The defining narrative of this series has been the contest between Virat Kohli and James Anderson, a contest which ended on Day Four at The Oval. Ben Jones looks back on one of the great sporting rivalries.
Stuart Broad dismissed the best batsman in the world yesterday. He nicked him off, outside off stump, for a golden duck, making him look mortal and normal. It could easily have been the peak of someone’s career. But it was a side-story.
Virat Kohli is a stunning player. He is the peak of 21st century batsmanship, a white-ball gun who can turn his aim on the Test arena whenever he sees fit. He is a phenomenon who elevates his team, the spectacle, and the sport itself.
James Anderson is the pinnacle of fast bowling athleticism. Lean, skilful, combative, he is the peak of what a sportsman can be, a sophisticated blend of instinct and experience, the honed result of a career spent refining a skill.
The battle between these two giants, both throughout this summer and before, has been nothing short of magical. They are the stars of their sides, the base from which both English and Indian success is built. They are as good as it gets, with bat and with ball.
Yet Stuart Broad has a lower bowling average against Virat Kohli than James Anderson. He is statistically more successful against the Indian skipper than Jimmy is, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is the narrative, the shape of the tale. And the tale is Anderson v Kohli.
Yesterday may have been Alastair Cook’s day, but Day Four at The Oval was the final chapter in this magnificent narrative. With all the joy and abandon around the opener’s farewell, the finale to this wonderful rivalry was easy to miss. It was like finishing a favourite book while drunk; all chaos and emotion, with the faintest understanding that behind the fug of intensity something historic is taking place. In cricketing history, there haven’t been many batsmen better than Virat Kohli, and there have been even fewer bowlers better than James Anderson. Future generations may or may not mourn the demise of Test cricket, but they will understand the appeal of this sort of rivalry.
Because if Test cricket does one thing, it is that it allows the action room to breathe, to swell and shrink to whatever is it’s natural size. Four years ago, the battle between them was taught and minimal, no less powerful for being brief, as Anderson exerted supreme control over Kohli’s precocious young skills. In 2014, everything went the way of the Englishman. Every mistake from Kohli fell in the right spot, every wrong step saw him fall way, every error saw him out of sight.
This summer, it’s gone the other way. Kohli has returned the triumphant conqueror, with a century against all other Test teams tucked under his arm. This summer, everything Anderson has tried has missed, every hex has been dodged, every edge has fallen short and every error has been forgiven. He has drawn a borderline comical number of false shots from the Indian No.4, and yet none have been fatal blow. In 2018, Kohli has had the gods with him.
This series, Kohli has played 48 false shots against James Anderson . Not one of them has brought a wicket. This is, in the very literal sense of the word, exceptional. Typically, in Test matches, 14 false shots brings a wicket, meaning that in 2014 Kohli’s bad luck was off the scale – but this summer, so was Anderson’s. Only once in the CricViz database has a bowler drawn more false shots from someone in a series without dismissing them, that occasion being Harbhajan Singh bowling to Hashim Amla, in 2010. That series saw Amla dropped three times off Harbhajan’s bowling, a quantity of bad luck which even Anderson can’t match, but the point stands. We have been watching something remarkable.
Of course, a batsman as good as Kohli retains the right to claim autonomy. He has made changes to his game which have a right to be seen as reason for the Indian captain’s success. Kohli has tried to combat the issues of 2014 by batting around 40cm further out of his crease than he did in 2014, desperate to counter the lateral movement of the Lancastrian. Regardless of the crowing of Indian fans, Kohli was clearly willing to change his entire technique to combat the threat of Anderson. As a batsman, I’m not sure you can give a greater compliment.
Combining softer hands and stronger wills, Kohli has managed to make it though the series without falling to the hand of the swing king. Anderson is the only front-line bowler not to claim Kohli’s wicket, the kind of fateful flourish which one might expect from a hack scriptwriter or a cliched performer. To fall from dominance to complete ineffectiveness is a fall too extreme to be believable, but the tough truth of the numbers bears it out.
This has no bearing on the reputations of either player. At some point on Day Five, James Anderson is going to become the most prolific fast bowler of all time. It’s not outlandish to suggest that at some point in the next ten years, Virat Kohli could become the most prolific Test batsman of all time. In future conversations about this era, this contest could very easily come to be seen as the best against the best, a rare overlap in the career of two legends. If any of those edges had seen Kohli dismissed, then that contest would have been shortened, and regardless of the shade of blue you wear on your back, that would have been a loss to cricket.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.