On Sunday against Australia in the ICC World T20, India captain MS Dhoni once again hit the winning runs in the final over.
But it was captain-in-waiting Virat Kohli who bent the Australian bowlers to his will to create the victory. He came in to bat in the fourth over and was still there when Dhoni smacked James Faulkner to the fence in the 20th. In the interim, Kohli cut and thrust his way to 82 not out from 51 balls and his record in T20 Internationals during chasing targets now reads like a cricket fiction: an average of 122.83 in wins at a strike-rate of 131; an average of 91.80 in chases overall at a strike-rate of 132.65 and an average of 228.50 in chases in the ongoing World T20.
If MS Dhoni is the finisher, then how are we to think of Virat Kohli?
Kohli the number cruncher
Kohli has said many times that having a target helps him frame his innings. The chase seems to dissolve into a complex equation containing the number of runs required, the number of balls remaining, the strengths and weakness of opposing bowlers, the nature of the pitch, the placing of the fielders and the dimensions of the field.
While at the crease, he is somehow able to work out how to keep the equation balanced as the situation ebbs and flows. On Sunday, he hit two boundaries from his first three balls to announce himself. Then, for the next 37 balls, it was dots, singles and twos barring one four and one six off Glenn Maxwell that was mistimed and yet timed well enough to clear long-off.
And all this while, the equation kept changing; twisting this way and that until after the 17th over when India needed 39 from 18 balls with six wickets in hand. Now it was simpler, clearer, and Kohli went to work. A short delivery from Faulkner was pulled to deep mid-wicket for four. Expecting a full delivery to follow, Kohli then carved the next ball behind point for another four. For an encore, Kohli simply stepped down the track and drove Faulkner over long-off for six.
Just like that, the equation had changed again. Knowing Australia were under pressure, Kohli sliced Nathan Coulter-Nile apart with three consecutive boundaries and then added a fourth two balls later to leave Dhoni to apply the finishing touches.
Two boundaries from 37 balls, then seven from 11 balls. The numbers all add up in the end. It’s simple math.
Kohli the pugilist
Boxing is as much about feeling your opponent out and an understanding of space than it is about power punching and knockouts. Grasping the way an opponent moves, his ticks and tendencies, knowing where in the ring you and your opponent are, where the ropes are, how to create distance and then close in, these are the hallmarks of the best fighters.
Sure, the power helps but without the skill, without the awareness, it can be exploited as a weakness. Muhammad Ali did exactly that when he allowed George Foreman to punch himself out and then get punched out in the Rumble in the Jungle.
Kohli builds his innings in similar ways. He rarely, if ever, comes out throwing punches. He doesn’t try to batter his opponents early. Instead, he takes his time, feeling out the pitch, the ground, the bowlers and the opposing captain. He knows spaces and gaps in the field and works them to his advantage. Singles are plenty and often turned into twos with a late turn of the wrist that takes the ball just wide enough of the fielder to provide a crucial few additional seconds.
The constant pressure that Kohli exerts in this way takes its toll in the same way that a consistent jab irritates a fighter. The opponent can never relax, can never switch-off because questions are always being asked.
Then, in the later rounds, when an opponent is harried and looking for their own knockout blow, it is time to strike, as Kohli did in the 18th and 19th overs, in which he scored his final 32 runs from 11 balls.
Australia Knocked Out. Game Over. India win.
Kohli the unflappable
None of what Kohli does would be possible if he wasn’t self-aware and able to keep himself in the moment, to keep his head while all around him are losing theirs. Dhoni has earned accolades for his ability to stay above the fray as captain while under the highest of pressures but he has been aided by an unflappable natural temperament (though that has shown signs of cracking in recent times). It is practically impossible to know how Dhoni is feeling by looking at him.
Kohli on the other hand is a natural fire-brand, a hot head, who isn’t above throwing a few verbals or gestures at his opponents. Where Dhoni might merely smile and tuck the bat under his arm, Kohli exults and punches the air, as he did on Sunday after taking Faulkner to the cleaners. His emotions are writ large for all to see and yet at the crease, bat in hand, waiting for the ball to be delivered, he is the calm at the centre of the storm. Rarely does Kohli lose his shape when playing a shot or wildly lunge at the ball in desperation.
He is aware of both himself and his opponents. He knows what he wants to do and equally importantly, how to do it. He does not try to be Chris Gayle or even an in-his-prime Dhoni, who could bludgeon sixes with the best of them. He has worked out his own approach to chasing targets, one that allows him to just be himself. To be Virat Kohli.
On the basis of the evidence, and given that he bats at No. 3, it is shaping up to be arguably the most complete method, certainly in limited overs, that cricket has ever seen.