Say what you may about Virat Kohli, criticise him as much as you want. But he is India’s best batter by a mile and it’s not even a debate.
Virat Kohli is panting. His hands are on his knees and sweat dripping profusely. He has just taken back-to-back doubles while batting in Mumbai’s sweltering heat and the reaction is understandable. So what if he is the mighty Virat Kohli, who has set unprecedented fitness goals? He too is human, feeling the effects of father time. But Kohli understands he has a job to do. Rohit Sharma, the man setting up the tempo all this while, had gotten out second ball of the innings and it was up to Kohli to get the team out of 4/1. For the next 31 overs, he digs deep, bats out of his skin and takes the score to 196 before missing out on that dreaded 49th century which the country is obsessed with.
Three days later, the occasion is even bigger – it’s Kohli’s 35th birthday – and the conditions more challenging. The sun is playing peek-a-book but it’s humid as hell. Rohit had done Rohit things, blasting 40 off 24 balls and handed it over to Kohli to bat South Africa out of the match. India had bludgeoned their way to 60 off six overs and a similar tempo was expected to be maintained. But Kohli has other plans. The moment Keshav Maharaj bowls one – already doing the rounds as the ball of the tournament – that turns 8.1 degrees to hit the top of Shubman Gill’s off-stump, Kohli’s eyes light up. This isn’t Wankhede, or Dharamsala, or even Lucknow for that matter. This is a good old Eden Gardens pitch getting drier with each over.
Shoaib Malik gave him batting lessons, left-arm slow bowlers were his bane. And yet, against two of the most red-hot spinners of CWC ’23, Kohli dished out a spin batting masterclass. Kohli faced difficulty in piercing the field against Maharaj and Tabraiz Shamsi. To emphasise the challenge posed by the spinners, it’s worth noting that between Shreyas Iyer’s 12 runs off 35 deliveries and his eventual 77 off 87, Kohli found himself applauding his partner’s runs more enthusiastically than his own.
When Iyer paddle swept for four believing there was bat involved but the umpire signalled byes, Kohli appeared shellshocked. His facial expressions mirrored that of a kid whose ice-cream had been snatched away. It was as though his own runs were docked, and while Shreyas held his ground, Kohli managed to persuade the umpire to alter his verdict. Subsequently, when Iyer took on Shamsi, smashing three fours and a six, Kohli responded with enthusiastic applause, a triumphant roar, and a friendly punch on his partner’s helmet. This camaraderie persisted when Suryakumar Yadav squandered a free-hit opportunity, with Kohli displaying an unusual hint of disappointment as the non-striker. He was treating their runs as his.
Kohli had tackled another left-arm spin threat against Mitchell Santner two Sundays ago, but the wicket at the HPCA Stadium was a lot more straightforward. Aware of the success guys like Santner, Maharaj, Shakib Al Hasan and Dunith Wellalage have had against him, Kohli was determined to tweak today’s headlines. The significance of this innings to Kohli became evident in the 21st over when, after South Africa burned a DRS for a caught behind appeal against him, he chirped away at Quinton de Kock and even blew a kiss to the camera when the ultra-edge showed no spike. From 17 off 13, Kohli slowed down, but realising that without the reinforcement of Hardik Pandya, and Suryakumar Yadav in ODIs is still not as reliable a force in T20s, the sensible call was made. Who is to say that Kohli wouldn’t have had flashbacks of the numerous great Indian batting collapses he himself has been part of? India’s initial target of 270 could have been 220, but instead it swelled to 100 more and then some.
And yet, to everyone’s horror, ‘Selfish’, ‘Kholi’ and ‘Slow’ were some of the hashtags that began trending. This is when Kohli reached his century off 120 balls – a strike-rate of 83.4 – when India had put on over 320. Wicked to see the hate Kohli was getting on one of the biggest days of his career. Even by Kohli’s own admission, he knew today was something more than a World Cup match. He had a spring in his steps. Fairytales have become a rarity in cricket, but here he was, India’s biggest cricket superstar, who evokes a Sachin Tendulkar-like emotion out of India’s 1.5 billion people, scripting one after the other – the MCG epic last year around the same time, and now a century on birthday, which incidentally his idol Tendulkar had achieved too 25 years ago in Sharjah.
As destiny would dictate, Kohli’s 49th century was marked by a front-foot punch, a stroke reminiscent of Tendulkar’s greatness. The celebrations were perhaps the most muted ever seen after a Kohli hundred. He was physically spent in the energy-sapping heat, having run those singles monstrously quick like only Kohli can. At this stage, for Kohli, centuries are a norm, and for once, he didn’t mind exposing to the world that his body is tiring down at 35.
It’s not as if Kohli can’t go berserk – he did it pretty recently during the Asia Cup against Pakistan, smashing 122 off 94 balls. He simply doesn’t need to anymore. For all comparing Rohit’s ‘selfless’ innings at a brisk pace to Kohli’s measured knocks, it’s simple. One plays aggressor, the other anchor, accumulator. What do they call it these days on social media? What’s the new trend? ‘Who has that one XX person’s video, right? Here’s one for Kohli: Just before the second wave of pandemic hit, KL Rahul was struggling for form in the home series against England, and a question was asked about his place in the XI during a press conference. Kohli, then the captain, gracefully defended Rahul by narrating Kishore Kumar’s timeless classic from Amar Prem ‘Kuch toh log kahenge, logon ka kaam hai kehna (People will keep talking; it’s their job). The 70,000 present at the Gardens today likely echoed the same sentiment.