Virat Kohli’s match-winning half-century against Pakistan was the defining performance in the first week of the World Cup Twenty20 (T20). It sent India into delirious delight, kept the team’s hopes alive after a shock defeat to New Zealand in the first match and, within 3 hours, made Kohli the biggest star in the contemporary game.
Kohli did not match the destruction of Chris Gayle’s Rambo-like, six-laden, 47-ball century against England at Mumbai’s Wankhede stadium, but his was unarguably the most commanding knock in the tournament yet. That it came against Pakistan made it more relevant for fans on either side of the border. For the Pakistanis, Kohli was the biggest obstacle; for the Indians, he was a talismanic saviour. When a player becomes such a focal point, his stature in the game becomes self-explanatory.
No match between India and Pakistan is free of hype or hoopla, more so in these days of a hyperventilating media. But this time it was unprecedented, even more than what was experienced in last year’s World Cup.
The entire cricketing universe seemed to come to a standstill last Saturday, when the match got under way at Kolkata’s Eden Gardens after rain had threatened a washout. The presence of business czars, film stars, former cricket greats and the fact that matinee idol Amitabh Bachchan lent his baritone to sing the pre-match national anthem for India showed the lofty perch at which this match had been pitched. Such spectacular build-up obviously adds to the intrinsic pressures of an India-Pakistan match.
Despite India’s dominance over Pakistan in big tournaments in recent years, a win could not be taken for granted. For the more superstitious, India had never beaten Pakistan in limited-overs cricket at Eden Gardens. The more pertinent cause for worry was that Pakistan had won their first match of the T20 tournament against Bangladesh while India had lost theirs. A second successive defeat would almost certainly have sent M.S. Dhoni and his team hurtling towards a premature exit.
India were under greater pressure and were slipping towards defeat when Kohli masterminded a fantastic victory almost single-handedly. This was not the first time this season that he had to dig India out of a crisis. The score was 23 for 3, and, while the target was a modest 119, the pitch was tricky, the circumstances, excruciating.
Kohli’s exemplary resolve, grit, range of strokes and, above all, fierce determination to win became Pakistan’s undoing. In the Asia Cup too, against the same opponents, he had led his team out of trouble to safety. This time, he went one better, batting through till the finish. The fervour to win was matched by technical certitude in thwarting the threats—from the bowlers and pitch—and a flair for taking risks at the right time.
What this entails is a critical and fine ability to judge a pitch, the quality of bowling, the strengths and weaknesses of bowlers and how best to optimize the situation for oneself.
These are qualities that define batting virtuosity. Kohli also relishes the big occasion and the big challenge, as is evident from his performances over the past few years. By the time the match ended, he was being hailed as the game’s new master and a successor to Sachin Tendulkar, who was in the audience. Comparisons with Tendulkar are not entirely misplaced, considering Kohli’s recent prolific run-scoring. But this frame of reference should wither away with time, just as it did with Tendulkar and Sunil Gavaskar a quarter of a century ago.
Kohli is a man in his own mould. Always gifted, but also mercurial in his early years, he appears to have found his métier. In cricket, he has found not only fame and livelihood, but also the medium to find his identity and self.
How far can he go? There can be idle or wild speculation, but it really depends on Kohli himself. On the basis of what we have seen so far, it seems clear that he is not the kind who will fade away.
The modern game demands serious adaptability between formats for any player to be pronounced great. Kohli seems to have the talent, temperament and astuteness for this. He also has a burning desire to be the best. Batsmen such as Steven Smith, Kane Williamson and Joe Root—all of Kohli’s vintage, and with similar success in the past few years—should make this a riveting contest between peers in the days to come. Such rivalry played out when Vivian Richards, Gavaskar, Greg Chappell and Javed Miandad were playing in the 1970s and 1980s, and when Tendulkar, Brian Lara, Ricky Ponting, Jacques Kallis, Rahul Dravid and Matthew Hayden were around a couple of generations later.
It is difficult to predict who among Kohli, Smith, Williamson and Root history will judge the best. For the present, though, there is masterful batsmanship to savour.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.