T20 World Cup: Kohli, the master chaser is back with a bang
It was a night of many heroes for Indian cricket, but the unquestionable engine room of one of the more famous victories in recent times was a familiar name.
In the lead-up to the T20 World Cup, much of the attention had centred around India’s philosophy of freedom and fearlessness, of expressing oneself, of taking the fight to the opposition bowling, of imposing authority from the beginning. On paper, these are wonderfully refreshing concepts; the problem arises when the conditions and the quality of the bowling prevent such a free-spirited approach to batsmanship.
Even when India’s bowlers were putting Pakistan’s top order through the wringer at the magnificent Melbourne Cricket Ground on Sunday night, the feeling was inescapable that their batsmen would get as good as their bowlers gave. For all the skill, craft and nous of Arshdeep Singh, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami and Hardik Pandya, Shaheen Shah Afridi, Naseem Shah and Haris Rauf were at least as good, if not better because they had a couple of yards more pace than most of the Indian quicks.
It was evident that any total in the region of 150, below par as it might appear in modern times when the bat tends to hold unquestionable hegemony, would test India’s batting. In the event, as Pakistan scrambled to 159 for eight, the consensus was that India had a scrap on their hands, that they couldn’t quite come out all guns blazing because the nip off the surface, the additional bounce and the immense skill-sets of the Pakistani trio would test their technique and desire to the core.
It wasn’t their new-found gung-ho approach that paid dividends. Indeed, India had no opportunity to unveil that style, given the repeated strikes at the top of the chase that left them floundering at 31 for four and that left Virat Kohli, not for the first time, holding the baby.
Kohli and India had their work cut out
Over the last decade and a bit, Kohli has earned the justifiable reputation of being the master chaser with a clear blueprint in his head of how a target must be approached. In the last few matches since his reintegration into the Indian set-up, he has wholeheartedly attempted to follow the template of unfettered stroke-making but on this night, he could afford to take his time, he could bat the way he knows best, unhurriedly and with a clear sight of the ultimate goal.
Kohli’s immediate task at 31 for four – he was reasonably responsible for the fall of the fourth wicket, the promoted Axar Patel who was run out – was to arrest an immediate slide, take the chase deep in a throwback to the era of Mahendra Singh Dhoni, and hope that Pakistan would crack just enough for him to step in and land the killer blows. As a concept, that was immaculate, but in reality, the task at hand was gargantuan. At the halfway mark, with Hardik Pandya in tow, Kohli had taken India to 45 for four, he himself on a decidedly slow 12 off 21. 115 were needed in 10 overs, six of which would be bowled by the pace pack. Kohli and India had their work cut out.
While most of the 90,000-plus fans at the stadium fretted and frowned, Kohli worked his inner calculator furiously. Pandya was an able ally in a fifth-wicket stand of 113, but this had to be about Kohli. He carried all hopes because he had been there and done that before. With no disrespect to Pandya, his best choice was to sail in Kohli’s wake, land his punches when the opportunity presented itself, run furiously between the wickets and let the senior man take the lead.
It worked out well, but perhaps not as well as India would have liked. With each passing over, even a scoring rate of ten an over pushed the required run rate up, so far behind the eight-ball were the 2007 champions. It came down to 48 needed off three overs, to be bowled by Afridi, Rauf and left-arm spinner Mohammad Nawaz in whatever order Babar Azam chose to utilise them.
How Kohli changed the game
One school of thought believed it was in Pakistan’s best interest to get the Nawaz over out of the way, another was convinced the way to go was to bowl out the pacers, look for a breakthrough and give Nawaz as many as possible to defend in the last over. Babar went with the latter choice, showing enough faith in the returning Afridi and the on-song Rauf, a local boy of sorts given that he plays for Melbourne Stars in the Big Bash League.
Fear not, Kohli seemed to say. In the 18th over, from Afridi, he picked off three fours to different parts of the ground to keep abreast, just, of the required rate. Momentarily Babar turned to Rauf, and the express quick seemed to have done his job, conceding just three off the first four balls of the penultimate over. The fifth was a slower ball, back of the hand, beautifully disguised. Kohli shaped for a pull, it appeared, but the ball took an eternity reaching him. With wonderful synchronicity, he rocked back and smashed it off the back foot back over the bowler’s head, almost with a vertical bat.
Two, you thought, as the ball left the bat. Six, signalled umpire Marais Erasmus as the ball sailed a mile and landed beyond the sightscreen. You had to rub your eyes in disbelief. Where had that come from? How did that ball travel that far? What’s this man made of?
Next ball, Kohli disdainfully played his patented flick, all wrists and timing, sending the ball soaring over the fence and the fans at the ‘G’ into delirium. This was Kohli’s match to win, India’s match to win.
Nawaz, poor Nawaz, thus had 16 to defend in the last over. He began well enough, with Pandya’s scalp off the first ball, but then the script unravelled badly. A waist-high full-toss no-ball swatted for six, two wides, a free-hit that smashed into the stumps and produced three byes, after which it was out of Kohli’s hands. Perched at the non-striker’s end, he saw Dinesh Karthik stumped, R Ashwin eke out a wide. Then, as Babar brought the field in and left only long-off on the fence, he ran for his life as Ashwin chipped intelligently in the air past mid-off.
Kohli sank to his knees, his tears revealing how much this innings meant to him. It was following the loss to the same opposition last year in the same tournament that the darkest phase of his cricketing career began. The redemption song had been sung, the chasemeister was back. Take a bow, Virat Kohli!