Domain Tests v India
Kohli's obsession nears crescendo
As Tim Paine addressed a rare defeat at Australia's spiritual home, India's steely skipper vows to continue tuning out the noise
Andrew Ramsey at the MCG
30 December 2018, 05:00 PM AEST
An hour after the formal pronouncement of India's Test victory that had been inevitable for at least a day, possibly two, Tim Paine fronted a media conference in a cramped theatrette squeezed between the rival teams' MCG dressing rooms.
As the Australia captain began to articulate how and why his team had been so comprehensively outplayed at the nation's spiritual cricket home, his answers were all but lost amid the euphoric chants leaking from India's post-game celebrations.
It was an unintended indignity that, over recent decades, has been far more often reserved for visiting Test teams vanquished by a rampant Australia.
Over the predictable course of 30 previous summers, the only visitors to celebrate series' victories on Australia's patch were South Africa (three times), and England, who famously crowned their achievement of 2010-11 with the cringeworthy 'sprinkler dance' in the MCG's middle.
Over that time, touring outfits have won a measly 22 Tests from 166 starts and their losing ratio at the ground where Test cricket was born in 1877 is second only to the SCG – where the fourth and final Domain Test begins next Thursday.
So the verve and the volume of India's impromptu party after claiming Australia's last two wickets in 27 deliveries today, thereby closing out a 137-run win, was as understandable as it was justifiable.
Yet, according to their steely skipper Virat Kohli who conducted his own media session well before Paine appeared, it came as no surprise.
"We always knew that we can do this," Kohli said shortly after India had retained the Border-Gavaskar Trophy and secured a 2-1 series lead with a match to play.
"Although we are very happy, we are not shocked, we are not very surprised about what has happened.
"We always believed that this is very possible because of the talent we have in the side and the mindset that we have been carrying for the last twelve months regardless of what has been said, regardless of the mistakes we have made.
"Our mindset never shifted once."
It's a view that might be interpreted as hubris if not for the sobering context provided by history.
Since Kohli inherited his country's Test captaincy from M.S. Dhoni at the conclusion of India's previous Australia tour in 2014, his team's only away-series wins have come against bantam-weight opponents Sri Lanka and the West Indies.
More pointedly, their two previous offshore campaigns waged earlier in 2018 yielded defeats against South Africa (2-1) and England (4-1), which led to suggestions that Kohli's men were home-track bullies.
But Kohli's bullishness was built on his unyielding belief that total immersion in the task at hand – along with shutting out those questioning voices casting doubts upon team India's portability – would bring the results that he and coach Ravi Shastri craved.
Even in Australia, where no previous India team – including those blessed with brilliance the lustre of Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev, Sachin Tendulkar and Anil Kumble – had beaten Australia in a series on their home tracks in seven decades of trying.
That 'total cricket' philosophy, to which Kohli had previously referred during a feisty media conference after India's loss to South Africa at Centurion earlier this year, also sheds light on his combative – some might argue abrasive – on-field demeanour.
In South Africa last January, Kohli exhorted his team to be "hard on ourselves" and noted "we need to ask ourselves if we are giving 120 per cent for the team every time we play a ball, bowl a ball or field a ball".
Prior to the current series beginning in Adelaide, former Australia captain Steve Waugh claimed that Kohli was perhaps the most competitive cricketer he had witnessed, and one who genuinely believed he could exert influence on every aspect of a Test.
Kohli went further in the aftermath of today's victory to outline the mindset and the means by which India's poor recent away record could be redressed, and how the final frontier of a series win in Australia might be forged.
"If you have to, or want to win a series away from home, it has to be an obsession," Kohli said, in admitting that he has been eating, sleeping and dreaming about this campaign from before he arrived in Sydney during November.
"Once you are obsessed, changing your decisions according to opinions is not an option at all.
"Instinctively, if you have a gut feel about playing a particular shot or bowling a particular ball, inside - if you feel good about doing something in a particular Test match - you just follow that.
"You can't follow for someone else.
"I think that's been the most important factor for us, that we haven't changed our mindset regardless of who said what.
"As I said, hats off to the whole team for sticking together, believing in themselves and being obsessed about getting results."
While Kohli's mantra has gained resonance through the on-field efforts of two vital team members, Cheteshwar Pujara (series leading run scorer with 328 at 54.66) and Jasprit Bumrah (top wicket-taker with 20 at 14.65), it might also hold relevance for his rivals.
The dual failures of Australia's top-order batters in Melbourne ensured the public opinion directed at the MCG's ground staff on the Test's first two days was, instead, directed at the national selection panel as well as coach, Justin Langer, and captain, Tim Paine.
Included in that commentary has been suggestions that Australia's domestic cricket system is failing to produce players the calibre of those who were responsible for that 20-year reign of dominance from 1989, when Australia was near enough to infallible in Test series at home.
Among the theories peddled for their decline in the global Test rankings – where they currently sit at number five, while India hold top spot – has been the impact of scheduling the KFC Big Bash League concurrently with the home Test summer.
Thereby ensuring potential replacements available for the Test outfit are not finding or showing form in red-ball cricket to help inform selection.
"It's out of our control," Paine said today, after the din from the neighbouring changeroom had subsided.
"As players, our job is to play cricket and turn up where we are supposed to turn up.
"We don't do the programming, and can't help it at this stage.
"We're having conversations with the ACA (Australian Cricketers' Association) on how we can do it better down the track, and Cricket Australia and the ACA will work through that.
"At the moment, you can't use change of format as an excuse.
"We're not playing well enough under pressure when it matters - that's a fact, whether it's Twenty20, one-day cricket or Test cricket.
"It's happening through all three formats at the moment."
It's a sage and sobering truth that needs to be heard, through all the escalating background noise.
Domain Test Series v India
Dec 6-10: India won by 31 runs
Dec 14-18: Australia won by 146 runs
Dec 26-30: India won by 137 runs
Jan 3-7: Fourth Test, SCG
Australia squad: Tim Paine (c, wk), Josh Hazlewood (vc), Mitch Marsh (vc), Pat Cummins, Aaron Finch, Peter Handscomb, Marcus Harris, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Shaun Marsh, Peter Siddle, Mitchell Starc
India squad: Virat Kohli (c), Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Mayank Agarwal, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Hardik Pandya, Hanuma Vihari, Rohit Sharma, Rishabh Pant (wk), Parthiv Patel (wk), Ravi Ashwin, Ravi Jadeja, Kuldeep Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar