we were struggling.

“Sachin decided to take them on and he got 44 off 43 balls. He played all sorts of shots, he cut them, pulled them, hit over the top and this was against a formidable attack. In the end he got a poor decision but it was great to watch. It’s an innings I always remember.”

Rahul Dravid might be hard pressed to say the same about this pitch. The Queen’s Park Oval showed none of the venom it had 26 years ago. In fact it was in open war against the fast bowlers, offering no pace and barely any movement. Roach, Alzarri Joseph and Shannon Gabriel combined for 16 overs in the first session and came away with an economy rate of five or worse.

West Indies have greeted other subcontinent teams with much spicier pitches, most notably against Bangladesh in 2018 and 2022. Pakistan in 2021 and Sri Lanka in 2018 were cut up by the quicks too. Not doing the same against India, especially when their own fast-bowling firepower is limited with both Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami absent, seems sub-optimal.

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