For five hours on the third day of the Nagpur Test, two Indian batsmen showcased exactly the kind of strength of character that makes Test cricket at its most attritional so fascinating.
Virat Kohli and Mahendra Singh Dhoni got together when the top four of the India batting line-up had fallen with just 71 on the board. Scoring runs quickly was never an option on the pitch the match is being played on. So the order of the day for the pair was to keep batting for as long as possible, even if it meant that with each passing hour of scoring at two an over, the odds on India bowling England out a second time and pushing for a series-levelling win dwindled.
Dhoni had already created a flutter of sorts by walking out ahead of Ravindra Jadeja, picked as the replacement for Yuvraj Singh ahead of Ajinkya Rahane. That Jadeja was regarded as the fourth spinner – and fifth bowler – rather than the sixth batsman in the team was clear from Dhoni's batting reshuffle, but it is exactly the sort of thing you would expect the India captain to do when the going got tough. He has not done it often in Tests, but in limited-overs games – most memorably in the 2011 World Cup final, going in ahead of Yuvraj Singh at No 5 – the ploy has usually worked.
In Nagpur, with critics questioning his place in the team, Dhoni, in collaboration with Kohli, played an innings of great maturity, exemplary patience and tremendous determination. It was always clear that wickets would fall rarely to brilliant bowling and were much more likely to come from batting errors. That the batsmen in the middle were Kohli and Dhoni – both naturally aggressive players – made the probability of those errors much higher than would have been the case with a Rahul Dravid.
Not on the day, though. Kohli and Dhoni added just 59 runs in 32 overs in the first session, then another 81 in the 27 overs bowled in the second session. A draw still gives the series to England, but not trying to save this Test first cannot be an option. Kohli, in fact, confirmed as much: "The idea was to bat for as long as possible, because scoring was quite tough."
Kohli might not be under the same kind of pressure that Dhoni is, but he has lost a few of his fans with just 85 runs in the first three Tests of this series. Unlike Dhoni, whose strength of character was never doubted, Kohli had a lot to prove. He is, after all, one of the men Indian cricket wants at the core as it goes through a rather tricky phase. To many, he is the team's captain-in-waiting. "I really wanted to score runs in this series, and was probably putting too much pressure on myself," Kohli said after the day's play. Whether that's true, or whether it was just poor shot-selection in the earlier Tests, Kohli certainly proved his worth yesterday.
There were a few pretty strokes, including cuts and drives between point and extra cover that accounted for eight of the 11 boundaries he hit. But those were aberrations. A lion's share of the 295 balls he played just about rolled to the fielders.
Batting for five hours, and taking the score from 71 for 4 to 269 for 5, is no joke. But after doing all the hard work, the two men might only have pushed back the inevitable rather than averting it. India lost four wickets in the last hour, including Dhoni's needless run-out when on 99, to hand the advantage back to England. For all the heroic effort, Kohli and Dhoni might not have managed to change the outcome of the series.
Shamya Dasgupta is senior editor at 'Wisden India': wisdenindia.com