King Kohli is back
In the TV show ‘The Test’ on Amazon Prime Video, Justin Langer, the former head coach of the Australian men’s cricket team said, “Virat Kohli is the best player I’ve ever seen in my life”. He isn’t the only person to have said that.
Some will agree, others will not. The originalists will reminisce about Bradman’s or Gavaskar’s smoking drives; the type that left a burn mark on the grass as the ball skidded along. The Sachin loyalists will point to his two classic Sharjah innings, his consistently outstanding World Cup performances and his unequalled numbers. And the Lara faithful will emphasize his 400 not out, his stylish strokes and his countless clutch performances.
I am not here to advocate for any particular batsman as the greatest of all time (GOAT). Each player has a unique style; each is effective in his own way; each has a distinct temperament which might be fit for one situation, but not for another. And in any case, it is tough to compare players across generations.
Suffice it to say that Kohli will always be a part of the GOAT debate. His credentials demand it.
If Kohli’s contribution to Indian cricket as a batsman wasn’t enough, his time as captain sealed his place in the history books. It was as captain that his personality really came to the fore. The firebrand. The man with an attitude, who stood tall against any perceived slight, as if to say to his opponents (and sometimes actually saying): “who the f*** are you”. I love this about him.
Kohli forged a team in his mould. A team that reflected, in many ways, the personality of their leader. All the players on the team embraced who they are, unhindered by former notions of convention. They expressed themselves, without being held back by how others might perceive them. They exuded confidence. And they were fit, fast and furious; the fire-spitting fast-bowling quartet of Bumrah, Shami, Yadav and Siraj (among others) immediately come to mind.
Our performances in the overseas test series in Australia in 2018 and 2020/21, and then in England in 2021, each deserve blog posts of their own. Those were vintage Virat Kohli test teams. What a joy it was to watch India stand up to the traditional cricketing bullies and to give them a taste of their own medicine in their backyard.
To me, it seemed like Kohli could do no wrong…
But then came a dip in batting form, which later converged with a political powerplay leading to Kohli being unceremoniously stripped off the captaincy.
In addition to being in bad nick and losing the captaincy, he had to deal with a billion opinions, predictions of his demise as a cricketer, and abuse from various quarters.
Despite all this, surely Virat would soon regain his form?
Virat went 1020 days and countless matches without scoring a century. Unthinkable for a player of his calibre. Although he was occasionally making decent contributions — a fifty here, a fifty there — this was a far cry from anything we had come to be accustomed to. And as more time went by without Kohli showing any sign of a recovery to his best, more and more Indians, including former haters, joined the public prayers for a full-fledged Kohli return to form.
Every game he played, we thought he would be back. Every boundary he hit, brought the nostalgia from past years flowing back, albeit briefly. Most players in the Dream XI league I played would choose Virat on their fantasy cricket team in the hope that this would be the game we would see the Virat of old.
But it just did not seem to happen. He never got into his self-professed “zone”; that place where he sees the cricket ball like the size of a football, and bludgeons it all over the pitch, himself half conscious of what is happening, lost in his own perfection. Instead, what we began to see more and more were shoulders drooping. Sometimes he would laugh at his own dismissals, and look up at the skies as if to say, “when will this end?” Or, perhaps more ominously, “will this ever end?”.
I will confess that I had started to harbour doubts. Does Virat deserve a spot in the XI for the T20 World Cup, or should the selectors and coaches look instead at the burgeoning young talent knocking at the doors.
Sunday 23rd October 2022. India v Pakistan at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. 90,200 supporters in the stadium.
The Indian bowlers get off to a promising start, getting some early wickets and pushing the Pakistanis on to the back foot. But Pakistan demonstrated its trademark resilience, and eventually made their way to a more than respectable 159 runs in 20 overs.
India got off to a shaky start, losing their openers early. The in-form Surya Kumar Yadav smacked two boundaries, before perishing for 15, and leaving India at 26 for 3. Then came and went Axar Patel. Run out. 31 for 4 in 6.1 overs.
