Stand-in, stand out

In a series of runs, runs and more runs, Steve Smith and Virat Kohli stood the tallest with an amalgam of focus and technique. They are also young Test captains, but different personalities with the same intent, unburdened by responsibility, writes S. Dinakar.

The numbers are staggering. Records have been left behind. Their appetite for runs has been enormous. Centuries have been rolling off the blades of Virat Kohli and Steven Smith. Both are in the midst of a dream run.

In a series of runs, runs and more runs, the two stood the tallest with an amalgam of focus and technique.

They are also young Test captains, but different personalities with the same intent, unburdened by responsibility.

The 25-year-old Smith’s awesome 769 runs in four Tests at 128.16 are the most by any batsman in an India-Australia series. He also joined Bradman and Jacques Kallis as the only batsmen to score four hundreds in consecutive Tests of the same series.

The marauding Kohli finished with 692 runs in four Tests at 86.50. No Indian batsman has scored more runs in a series down under.

Kohli’s three hundreds in his first three innings as captain have never been done before in Tests. He followed Sunil Gavaskar as the only Indian to notch up four centuries in a Test series.

Just 26, he seems to have understood the grammar of batsmanship. But then, Kohli doesn’t quite possess the composure of Smith while leading his men on the field. Reining in his temper and masking his emotions is an area Kohli needs to work on.

Kohli though has the talent to match his ambition. The manner in which he cover-drove Nathan Lyon on surfaces offering turn — Kohli used his powerful wrists to control the ball as he whipped it — was outstanding.

The young man has worked on his methods. His back-lift is straighter, while his back-and-across movement has cohesion.

On this tour, Kohli has played capably off the back-foot, whether punching, cutting or pulling. For the Australian bowlers, he has been the great Indian barrier.

His onslaught on Mitchell Johnson at the MCG was captivating. Kohli is passionate about his cricket and as Matthew Hayden said to this correspondent, “wears his heart on his sleeves.”

Hayden also spoke about Kohli’s technique being as good as that of Michael Clarke. “He is that good,” the Aussie great said.

These are early days in his captaincy, but Kohli has to learn to be patient. Having five different bowlers for five overs might work in Twenty20 cricket, but rarely succeeds in Tests. Here, bowlers have to be given longer spells.

There is a calmness about Smith as captain. His batsmanship also has a ruthless side to it. He can dominate attacks without appearing to take risks.

Arthur Morris, a hero of the mighty Invincibles, told Sportstar, “You have to use your feet. You cannot let the bowlers dictate terms to you. I think Smith does that. He goes back and then gets forward.”

Smith’s methods are good. The Aussie has a sizable back-lift — the bat comes down from the direction of second slip — but the willow is straight while meeting the ball.

The ease with which he gets into positions is the hallmark of Smith’s batsmanship. Quality batting is often about subtle adjustments depending on the nature of the surface.

When the ball was spinning for Ashwin on day four at the SCG, Smith jumped out and smoked the bowler over covers, hitting against the spin but timing his shot beautifully, for a six.

The stroke reflected the quality of Smith’s footwork and his balance. Simply put, the Indian bowlers ran out of answers against him.

Smith’s batting has taken flight, much like his sensational gravity defying act in the slip cordon to send back Rohit Sharma on the last day at the SCG. That moment he was very much the flying Australian who could do no wrong as he closed his fingers on the ball.

Although still only a stand-in for Michael Clarke, Smith said he enjoyed captaincy. He also commanded the respect of his men. “I’ve really enjoyed it (captaincy). I’ve had a great time. All the boys have been terrific around the group. A lot of the senior players have been helping me out.”

Kohli has come a long way from the time he was vulnerable against short-pitched bowling on the tour of the Caribbean in 2011.

He has made the turnaround mentally. “I used to expect a lot out of myself and unnecessarily put pressure on myself. I believe in myself. I don’t tell myself to go out there and get a century, I rather believe in myself that I will go out there and do well. I think there is a slight difference in that which one needs to realise as in what works for an individual. For me I take success and failure the same way.”

Kohli is the type who relishes battles. They spur him on. He said of his astonishing success in Australia, “To have a challenge of overcoming the whole Australian crowd and 11 Australian players who badly want to irritate me or get me out. It’s been a challenge, but it’s something that I’ve enjoyed and it’s brought out the best from me.”

In this series, the Aussie fans loved Smith. They also loved to hate Kohli in a lighthearted manner. But their underlying respect for the manner in which he carried India’s fight with the bat was unmistakable. He works hard on his cricket, takes practice sessions seriously. His cricket is driven by that desire to excel.

In the days to come, the chances are that Kohli would read the conditions and the players he needs to overcome them better.

Smith and Kohli do appear to be on the highway to glory.