There was the leap, the roar and the emotion-draining sink to his knees before Virat Kohli got up to do the gesture that brought the biggest roar in the packed stands: He raised his hands, and bowed to Sachin Tendulkar, who clapped from the stands.
He then blew a kiss to his wife, and had regained his control by then, that he even winked at someone on the field. The 50th ODI hundred shone with Kohli’s impeccable sense of timing: in Tendulkar’s home ground, under the master’s gaze, from flesh-and-blood and from the statue, in a World Cup semi-final with his family and the cricketing world including Viv Richards watching on.
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Befittingly, the hundred came up with a shot that has disappeared for a while – the signature swat-flick, one of the great shots of modern-day cricket. A short while later, Kane Williamson came and enveloped him with a big hug that said much about their relationship.
Crossing Sachin Tendulkar and getting to ODI hundred No. 50 is akin to climbing the Everest but what’s really astonishing about Kohli’s feat is this: He isn’t a genius like Tendulkar was, he isn’t as technically sound as Rahul Dravid, he isn’t as explosive as MS Dhoni, he doesn’t possess the audacious arsenal of Rohit Sharma. But Kohli, the ODI batsman, is the amalgamation of them all. Unsurprisingly, the whole is greater than the sum of parts.
Starting with Tendulkar, who was at the stands accepting the respectful bow from Kohli. It was Tendulkar who set the template for ODI batting. But there have been many times when he hasn’t managed to do what Kohli does these days – finish the game. At times, the man who bore one of the harshest match pressures on his shoulders did wilt.
Some criticised him then, and with the distance of time, more will do in the future but it doesn’t take in the ecosystem of Indian cricket, and its history. Without Tendulkar, there wouldn’t be Kohli. It’s an organic evolution of sorts. Without Kohli to follow-up, Tendulkar’s lineage wouldn’t be complete. In that Tendulkar can be proud that of all the batsmen India have had, it was him who kickstarted the ODI batting revolution in the truest sense. Post that Kohli has overseen the evolution.
His game sense has been impeccable, in this semi-final as well. Kane Williamson was shuffling his bowlers in mini-spells and whenever he got the big guns on, Kohli would pounce early to set the tone.
In the 19th over, when Trent Boult came back to bowl, Kohli ran down the track to smash him for the boundary. The 200 also came up then. In the 30th over, when Tim Southee was brought on to bowl, Kohli came on strike for the second ball of the over, and yet again, went down the track, waiting to drag-flick the slower one into the wide long-on stands. Boult and Southee were the big challenges, and Kohli took upon himself to puncture them. Much has been said about him approaching the hundred with singles – just like Tendulkar would, but these little moments of taking charge are often missed. On 97, he charged out to Lockie Ferguson and tried to clear the infield but ended up squirting it on the side. That shot felt a bit strange in the Kohli world.
There is another late Tendulkar trait that is now creeping into Kohli, especially seen in this World Cup. There is an apparent sense of ease and a sense of inevitability to most of his knocks. Right through this tournament, Kohli has been at his least intense while batting. He is often seen chatting with the wicketkeepers, talking with the umpires and laughing with his partners. He even intercepts throws and relays the ball to the bowlers from the non-striker’s end.
The opposition seem to be in awe of Kohli. From Babar Azam asking for his T-shirt after the India-Pakistan game at Ahmedabad to Bangladesh wicket-keeper Mushfiqur Rahim watching him intently after he got his hundred. Tendulkar had that reaction in the last few years; the opposition would seem to be gathering ‘I was there’ moments with him.
Rerun of a classic
Also a sense of familiarity is present in the batting. Tendulkar had taken the risk out of the capricious art of batting – his knocks in the latter years seemed like re-runs of favourite shows. One could detect the shots that would come out – the paddle-sweep to spinners, the whisks to square-leg to rotate strike, the hit through or over extra cover and the general arc he would score.
Same with Kohli, though it must be said that this tournament has seen a T20 influence on him. He has been more positive attacking early on in his knocks, seemingly preferring hard hits more than hard running. Though he would settle down after a start, and then go to his Kohli mode of accumulation in control.
The signature swat-flick is hinting at a comeback; it now comes out against slower balls on full-length or back of length shortish balls. He is yet to unveil it to pacy length deliveries he would do. Until for this hundred, he pulled it out against the seamer Lockie Ferguson to deep backward square-leg for a couple of runs. In the last few years, Tendulkar had stopped the charge-and-smash to the pacers that was his signature in his heydays. Not that it completely vanished.
Even a couple of years, in the veteran cricket circuit, Tendulkar would do that to England’s Chris Tremlett. Kohli one senses is trying to get his confidence back for that swat-flick. Every time he plays that shot – to slower ones or slightly short ones – he looks most animated, gesturing to his partner about how he had read the slower one early. It’s a matter of time, perhaps, when that shot returns in its old glory.
Luckily for India, Kohli the chase master hasn’t disappeared. Dhoni showed how one can inexorably stretch a chase to its limit, almost threatening to snap its elasticity. He would breathlessly wait for opposition to induce errors, cueing the final assault. Kohli does ‘match banake, phir jeetana (make the match, then win it)’ like nobody else. As compared to Dhoni, Kohli takes more time to make the match as he bats further up, but his approach is more scientific and less stressful for the fans.
Famous Milestones in Indian cricket tend to come with a bit of huff and a puff. Kapil Dev’s slow trudge to break Richard Hadlee’s wicket tally, Tendulkar’s slog uphill towards 100th hundred, even Sunil Gavaskar had to wait a bit for his 10,000th run. Not Kohli, though, in his final stretch towards equaling Sachin Tendulkar’s 49 ODI hundreds and going beyond it, now.
He did have a lengthy torrid time in the last couple of years, but the final lap has been a breezy affair, with runs and hundreds coming through this world cup. He even missed out on two hundreds; such has been his rich vein of form. He seems fit enough to turn out for one more ODI World Cup in four years time, but if he doesn’t, this 2023 edition has been the perfect showcase piece for the batsman who has owned this format.
Kapil Dev’s 83 team introduced and kicked in joy for this format to a nation, Sunil Gavaskar’s 85 team in Australia triggered respect, Sachin Tendulkar had the nation hanging on to his knocks with a underlying feeling of what-if-he-gets-out dread; Kohli erased that fear, put the fans at ease, and will go down as The Big Boss of ODIs.