It looked impossible now. Even a betting man would stash away his belongings.
Still, somehow, somewhere, deep down, I held out hope. I dared not utter this sentiment to those I was watching the match with. I am not superstitious, but I dared not tempt fate. I am not easily perturbed, but I dared not invite attention to this thought. I still held out hope for one reason, and one reason only: Virat was still at the crease.
I kept repeating in my mind — as if the message was being communicated to Virat and Hardik who were at the crease (and as if I was stupid enough to believe that they weren’t thinking this themselves) — that they had to dig deep and hunker down until the 12th or 13th over. Steady the ship. Lay a foundation from which they could launch an attack towards the end.
At 10 overs, the score was 45 for 4. India needed 115 of the remaining 10 overs. Virat’s score 12 from 21 balls. The odds could not have been more heavily stacked against Virat and India. Surely it’s too late to win from here?
Between the 10th and 16th overs, India accelerated a little. The score stood at 106 for 4 in 16 overs. Among the boundaries hit in that period were a vintage Virat flick and an assured cut shot, both exquisitely timed. Something happened in this phase of the run chase; I cannot pinpoint exactly when, but I must have started to note that Virat was striking the ball much more sweetly than Hardik, because I was hoping that Virat would retain the strike. In recent games, Virat had tended to be content to hand the strike over to other players like Surya Kumar Yadav. But in this game, during this phase, Virat had started to crave the strike. Was this the Virat of old?
17 overs done. 48 needed of 18 balls. Shaheen Afridi steaming in, left arm over the wicket to Virat. Quick, short ball. Virat picks the length early and… BAAMM. Pull shot. The ball falls a few inches short of the boundary rope. In hindsight, I think this is the moment I knew that he was back, because of the swaggering manner of his descent down the pitch and the sweet noise that the shot made off the bat. Two more boundaries in that over: one over mid-off and the other over short fine leg. This was Virat in complete flow, the state of mind that occurs when a person is totally immersed in an activity.
18 overs done. 31 needed of 12. The strike is rotated. Hardik finds it difficult to dispatch Haris Rauf. 18.4 overs. Virat back on strike, with India needing 28 runs of 8 deliveries. Not for the first time in the game I was thinking that this is unassailable.
The next two deliveries probably encompass my favourite sporting moment of all time. Let’s take a moment to appreciate the narrative here: Arguably India’s greatest batsman ever has been experiencing a low for over two years. Some question if he will ever come out of it. India playing Pakistan in an electric atmosphere in front of 90,200 people. India at various stages of their batting innings appearing as if they will fall short of the target. A potent Pakistani pace attack firing on all cylinders, led by a nearly unplayable Haris Rauf. India have shown some fight, to go from 45 for 4 in 10 overs to 132 for 4 in 18.4 overs. To have any realistic shot at winning, India must score two sixes of Rauf’s last two deliveries. A near impossibility. Kohli looks in very good nick, but Rauf is immensely difficult to put away.
Rauf steams in to bowl the fifth ball of the over. What happened next is inexplicable. But I will try any way. Short ball hammered into the deck. Kohli stands tall, and with a straight face of the bat hits the ball straight back over Rauf’s head. I am thinking that it has gone straight up in the air and will be an easy catch. But I see Kohli standing nonchalantly in the crease, and Harsha Bhogle saying “Kohli goes down to ground. Kohli goes ouuttt of the ground”. SIX. What was that? How!? Can the pundits please explain how anybody can do that?
Rauf steams in again. Pacey short delivery sliding towards the leg side. Kohli uses the pace to hit it over fine leg. SIX again. Unbelievable stuff.
Then came that last over, which included another six for Kohli. A medley of characters contributed, which emphasized that cricket is a team sport and requires contributions from everybody to win. And win we did.
But let’s not mince words here. One man stood above all others (and stood tall) to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
Virat Kohli. King Kohli.
If there ever was a time when he was needed, this was it.
There came the hour, and there was the man.