A bat pointed straight at the grey-clouded sky without a hint of flamboyance around him. Just a sense of calm. There were answers to be given and noises to be silenced before he stepped onto the field. But KL Rahul seemed more than content with the statement he made with the bat.

On Monday, in his first match back from an injury he picked up in May, Rahul scored a remarkable century against Pakistan in the Super 4 stage of the Asia Cup 2023.

Cut to his batting partner Virat Kohli.

There was that trademark jump-in-the-air celebration with the classic exuberance to go with it. He had done it against Pakistan twice before, four times at this venue – the R Premadasa Stadium in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He had celebrated a century with gusto 46 times in this format alone. Now he put himself in a position to do it one more time.

Although they’re both in two different phases of their careers and have different battles to deal with, Rahul and Kohli combined to stitch a record partnership to propel India to a massive 356/2 against Pakistan.

It was an innings that would put them in a commanding position in the match. By the second innings, the Indian bowlers picked up on that energy and bowled out Pakistan for 128.

In a match that featured several mini-stories – like Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill’s explosive opening stand, or Kuldeep Yadav picking up a five-for – it was Rahul and Kohli’s knock that would stand out.

The duo scored an unbeaten 233 off 194 balls, the highest partnership for any wicket by an Indian pair against Pakistan in men’s One Day Internationals. It’s also the highest partnership by any Indian pair in the Asia Cup.

Comeback special from Rahul

The partnership was largely dictated by Rahul, who was at his fluent best even as he was playing his first international match since a thigh injury that ruled him out since May, during the Indian Premier League.

Four months later and after rigorous rehab sessions, there was pressure on the 31-year-old as his spot in the national team needed to be justified. However, in this innings, on the first time of asking, with him looking self-assured, he did just that.

The context of the innings adds even more impetus to Rahul’s performance. In India’s previous encounter against Pakistan during the group stage of the Asia Cup 2023, Ishan Kishan who is competing for the same spot as Rahul, made a strong case for himself. He pulled India out of a fix when they were down to 66/4 to take them to 266.

Besides the uncertainty of his spot in the middle order, Rahul’s lack of gametime was also stacked against him. Not just in terms of batting, but also whether he would be able to keep wickets as efficiently after the surgery. However, after this knock, the case for both Kishan and Rahul to play together becomes stronger.

Typically, he would have required a few games to get rolling and make his place into the squad but this time around, the impact was almost instant. He re-entered the Playing XI only as Shreyas Iyer suffered a back spasm ahead of the match. Aware that the opportunities could be limited and the competition rising, Rahul knew there was very little room for complacency.

A moment in the match demanded even Shadab Khan to give in and smile even as Rahul flicked him for a six. As Khan tossed the delivery around the off-stump, Rahul shimmied down the pitch and used his wrist to whip the ball over deep mid-wicket.

Besides going after their primary spinner Khan, scoring 25 runs off him, he also scored 27 runs off the bowing of Pakistan’s primary pacer Shaheen Shah Afridi. As Pakistan captain Babar Azam thought Iftikhar Ahmed could break the tempo, Rahul refused to be stopped, scoring 26 runs off his bowling.

Classic Kohli template

While Rahul batted as the aggressor for the large part of the innings, Kohli finished as the bigger contributor in this partnership with 120 runs of 88 deliveries in comparison to Rahul’s 111 off 106.

Therein lies one of the biggest factors for why Kohli has been able to nail down this format and cross another milestone to become the fastest to score 13,000 runs in the ODI cricket.

In the group stage encounter, Kohli was dismissed by Afridi for just four runs and so the threat of safely navigating left-arm pace still loomed. This time around, he started slow but ensured he finished on a high.

In the first 30 balls he faced, he scored with a strike rate of 73. In the next thirty, he scored at a strike rate of 128. Post 60 deliveries, he was scoring at 188.

The eulogies about Kohli’s career had been torn when he scored the ton against Afghanistan in the same tournament last year. Moreover, his position in the team is far from being threatened unlike Rahul’s, but he has a battle on his hands, nonetheless.

With age catching up, the question remains whether the 34-year old will be able to get to the coveted 100 centuries record across formats – Kohli is currently on 77.

After this innings, there is a rather positive indication as Kohli has scored seven international centuries between Asia Cup 2022 and Asia Cup 2023. As of now, he is only two short of Sachin Tendulkar’s record of 49 centuries in ODIs.

It looks like Kohli is about to conquer that battle soon.

Most centuries in ODIs

Player Span Mat Inns NO Runs HS Ave SR 100 50
SR Tendulkar (IND) 1989-2012 463 452 41 18426 200* 44.83 86.23 49 96
V Kohli (IND) 2008-2023 278* 267 41 13024 183 57.62 93.85 47 65
RG Sharma (IND) 2007-2023 247* 240 36 9978 264 48.91 90.19 30 50
RT Ponting (AUS/ICC) 1995-2012 375 365 39 13704 164 42.03 80.39 30 82
ST Jayasuriya (Asia/SL) 1989-2011 445 433 18 13430 189 32.36 91.20 28 68

Middle-order woes

With limited match exposure against Pakistan and their mighty pace attack, it was vital that the middle order in particular was confident about navigating the trio of Afridi, Naseem Shah and Haris Rauf before the ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup in October.

Pakistan can probably cut itself some slack knowing that Rauf did not bowl due to injury on the reserve day, Afridi did not look as intimidating after he hit his thumb while fielding on Sunday and Shah also had to go off towards the end due to injury.

However, India will be the more assured side in spite of that because they ticked multiple boxes. Most importantly, the middle-order was a point of concern stepping into this tournament.

With Hardik Pandya and Ishan Kishan firing against this bowling line-up in the group stage match, and two of their most vital cogs in the middle order – Kohli and Rahul – gaining confidence, the pieces are finally coming together for India.

The two sides are expected to meet again soon, and it remains to be seen who wins the next round. But on this gloomy, rainy Monday, it were the Colombo centurions who shone bright.