IN THE THIRD delivery of the 40th over of what was already a rather one-sided chase against Bangladesh, India’s Virat Kohli drove the ball to the deep cover fielder by the boundary and didn’t end up taking a run. Dot ball. In its essence, that’s all it really was, for purely going by the game’s framework, this should’ve been a nothing moment—no runs scored off an average ball in a contest that was already long dead and buried. But that momentary null in play created magic so real that it felt like electricity. Spontaneously, the unified voice of the capacity crowd at the Maharashtra Cricket Association Stadium in Pune burgeoned like never before.
At this World Cup, the energy produced by this particular combustion of joy on the vibrating Pune stands was perhaps only comparable to the moment when India had, in their previous game, beaten Pakistan in the Ahmedabad fixture, which incidentally, boasted of the biggest (hence loudest) attendance for a cricket match ever. And this energy, emerging from nothingness in Pune seemingly, wouldn’t ebb until well after the end of the game for, by turning down that single, Kohli had signalled to this crowd, and the world at large, his intention to score his third World Cup hundred.
Kohli is not a hunter of landmarks; along with the fitness revolution he alone ushered in, his other great contribution to Indian cricket has been his selfless approach to scoring runs. Play back any of his jaw-dropping knocks (take your pick for there are way too many to choose from) and it isn’t hard to notice that he truly believes that the team comes before the individual. Which is perhaps why the two short-format innings he’ll be remembered by long after his career has come to a close are both scores of unbeaten 82: both coming in critical T20 World Cup chases against Australia in Mohali back in 2016 and versus Pakistan in Melbourne last year.
Which is also perhaps why when he made it clear to the Pune crowd that he was not going to be satisfied to leave this fantastic ground nestled in the lap of the Western Ghats without a hundred, they responded with greatest affection. And because it wasn’t going to be easy for him to get there, Kohli’s challenge became the collective hurdle of the crowd and country in what was otherwise an unexacting road to victory.
Ever since KL Rahul, Kohli’s final batting partner in this Bangladesh chase, took a single off Hasan Mahmud in the 39th over, India and its favourite son needed exactly the same number of runs for a win and a hundred, respectively: 26 runs to put an end to Bangladesh’s non-existent resistance and 26 runs for Kohli’s 48th ODI hundred—which, in turn, would put him just one short of Sachin Tendulkar’s all-time 50-over record.
Kohli, now batting on 74 and on strike after Rahul’s single, immediately did what he seldom does, which is to shelve away his style of risk-free strokeplay with a six. Shots into the stands is simply not his thing, especially on a stage such as the 50-over World Cup, because every aerial hit is loaded with an equal opportunity of getting dismissed. Kohli simply doesn’t like the lofted shot. For perspective, consider these comparisons. In 34 ODI World Cup innings, Chris Gayle has hit 49 sixes. Likewise, Rohit Sharma, India’s current World Cup captain and Kohli’s great equal in this ongoing era, has smashed 40 sixes in 22 World Cup innings. Until Pune, Kohli had 5 sixes in 29 World Cup innings; the man had simply found a way to score big runs without the bigger shots in the game.
But not in Pune, ostensibly. There was in fact a six soon after he walked in to bat at the fall of Sharma’s wicket (the sound at the dismissal of the first Indian batsman ought to be heard first-hand to be truly experienced for the crowd is now alert to the arrival of India’s great number-three bat), for Kohli was given an early gift that even he couldn’t resist. The very first ball he faced was a front-foot no ball by Mahmud, the full toss flicked away by Kohli for two runs. The following free-hit was hammered for a four, but because that ball too was a no-ball due to Mahmud overstepping the popping crease, Kohli received a second straight free-hit in a row.
This ball was planted beyond long-on for six, only his sixth such shot in four World Cups. “I was telling Shubman (Gill, his batting partner at that point), even if you dream about a situation like that, you’ll just go back to sleep. You won’t think it’s real—it was a dream start for me,” Kohli would later tell broadcaster Mark Nicholas on that start of his. “First three balls, two free-hits for me. A six and a four. That just calms you down and gets you into the innings.” The crowd enjoyed that too, but not nearly as much as his next one, which took him from 74 to 80 against Mahmud. This was a good, old-school slog into the stands behind midwicket and Kohli now looked poised for his three-figure mark.
