Virat Kohli after his match-winning knock against Pakistan at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, on October 23, 2022 (Photo: Getty Images)
WHEN INDIA FAILED to make it past the first stage of the T20 World Cup last year, it became evident that its overcautious batting was letting it down. Unlike other successful T20 teams that had evolved a sustained hell-for-leather batting approach, India, especially its top three batsmen of Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul and Virat Kohli, was continuing to stick with conservatism, aiming for scores that were respectable but never really entirely out of reach. In the arms-race of the constantly evolving T20 format, the Indian team was being left behind.
Of the top three batsmen, it was its then captain and batting talisman Kohli who came in for more scrutiny. In a game that is evolving to disregard anchor roles—the kind of batsmen who preserve their wicket through most of the innings so that others can score at a brisker rate—and where 30 runs made out of 15 balls is valued more than an 80 made out of 70, where do you fit someone like Kohli? Other batting greats and white-ball anchors, such as Steve Smith of Australia, are now struggling to retain their spot in their teams.
It didn’t help that Kohli was going through a rut in form. A run machine not seen since the days of Sachin Tendulkar and probably India’s greatest all-format player of all time, he went for three years without a century. Conversations about how poor form creeps into the career arcs of even the greatest batsmen, and that one simply has to bide one’s time and correct one’s techniques, devolved into whether—as the lean patch went on longer than expected—Kohli should quit the T20 format altogether and try getting his mojo back for the rest. Other events took place. He lost the captaincy. We also became familiar with a Virat Kohli no one had known before. He spoke of his challenges with mental health. He admitted to faking intensity during matches. And then, as the lean patch continued, he went on a long break, where he did not touch the cricket bat for a month.
Kohli had turned from a cricketing god to an ordinary mortal. When he returned, there were questions over whether he could fit into the aggressive batting template set by the new captain Sharma and coach Rahul Dravid. And then Pakistan happened.
On a spicy pitch against one of the fastest attacks of the tournament, in a ground of nearly one lakh spectators gone delirious with the ambience of an India-Pakistan match, Kohli produced arguably his greatest innings of all time.
At 45 for 4 after 10 overs, with its best batsmen back without troubling the scoreboard much, Hardik Pandya struggling and Kohli himself labouring to 12 runs off 21 balls, India had its back to the wall. To chase 160 runs to win, they would now have to score nearly two runs a ball for half of their innings. And that’s when Kohli turned into the chase master of old.
There were various moments when Pakistan seized control, only for Kohli to wrest it back. Anyone who was rational would have thought it would not—or rather could not—last forever. That something would have to give. Either Kohli would run out of partners, balls, or his touch.
Even an Indian fan would concede that, despite all the Kohli heroics that had gone by, at 28 runs to get off eight balls, and Haris Rauf, the best bowler of that night, bowling thunderbolts, the match was in Pakistan’s pocket. But Kohli then dispatched the next two balls, the kind of short length ones that batsmen had struggled to play all evening, into the stands, employing shots even he could not explain later. “Those two shots to Haris Rauf was the time I was just talking to myself, ‘You have to hit those sixes here otherwise there’s no chance we’re gonna win this game.’ And I told Hardik, ‘If we can go up to him [Rauf], and if he goes for a big over, they will panic big time. And that’s exactly what happened.’” In the last over, with Mohammad Nawaz conceding just three runs off his first three balls while earning the wicket of Pandya, you would have thought Nawaz had redeemed himself and won the match for Pakistan. But then Kohli turned it on once again, and Nawaz melted under the pressure.
Something unnatural was taking place that evening and Kohli was at the centre of it. He punched the air after his shots and punched the turf after he won the match. His eyes glowed in a menacing glare. There was nothing manufactured about his intensity that day. There was the genius of his batsmanship and gameplay, but also the exhibition of his self-belief that many say they own but very few possess
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Something unnatural was taking place that evening and Kohli was at the centre of it. He punched the air after his shots and punched the turf after he won the match. His eyes glowed in a menacing glare. There was nothing manufactured about his intensity that day. There was the genius of his batsmanship and gameplay, but also the exhibition of his self-belief that many say they own but very few possess.
When Ashwin hit the winning runs, Kohli seemed absorbed in himself. He lay on his knees punching the turf, and then with half-closed eyes filling with tears, looked up in the night sky with a forefinger raised, as though addressing someone above.
When asked to rank this innings against Pakistan later, Kohli put it ahead of his previous favourite against Australia in Mohali during the 2016 T20 World Cup, which coincidentally was also an unbeaten 82 with India in trouble in a chase of 161. “Till today, I have always said Mohali was my best innings, against Australia: I got 82 off 52 . Today, I got 82 off 53. So, they are exactly the same innings, but I think today I will count this one higher because of the magnitude of the game and the situation,” he said.
Where does Kohli go from here? We can only say with certainty he isn’t done with the game. His hunger for runs is far from over. And who is to say, this new Kohli that has returned from rock bottom will not achieve even higher glory?
India has remained the great underachiever in white-ball cricket. The finances of its board may bankroll the modern game, and its Indian Premier League may set the template for how the T20 game is played. But apart from the inaugural T20 World Cup edition in 2007, India has entered every tournament as favourites or near-favourites but returned home with nothing to show. The problem, many pointed out, lay in its propensity to be guarded in batting. This template is being reworked now. And Kohli has given the campaign the kind of thrust it hasn’t had before.
India should enter the next round of the tournament, where it will probably not just meet Pakistan again, but also the other favourites, Australia and England. These teams won’t just have India’s current T20 star Suryakumar Yadav, and established stars Sharma and Rahul in mind when they take the field. For Kohli is truly back.