Virat Kohli won the battle of the in-form batsmen against George Bailey hands down, orchestrating another epic in a stiff run chase to set the VCA Stadium in Jamtha alight on Wednesday (October 30) night.
Trailing 1-2 in the seven-match One-Day International series, India had watched in utter helplessness as Bailey produced a mesmeric 115-ball 156 which, together with Shane Watson’s 102, had pulled Australia through to 350 for 6.
Exactly two weeks back in Jaipur, India had conceded 359 in the second ODI, and cantered home with ludicrous ease, by nine wickets with 6.3 overs to spare as Kohli smashed a 52-ball hundred to follow up on the heroics of Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma. The script played out almost unerringly similarly this time around too, the same three protagonists in the forefront even if India had to wait till the final over to coast home, reaching 350 for 4 for a six-wicket victory which levelled the series at 2-2.
Dhawan was in exceptional touch as he stormed to his fourth hundred and Rohit went from watchfully circumspect to breathtakingly brilliant in quick time, but the real hero again was Kohli with a special 17th ton, 115 not out off 66 deliveries with 18 fours and a six.
There are few sights more captivating in world cricket than Kohli in full cry. Walking into a very sound platform after Rohit and Dhawan had put on 178 at exactly a run a ball, Kohli took no time playing himself in, warming up with a couple of inside-out cover drives against Xavier Doherty and Aaron Finch, the part-time left-arm spinner who got rid of Rohit caught in the deep just when he was beginning to cut loose.
Once the pacers came back on, Kohli treated the full house to a wonderful display of batsmanship, coaxing and cajoling the ball into gaps and pulling with ferocity when Mitchell Johnson in particular tested out the bounce in the surface. Johnson, who otherwise had a forgettable night, winkled out Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh in the space of four deliveries, but Kohli held his nerve even as Mahendra Singh Dhoni took his time finding his feet, shepherding the chase in splendid fashion.
The twirly wrists as much as his ability to get down low as he drove handsomely through the covers were all in full evidence as he raced to his hundred in 61 deliveries – nine more than in Jaipur – to snatch the limelight away from Dhawan, who made the most of being put down on 19, then 56.
Dhawan too peppered every part of the ground, sometimes with great power, at others with a felicity of touch that carried the left-hander’s unmatched elegance. With Rohit struggling to get the measure of the track and the bowling initially, Dhawan kept batting at top gear, ensuring that while the scoreboard didn’t rattle along at breakneck speed, India wasn’t too far behind the eight-ball. Deft touch was especially reserved for Doherty, who was swept fine and square repeatedly to fall away after a bright opening three overs.
Bailey’s mesmeric essay, studded with 13 fours and six towering sixes, had found the perfect foil in Watson’s telling return to form during the first half of the evening, when India rapidly went from competent to inadequate. Bailey’s second ODI hundred was an innings of two parts, the first 50 accumulated quietly in as many deliveries, the last 106 coming at breakneck speed as Dhoni debated the wisdom of putting the opposition in despite fielding three spinners.
Watson, desperately in need of a score, rode his luck to complete his ninth hundred, though he wasn’t as authoritative as his skipper. Their 168-run third-wicket stand in just 142 deliveries put Australia on the ascendancy and Bailey then completely dominated the fifth-wicket association of 120 off a mere 80 balls with Adam Voges, driving India to its knees as he built handsomely on his series returns, coming into this game with 318 runs in four innings.
It was another poor performance from India’s bowling attack – for want of a better word – even though its composition underwent a dramatic change with Dhoni plumping for three specialist spinners. The Indians began exceptionally well through Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami, the former sticking to his disciplines and the latter getting the ball to jag around to ask difficult questions of Finch and Phil Hughes.
Bhuvneshwar got rid of Hughes on the pull, smartly caught to his left at square leg by Kohli, while R Ashwin elicited a poor stroke from Finch off his first delivery, the batsman charging and missing the ball completely to be bowled embarrassingly. At 45 for 2 in the 12th and with Watson not in the best touch, India sensed an opening to keep the total down to manageable proportions, Amit Mishra – playing his first ODI on home patch -- settling into a nice rhythm and Ravindra Jadeja being his usual parsimonious self.
For the first two-fifths of Australia’s innings, there was little indication of the carnage to follow. But were India to retrospect, it will acknowledge that as brilliantly as Bailey batted, it had to shoulder a bulk of the blame.
Jadeja should have had Watson caught off a steepling skier at cover, but despite Rohit taking the catch, the batsman survived because the bowler had overstepped. Jadeja, who was to repeat that indiscretion in the last over, was made to pay a heavy price for that lapse as Watson, then 25 out of Australia’s 69 for 2, got on the bike and sped away.
Until then a little hesitant, Watson switched gears effortlessly, coming hard at the bowlers and transferring the pressure on to them. The spinners suddenly bowled too short or served up full tosses, and the fielders wilted under the onslaught, conceding runs by the bagful.
Bailey was content to play second fiddle, nurdling the ball around, haring between the wickets and easing his way into the 30s without so much as breaking sweat. A hat-trick of boundaries off Shami powered Watson to his ton, and when he was dismissed one ball later after a stand of 168 in just 142 deliveries, Bailey assumed centrestage, going on a rampage in the last 15 overs. Australia amassed 267 in the last 30 overs but again, that was just the appetiser before Kohli’s main course.