On the eve of his 31st birthday, BCCI’s social media handles all posted a montage of Virat Kohli’s first-ever ODI hundred. It was in Kolkata, back in 2009 against Sri Lanka, and yes you guessed correct, it was in a 300-plus run-chase. Kohli played second fiddle to Gautam Gambhir that day in a partnership worth 224 runs paving the way for a seven-wicket win.
— BCCI (@BCCI) November 4, 2019
Beyond the numbers, and without that short video clip, you might not recall that hundred. It is okay, for it will be a wonder if Kohli himself does. Such has been the magnificence of his journey in the past decade of international cricket. Mind you, there is only little similarity between the batsman he is today to the batsman he was back then, a more poignant reminder of his journey.
The distinctive swagger was there, yes, but the movement wasn’t as refined. The strokeplay was calculative but not as dominating. The footwork was different, a reminder of his English failure in 2014. From a closed-body, toes-in-line-with-leg-stump stance, he is more open-chested today, standing at an angle between middle and leg stump to compensate for his movement across the stumps, registering the wonderful impact he has made in rectifying his English record during the 2018 tour.
That video, and this differentiation in his batting posture as well as ability, describes this journey as a batsman in full. Back in 2009, we didn’t know how special this player would turn out to be. It was still an era where Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, and MS Dhoni donned Indian colours. It was a time when the process of baton passing had just begun, and Rohit Sharma was expected to take over the mantle, shouldering the responsibility of this current era.
Fate though plays out in different ways. Call it destiny if you will, for the reality is quite simple. Kohli was there when Indian cricket needed him most — in 2011 to shoulder Sachin Tendulkar as he celebrated that elusive World Cup win at Wankhede. And then, more importantly, a year later when Tendulkar’s long walk into the sunset began, Kohli’s own journey of self-realisation began, almost in sync.
It was the smoothest of transitions — from Tendulkar’s relentless pursuit of perfection, from an expectancy of centuries to inevitability of scoring those same hundreds, to Kohli’s dogged determination and single-minded focus on winning.
So much so, in the past decade, questions asked of him have changed. Perhaps back in 2009-2012, when the transition was just setting in and he first staked a claim, you wanted to ask what all could Kohli do. What difference could he make to Indian cricket? Today, in 2019, as he sets the pace for the game in this country with his bat as well as defines a direction with his leadership, you want to ask, is there anything Kohli cannot do?
It began with simple things, like making you fall in love with certain shots. Take that cover drive for instance — while Indian cricket was still fawning over Tendulkar’s ease of driving the ball up, Kohli made it known that smacking the ball through cover would be his calling card. Today, it has morphed into another special shot — the lofted yet flat-batted six over cover, one that he brings out when accelerating. It is a wonder how easy Kohli makes it look — yes, those consummate cover drives have been normalised.
From one shot to many, today you can pick and choose which is your standout memory from Kohli’s repertoire. That lofted cover drive is a contender yes, or the flat-batted pull to mid-wicket. Then, there is the Tendulkar-esque tanking of the ball over long-on, a shot he started playing only in recent years. And now, he can even manufacture shots, like the one that left Sir Vivian Richards gasping — from being perfect in-stance, to completely off-balance, yet playing an immaculate drive from outside leg-stump to a delivery that couldn’t possibly be driven when it left the bowler’s hand.
In limited-overs’ cricket, he is unparalleled. Cut it down to the ODI arena, Kohli is arguably the greatest of all time, and yes Tendulkar, will at some stage, will be surpassed. You can argue about tougher batting conditions, and different bowlers, but there is a dominating streak about Kohli that Tendulkar perhaps never expressed. The latter, genius as he was, seemed fallible, even in the inevitable manner he scored runs. For him, 99 runs were a failure. That was our expectancy of him. There is none such with Kohli — just consider his hot-streak of finishing run-chases, perhaps you cannot even define failure to him.
Kohli in blue is irresistible, and there is no match for him, period. It is in the Test arena then, where the next chapter of his everlasting legacy will be written. While you can segregate his long-format credentials with English markers in 2014 and 2018, it would be a tad unfair to hold this myopic view. How many batsmen have dominated Australia in Australia like he did in 2014? How many batsmen have modelled and remodelled their game to suit the varying challenges of home advantage?
At 31, he finally has a contest to look forward to — the challenge comes from Steve Smith. It is unorthodoxy versus textbook cricket, an insane hunger for runs versus an all-conquering desire for victory, a game of patience versus methodically disintegrating the opposition with an extended range of stroke-play; Smith versus Kohli is the battle we have all been waiting for.
There is a third dimension to Kohli, though, and it is in leadership. True, he hasn’t found success at Royal Challengers Bangalore, and at times, his white-ball captaincy with India brings forth surprises. But the mind of a genius is only either calm, or a raging sea.
Kohli is the latter, if MS Dhoni was the former, and in this bustling quest for perfection in the ODI-T20I arena, he brings to us a varying form of excitement. What will happen next, is the question you find yourself asking every time he mixes up the playing combination or plays the merry-go-round with number four.
Meanwhile, this same chop-and-change formula (38 different playing XIs in 38 Tests, remember?) has seen India rise to number one in Test cricket from the depths Dhoni left the team in 2015. It is a stunning reversal, especially given how dominant India have become in home conditions, near unbeatable. Even overseas, thanks to a battery of pace bowlers to unleash, the standards have raised so high that a close-shave 2-1 loss in South Africa and a seesawing 4-1 loss in England (both 2018) are argued about with passion.
They say a team is as good as its captain, and Kohli thus, particularly in Test cricket, has brought this insatiable desire for victory to the fore. If Dhoni taught the Men in Blue to win consistently with his bag of tricks, Kohli has left the same imprint in the Test arena, albeit with a different passion and outlook. Saying yes to the first-ever day-night Test is a nod to that latter point.
It isn’t without reason that Sourav Ganguly calls him the most important man in Indian cricket. Of course, this journey couldn’t have been complete without personal growth. Those who know Kohli closely point out the positive influence his spouse has had on him, and indeed in covering him through the years from beyond the boundary, the change is certainly noticeable.
The boy who took on a raucous Australia crowd at Sydney in 2011-12 is forever lost. This is a man in control of fate, not his alone, but Indian cricket’s as a whole. There aren’t many men in history to have held such all-encompassing power in any field, let alone in a sporting arena.
Men, though, can be ordinary. This one is king.
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