In breaking his century drought during one of the longest innings of his career, India's talismanic No.4 showed the ways in which he has matured as a cricketer and a person
Evolved Kohli finds form, peace against old rivals
As soon as Virat Kohli knew his off-drive from a Mitchell Starc delivery had gone to the Perth Stadium boundary to clinch what was, until Sunday, his most recent century against Australia, he pointed to his bat and made a talking motion with his gloved hand.
It was not just the provocative gesture that provided a window into Kohli's mind at the time. It was the glare of pure defiance.
Contrast that to Sunday in Ahmedabad. For one, Kohli's batting, once full of statement shots and balls racing to the boundary, was less furious. His first Test hundred in 1,206 days was his second slowest by balls faced.
Kohli as a person has clearly mellowed too. When he clipped the single that delivered his long-awaited ton, the fury was gone and a gentle smile was there instead.
This time his gesture was about family, not silencing critics, or proving a point, or getting one back over the Aussies. Kohli reached into collar of his shirt, pulled out his wedding ring that was on a chain around a neck and kissed it.
With age and experience has come maturity. No longer does the 34-year-old need to pick a fight to put him in the mood to compete. Self-motivation has never been an issue for Kohli but, while the conditions in Ahmedabad were tilted heavily in his favour during his marathon 186, he faced other challenges.
There was some irony in the fact it was his wife who revealed the main one of those he encountered during his eight-and-a-half-hour, 363-ball innings. Anushka Sharma, the mother to the couple's daughter Vamika, revealed on her social media that she had been proud of her husband for "playing through sickness".
Axar Patel, who shared in a 162-run stand with Kohli and fronted up to Sunday's post-match press conference instead of him, suggested one would not have known he was ill given how he ran between the wickets in the intense Ahmedabad heat. Of his first 102 runs, just 20 came in boundaries. He ran the rest, and did not find the fence once during day four's opening session.
Australia and Kohli have shared an uneasy relationship over the years. Kohli had a fiery exchange with Mitchell Johnson during his first Test tour down under in 2011-12 and gave the finger to the SCG crowd. After assuming the captaincy, he then famously suggested friendships with Australian players, fostered over years of playing with him in the Indian Premier League, had been shattered after the spiteful 2017 Test series in India.
A few years on, then Test captain Tim Paine infamously said to Murali Vijay, "I know he's your captain, but you can't seriously like him as a bloke". That line came in Perth, only days after Kohli celebrated that brilliant 123 he celebrated with the talking glove.
But the mutual distrust might have shifted. Marnus Labuschagne and Nathan Lyon were among the Australians who shared causal conversations with Kohli as he batted. In the field as well, Kohli has cut a more relaxed figure, even playfully mimicking Cameron Green's pre-ball routine. When he was dismissed in the final hour of play on day four, many of the tourists raced to shake his hand.
Kohli has always carried a heavy burden of expectation. He is revered in a way that, among Indian cricketers, perhaps only Sachin Tendulkar can relate. The local broadcaster ran segments dedicated to him in both the lunch and the tea breaks on Sunday. His face is even on the screen in the commercial intervals, selling tires.
But rarely has he faced the kind of doubts that emerged over his Test batting form.
A man who had scored 74 international tons, a mark only bettered by Tendulkar's ton of tons, had gone more than three years – and 41 innings – without making one in Test cricket. Kohli had never previously gone a dozen Test innings without a century.
Anyone who had watched him do the impossible at the MCG during the T20 World Cup last summer by lifting India over Pakistan knew his batting talents had not deserted him. Even in the three preceding Tests against Australia, the right-hander had looked as fluent as anyone on pitches that have been turning minefields.
But his drought clearly weighed on him. Even his run of 14 innings without a half-century was a statistic not lost on him, demonstrated by the raising of his arms in faux delight after he passed fifty late on day three.
Resuming his innings the following day still 41 short of three figures, Kohli played risk-free cricket. Australia's off-spinners tested his patience by bowling around the wicket to him with only two off-side fielders. He refused to take the bait, accumulating as his supple wrists allowed him to place the ball into gaps instead.
Once he had passed triple figures and Australia's attack tired, the runs came more easily. Kohli, and India, will hope that continues to be the case for a while yet.
Border-Gavaskar Qantas Tour of India 2023
February 9-13: India won by an innings and 132 runs
February 17-21: India won by six wickets
March 1-5: Australia won by nine wickets
March 9-13: Fourth Test, Ahmedabad, 3pm AEDT
All matches broadcast live and exclusive on Fox Cricket and Kayo Sports
Australia squad: Pat Cummins (c), Scott Boland, Alex Carey, Cameron Green, Peter Handscomb, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Matt Kuhnemann, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Lance Morris, Todd Murphy, Matthew Renshaw, Steve Smith (vc), Mitchell Starc, Mitchell Swepson
India squad: Rohit Sharma (c), KL Rahul (vc), Shubman Gill, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Shreyas Iyer, KS Bharat, Ishan Kishan, Ravichandran Ashwin, Axar Patel, Kuldeep Yadav, Ravindra Jadeja, Mohammed Shami, Mohammed Siraj, Umesh Yadav, Suryakumar Yadav, Jaydev Unadkat