But Bangladesh, evidently, had other plans. After farming the strike to perfection in the following over by left-arm spinner Ahmed, who was hit for a four and a six to get him into the nineties, Kohli took a single off the last ball to retain strike (it was of course greeted with more raucous cheer). Mahmud, however, started off with a wide—a tall bouncer floating over Kohli’s helmet—and the extra promptly dropped India’s runs-required-for-victory below the batsman’s ask for a century. Kohli glared at the bowler for gamesmanship, but umpire Adrian Holdstock had already stretched out his arms to signal the cost of a run.
Richard Kettleborough, the other umpire, had apparently wisened up to the situation. For, in the next over when Kettleborough stood behind the bowler’s stumps, spinner Ahmed pushed down a clear leg-side wide past Kohli; this, when he was batting on 97 and India needing just two runs for victory. Kohli looked disbelievingly at Ahmed and the upset Pune crowd agreed with him. But they were all in for a surprise—Kettleborough kept his hands wrapped around his chest and allowed it to be a legal delivery, not a wide. Whether or not Kettleborough’s decision to take an instant, on-field ruling on the spirit of the game was the right thing to do remains a debate for another day, but Kohli’s teammates in the dressing room agreed wholly with applause and laughter.
It wouldn’t have mattered anyway, had that ball been called wide. For, when Ahmed sailed the next delivery in, Kohli danced down the track, made the ball into a full-toss and thumped it beyond cow-corner for his fourth six of the night, bringing up India’s win and also, in this case rather importantly, his hundred.
A wide grin instantly tore on his face, before he hooked the air with his glove and roared at the spectators, acknowledging their significant role in seeing him through to his milestone knock. It was, after all, his very first World Cup hundred in India (and third, overall). But as is often the case when this all-time great gets on a roll, there was very nearly a ton in the very next match in Dharamsala. Nearly. But Kohli easily carried his peak form from the Western Ghats to the mountains up north.
Unlike the Bangladesh game, the match against New Zealand—fellow table-toppers at this point and clearly the other in-form team in this World Cup who were then yet to drop a point—was perhaps India’s very first real contest in this tournament. Yes, India had to recover from a score of 2 (runs)/3 (wickets) against Australia in their campaign-opener in Chennai, but that match wasn’t as consistently gnarly as the one at the mesmeric HPCA Stadium against New Zealand, this contest’s jagged edges, an apt tribute to the snow-covered Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas in the vicinity.
Daryl Mitchell later admitted to be astounded by the surrounding view from the field, which perhaps helped this hard-hitting Kiwi bludgeon his way to a stellar knock of 130 runs. For the fifth time in five matches so far, India had found a way to chase a total. But Mitchell’s hundred and Rachin Ravindra’s 75 could have backfired on Sharma’s decision after the toss, if not for Mohammed Shami’s spectacular maiden show at this World Cup: five wickets, including both Mitchell and Ravindra.
Still, a target of 274 runs, in relatively trying conditions and up against a top bowling unit, was always going to be a stiff challenge. It certainly seemed so when both Indian openers, Sharma and Gill, returned to the pavilion in the space of five runs and 13 balls, after having given the team a headstart of 71 runs. Then there was the mountain mist too, the onset of which on this autumn night swirled apocalyptically under the lights and even stopped play for a while. But like a superhero straight out of the Marvel franchise, Kohli stood tall and serene through it all.
He was watchful initially, milking his singles and running the hard twos to stave India from danger. He was also more animated than usual, often slapping his pads with his bat for missing gaps that only he could see. Then, straight out of the Pune playbook, this match too turned into a contest between Kohli’s hundred and New Zealand. At the end of the 46th over, Kohli needed 18 runs out of the remaining 19 for his 49th ODI hundred—a number so special that it would tie him with Sachin Tendulkar for the all-time record in the format.
He did all he could in the next over bowled by Trent Boult, banging a six and a four to get into the nineties. But a bigger cheer than those mighty hits was received by a Test match defence produced by Ravindra Jadeja off the last ball, who too wanted Kohli to retain the strike. He didn’t. With five runs needed for his hundred and the team’s win, Kohli lofted Matt Henry towards midwicket, the resulting shot gaining more height than distance. Once he was caught, Kohli castigated himself all the way back to the dressing room as a cold silence fell upon the ground. But then, by the boundary rope, Kohli turned around and raised his smoking willow to the Dharamshala stands and the fans erupted, for in the context of the game and the World Cup, that knock of 95 runs weighed more than a ton.