Kolkata: Over 4.4: India versus New Zealand – Corey Anderson is the bowler as Virat Kohli shuffles to cover his off-stump and flicks the ball past mid-on, a brilliant on-drive all along the ground for four. It almost makes up for the one he had played two deliveries ago, cutting one that had offered some extra width, playing it in the air even as it went past the fielder at short third-man.
Over 12.1: India versus Pakistan – A game beyond the arch-rivalry, it is a must-win match for the Men in the Blue to stay in the tournament. Six overs to go, and the required-rate is just a shade over six. Shahid Afridi bowls and there is a blur. Kohli is in position quickly. His bat wafts with such speed that you blink and miss, only to see a perfect follow-through. It is a flicker, a cover drive beyond par, and another boundary. The match turns in India’s favour.
These two innings – 23 off 27 balls (2 fours) and 55* off 37 balls (7 fours, 1 six) – have a bit of resemblance about them. They came on turning tracks -- the second one tougher than the first -- a glaring weakness in the current Indian batting. More importantly, these runs were scored when the top-order was crumbling around Kohli.
“I like chasing targets, I break them down and do calculations of overs, wickets and runs,” he has said on umpteen occasions. Batting, though, isn’t just about mathematics. He made those two raging pitches look benign as long as he was in the middle, and the common denominator here is Kohli’s heightened awareness about the match situation.
Against New Zealand, he realized the ascendancy of the spinners and jousted with them for control even as India lost wickets at the other end. For 18 deliveries after that second four off Anderson, Kohli didn’t hit another boundary. Instead, he ran hard between the wickets. If you are looking for the answer to how he looks to builds his limited overs’ knocks, this is it.
“Most batsmen try to hit out when pressure is building up,” said skipper MS Dhoni after the win against Pakistan. “Instead, the best option is to take a single and go to the other end, because that helps you stay calm. It is also adding to the score because you are playing to your strengths, playing around the field and batting a good number of deliveries. That is what Virat’s batting is all about.”
Against Pakistan, it was the hallmark of his innings. Not only in Kolkata but the one in Dhaka in the Asia Cup as well, when India were struggling to chase down a paltry 83 runs. Roll back his innings and this is what you find: the first 16 deliveries he faced brought 6 runs, and again, he ran all of them. He was willing enough to see out Mohammad Amir’s spell, yet at the same time, didn’t cower to his bowling.
As Dhoni defined it, Kohli plays to his strengths. There was a flick off his hips and then a cover drive immediately after. Two boundaries, after he had faced almost three overs. At Eden Gardens, in conditions completely different to Dhaka, he mirrored the same excellence. This ability to transcend diverse situations is what sets him apart.
Does it always work out to plan though? No, for a man can only do so much when the entire line-up’s dependency is increasing every innings. The match balance can force some shots, even if you have tried to cut them out.
In Nagpur, he had settled into running mode when Ish Sodhi came up to bowl in the 8th over. A little width outside off and he went for an expansive drive only to be caught behind, disappointment writ large on his face. He knew the game had turned. In Kolkata, another top-order collapse and the situation demanded something similar. But the real opposition this time around came from the pitch.
How do you counter a wicket where the ball is turning square? Where the pace bowlers can throw off-cutters at 135-140 clicks and that becomes more dangerous than the swinging ball? Again, Kohli ran.
In his 37-ball knock, he scored 21 runs via 19 singles plus a double. At the same time, he was aware of Pakistan being lightweight in the spin department, and cleverly stepped up to take advantage against their part-timers, as shown by his charge against Afridi.
There was also this one shot he played against Shoaib Malik (in the 11th over), a slog sweep for six. The replays will suggest he hadn’t hit off the middle of the bat, yet got enough force on the shot to clear the ropes without any problem.
“He simply backs his skills; that’s the key,” said an impressed Malik afterwards. “He reads the situation well and he knows how to bat on different tracks. That’s why he is so consistent.”
Malik then added: “You are the best coach for your own self. If you talk to yourself about your game, you will have all the answers.” Weigh these words in light of that particular six, and the meaning becomes amply clear.
In the lead-up to the 2014-15 Australian tour, Kohli had started practicing the sweep. He intensified practising that shot ahead of the Sri Lankan tour last year as well. On those two tours, he had three hundreds on spinning wickets (Adelaide and Galle), yet it is a struggle to recall any particular sweep shot from memory. What cannot be forgotten though is the ease with which he brought out this same shot to shift momentum of the chase on this high-stakes night, India versus Pakistan.
That shot signifies the confidence he possesses in his abilities. The audacity to execute it to perfection says how Kohli stands out from the rest of the Indian batsmen at the moment. Most of all, it is a poignant marker of the remarkable hard work Kohli has put into his game behind the scenes.
“Anyone who knows my batting knows that I don’t play the sweep shot too well. But when the situation demands, one needs to have every shot in the book to go one up against the bowlers. Otherwise at this level the opposition bowlers will target you there and keep you down. So it is absolutely necessary to have all the shots in the book for you to stay on top,” said Kohli to Star Sports post his innings.
For, greatness isn’t just about leaving your teammates, the opposition and the fans spellbound. Statistics don’t entirely do justice to it. And it isn’t at all in comparisons with the impact of Sachin Tendulkar, or the match-winning ability of Rahul Dravid.
Greatness, truly, lies in the sweat and blood spent toiling away in the nets, so that you can enhance your natural gift and embrace your genius on the cricket field when it truly matters. That’s how Tendulkar and Dravid made their legends.
Today, Kohli is making one for himself.