Even superheroes sometimes need a sidekick. A Batman has a Robin. On Sunday in Pune, chasing a mammoth target set by England in the opening game of the three-match ODI series, India's superhero with the bat of the last few years, Virat Kohli, needed help from a sidekick. And Kedar Jadhav more than obliged.
Kohli, the modern master of the run chase, in his first ODI as the full time captain of India, was facing an uphill task of 288 runs in 229 balls, at more than 7.5 runs an over. The top four were back in the pavilion, including the man who is considered the best ODI finisher ever, from whom he had taken over the team's reins. He, England, and everyone watching knew that Kohli could do the seemingly impossible, but he needed someone to stay with him for a while.
Enter Jadhav, in only his 13th ODI, in front of his hometown crowd that contained his parents, wife and daughter. As if walking in at No 6 with the team tottering at 63 for 4 chasing 351 wasn't pressure enough!
The conventional thinking here would have been that Jadhav would look to rotate the strike, let Kohli do his usual thing, score a 60-70 in 80-odd balls, while Kohli blazes away at the other end like only he can. India get home and after yet another Man-of-the-Match award, Kohli would be praising the situational awareness of the “youngster” (only in cricket years not actual age) to help rebuild the platform.
What transpired on the field was actually quite different. Hitting three boundaries in the first seven deliveries he faced, Jadhav let his captain know that he wasn't just there to ensure he had with him the last recognised batsman, but he was going to carry more than his share of the burden. And so developed a partnership that quickly assumed dangerous proportions for England, in which Kohli was left to play the second fiddle.
Kohli has written the most recent version of the run chase manual: keep the dot ball percentage low, run hard converting ones in to twos, target certain bowlers and to never allow the required run rate to get out of sight. In composing his 27th ODI century (122 off 105), Kohli conceded 38 dot balls (36.2 percent), ran 48 singles and utilised 67 scoring shots including a majestic six off Chris Woakes that defied batting biomechanics. However, Jadhav did something that is almost unheard of – he outshone Kohli in a run chase, playing out only 16 dot balls (21 percent), hustling for 40 ones and scoring the match-defining 120 runs in just 76 deliveries.
In their 200-runs partnership for the fifth wicket accrued in just 147 deliveries, Kohli stroked at a scintillating 118 runs per 100 balls (95 off 80) but Jadhav sped past at a scene-stealing strike rate of 152 (102 off 67). For once, the roles had been reversed. It was just as appropriate that the number on the back of Jadhav's shirt was 81, the reverse of Kohli's 18.
When Jadhav had begun to reconstruct the chase along with Kohli, Ravi Shastri on air said that the batsman from Maharashtra has all the talent in the world and needs to be persisted with, and that he has all the shots in the book and beyond and he is just as comfortable and confident playing unconventional shots. But Jadhav, probably mindful of India's precarious situation, shelved his reverse sweeps and high risk shots and yet was motoring along at such rate that it allowed Kohli to keep feeding him the strike.
That he came in with the innings in dire straits and it still had no impact on him, showed Jadhav's clear thought processes. He got off the blocks in a hurry scoring 20 in just 10 balls and the next 20 runs coming in a further 13 deliveries. When he raised his 50 off just 29 balls, the chase was well and truly back on track.
Kohli, who has never hid his ambition of wanting to be the fittest cricketer on the planet, was always going to be tough act to keep up with for Jadhav, who is in the mould of old-fashioned cricketers. After registering his half century, Jadhav looked to be visibly tiring and when he rounded off 70, he was afflicted with cramps. While his strike rate never really looked to be slowing – he went from 50 to 85 in just 23 balls – Jadhav hobbled between the wickets while Kohli wanted to bustle like the Energizer bunny.
It takes a certain degree of courage and strong self-confidence to deny your captain a run or the strike, but that is exactly what Jadhav had to do with quick singles and hustled doubles out of the question for him. Instead, he covered up for that slack with busy hitting that took him from 50 to his second ODI hundred in 36 balls (100 off 65).
Perhaps it was Jadhav's inability to run hard that pushed Kohli to try an uncharacteristically risky stroke when the target was well under control to which he perished. Jadhav blustered for another 18 runs to take India 28 runs closer to the target in the company of Hardik Pandya. He fell in the 40th over trying to repeat the sixes he had pulled off in Jake Ball's earlier over. His match awareness was in display even at that moment. Instead of sulking off the field, he had a brief chat with Pandya probably imparting his two cents on ways to go about the remaining 60 runs.
At the post-match presentation, Jadhav admitted that it “was tough to run with Virat” and that he would “get better”. He graciously deflected the praise to Kohli for playing the match-winning hand by saying that the captain has shown before how to chase big totals. But, there can be no denying who had the cape on their back today. At least, for a day, the sidekick had become the Superhero.