Oh dear, Virat Kohli. You have left us all stunned.
The year was 2016. It was a tense March night in Mohali. Amidst the cacophony of jubilant Indian fans, one shot stood out. Virat Kohli smashed James Faulker over long off – an effortless stroke. It reflected his dominance back then as a batter, who was very sure of his match-winning ability.
Everything he did that night, anything that was asked of him, for victory, was signed off and delivered. Impossible shots: check. Destroying bowling careers: check. MS Dhoni running him ragged: check. A miracle chase: check.
That was a time when the heat zone on Kohli’s bat was deep hues of purple. It couldn’t get any hotter. It was almost unfair on Australia that they came face-to-face with a player in such awe-inducing batting touch.
How could he ever top this? How do you even begin to reconstruct a similar situation albeit set in a different time?
Perhaps he had reached the zenith of his batting might on that cold Mohali night, had painted that one masterpiece every world-class batter strives for. As the game ended, he was down on his haunches, sweaty from the effort, bursting with adrenaline, head on his hands in bewilderment, not really believing what he had just done.
King Kohli they called him, and it was befitting.
But for a while now, we had missed this avatar of Virat Kohli. At times during the last two, or even three years, it felt as if we might have completely lost that version. This coincided with a time of struggle for the whole world because of the Covid-19 pandemic. And somehow we easily assume that cricketers living in bubbles (bio and otherwise) are oblivious to such issues.
Post November 2019, Kohli’s battle began. The centuries, which came in a canter at times, simply stopped bolting off his bat. Slowly, and gradually, those hundreds came down to middling fifties, then slow forties, and eventually, struggling twenties or thirties. Then, came those wry smiles after dismissals, as if the universe was conspiring in odd ways to get him out.
Ask yourself. Didn’t you wonder what had happened? What went so wrong that the master run-scorer, one of the greatest chasers of all times, just couldn’t get it right? Time, and time again, he repeated the same process, for Kohli is a big believer in that word. And often, he met with failure.
Ask yourself this as an ardent cricket fan – at what point did you think the Kohli of old was lost for good?
While there was still hope in 2020, with that captaincy saga, 2021 turned despondent pretty quickly for him. It seemingly sapped his intensity, the building block of his game, and it impacted how 2022 began on an outright sour note. When he failed to get going in the IPL this season, there were calls for him to take time off, even walk away from one format.
Ask yourself, didn’t you wonder at some point if Kohli would make this T20 World Cup squad?
If the answer here is a vehement no, then either you are living in denial, or you are Rohit Sharma. “I don’t think he was struggling. He was batting as well as ever, but with him, the expectation is always so high. Even if he gets a good 30 or 40, people tend to talk about it,” said the Indian skipper on Sunday night.
Struggle is a beautiful word. It reminds a king of his mortal existence. It notifies a star athlete of the boundaries he must push. And it gives us bystanders a spectacle to behold.
By any stretch of the imagination, Kohli’s magnum opus at the MCG on Sunday was a struggle when he started off. At 31/4, the self-conflict wasn’t just in his mind alone. Arguably, it was a universal thought. We knew he had done it before. But could he really turn back time? Did we really believe it? Did he?
At the halfway stage, India was 45/4. Kohli was batting on 12* off 21 balls. The chase seemed a disruptive one, if at all you could define it as a chase. India’s chance of winning stood at mere 15%. He’d tell Star Sports later on that he was indeed under pressure and felt like he was messing up the chase at that point, not putting the ball in gaps.
Something happened at the drinks’ break then. Coach Rahul Dravid walked onto the field, and had a word with Hardik Pandya. Kohli, meanwhile, stood stone-faced, if even listening.
When you attempt to climb out of the depths of doubt, self-belief becomes a pivotal stopping point. The need of the hour is for someone to belay you, hand out an assist, and this is where Pandya played a defining role. Owing to a knock in the nets, he couldn’t run as hard as Kohli would have liked him to. Pandya couldn’t clear the ropes as much as he would have liked to.
Even so, conveying a simple message to Kohli – stay on till the end – was arguably Pandya’s greatest contribution.
It isn’t that Kohli had forgotten how to chase. Give him a target, and he is a mathematician in disguise of a batter. Breaking down the runs needed, measuring the overs remaining, calculating who to target – it is but second nature to Kohli.
As the innings progressed, you could just read his intent – target spin, but also take runs off pace, and the chase calculator was ticking overtime. Holding back Mohammad Nawaz’s one over of spin, Pakistan tried playing a game of cat and mouse. Kohli never blinked.
Then came the boundary barrage. Shaheen Afridi torn apart precisely a year after he had done the same to this Indian batting. And then that standing-tall six down the ground over long on off Haris Rauf – forget his cover drives, forget his flicks through midwicket. If you ever have to swear by a Kohli shot, this was it.
20 off 7? Another six. Elegant, ever lasting, impactful – the game had turned. Did you believe in victory then? He did.
Overcoming self-doubt, regaining his dominant self, rewriting that Mohali essay into an MCG epic, all in the span of 53 balls... this was once again the kingly batter we all identified with. A phoenix at the end of four excruciating, emotionally seesawing hours, an athlete transformed as if by divine intervention.
“Standing here, I just feel like it was meant to be,” he said post-match, perhaps relieved more than jubilant at his magical effort at the MCG.
Of course, it was meant to be. Virat Kohli is destiny’s child, and six years on from Mohali, has left us all stunned. Again.