It was Easter, the day Catholics the world over celebrated their messiah who came back to life after being crucified on the cross.
March 27th was Easter Sunday and Virat Kohli, who has been crucified for his brashness, cockiness, his actress ex-girlfriend among many other things, rose again. It wasn’t the first time that he had risen to the occasion, nor the first time he had taken his team across the finish line with a calm head. It’s funny how Indian cricket’s angry young man is counted upon to steer the team to victory with a calm head. The innings he played on Sunday for some reason elicited more than the usual responses. From Brian Lara, Kumar Sangakkara and Sachin Tendulkar, three of the finest proponents of the modern game, praise was effusive and unrestrained.
How did Virat Kohli go from being a talented brash young kid who spat and cussed like a sailor and seemed to count on rage as his only fuel to being anointed the next messiah of Indian cricket?
A few days ago, after he again took India to a victory against Pakistan, he bowed down to one of his heroes and the country’s most celebrated icons in the stands, Sachin Tendulkar. It was Tendulkar about whom he said “he has carried a nation on his shoulders, now it’s time we carry him on ours” after the team won the 2011 World Cup after 28 years. Now, he is finally being deemed worthy of being his successor.
Kohli’s Easter Sunday knock reminded me of two hot summer days in April 18 years ago when a young Sachin Tendulkar, already an icon, added another chapter to his already growing legend. Over two incredible nights, a curly haired Tendulkar sent the Australian attack on a leather hunt that is recounted even to this day. It was one man against the mighty Aussies whose bowling line-up included the likes of Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Michael Kasprowicz and Tom Moody. Those two innings were dubbed Desert Storm as they were played in Sharjah and one of the matches was even interrupted by a dust storm.
Nearly 18 years later, it was more or less the same thing. Hot summer night. A full house. And one man who stood between Australia and a place in the semi-finals.
The wicket in Mohali wasn’t a belter and the ground isn’t the smallest. Bumrah’s first over yielded four boundaries. Poof. One of Dhoni’s most bankable bowlers was already nursing his wounds. Ashwin’s first over yielded 22 runs, two sixes and wide that resulted in a boundary. The Aussies had thundered their way to 53/0 in four overs.
Australia looked like they were poised to breach the 200 mark. Ashish Nehra accounted for Khawaja, only to bring in the destructive David Warner. After a horrendous first over, Ashwin bowled a delivery that turned away and Warner totally missed as he came down the track. Some semblance of sanity was restored to the innings. Australia’s gallop was reduced to a jog.
Yuvraj Singh is never far from the news. If he doesn’t make it, someone else will make it for him. His father, Yograj Singh, known to draw attention to himself by making outlandish statements had warned MS Dhoni about not giving his son enough opportunities with the ball and shuffling him down the order. Maybe MS Dhoni heard him, maybe he didn’t. Whatever maybe the case, Yuvraj Singh got his first over in the World Cup. In the very first ball of the over, he bowled one that bounced a bit and had Steven Smith try to play at it. Dhoni caught it and was up in a flash. Steven Smith was ruled out. In a living room somewhere, Yuvraj Singh’s father was having the last laugh.
Aaron Finch had settled down and looked to play a big one when he mistimed a shot and Shikhar Dhawan at midwicket made no mistake. 200 looked more unlikely by the minute.
The destructive Glen Maxwell went for some 20 balls without a boundary. That was until he smashed Jadeja for a boundary and a six off consecutive deliveries in the 16th over. In the very next over, he misread a slower delivery by Bumrah and saw his bails clipped. It was left to Shane Watson and James Faulkner to give Australia a total worthy of defending. The penultimate over by Bumrah gave 9 runs, courtesy a boundary from the first ball. The Aussies were 145 in the 19th over. A good last over would have made the total seem gettable.
Hardik Pandya accounted for Faulkner with the first ball of the over. That was the only high point in that over. Watson got a thick edge and the ball flew past Dhoni for four. He ran a single off the next delivery to bring Neville on strike. He struck the first delivery he faced for four over short fine leg. The over had already yielded nine runs for the Aussies. The final delivery of the innings was pulverized for a six. The over had produced 15 runs and the Australian innings came to a halt at 160.
India’s openers have flattered to deceive the entire tournament and chasing 161 in a quarter-final meant someone had to play an innings less ordinary if India were to have any chance of overhauling the total. Much to the chagrin of the crowd, the openers flattered to deceive yet again. Shikhar Dhawan struck a boundary in the second ball off the innings. The first over yielded seven runs. Rohit Sharma took a few deliveries to get off the mark. In the third over, Dhawan smashed a six over deep square leg and got the crowd back on its feet. He would perish in the next over attempting to hook a short pitched delivery and finding Khawaja at short fine leg. Virat Kohli came to join Rohit Sharma at the crease.
Kohli began his innings by striking two boundaries off Josh Hazlewood. In current form, Virat Kohli looks like he is batting in a realm of his own, just like Tendulkar did in the 90s. Increasingly, the chances of victory revolve around how well he plays, just like with Tendulkar in the 90s. In the limited over formats, no other player can stake a claim to Kohli’s level of consistency. MS Dhoni’s days as a finisher par excellence are dwindling while Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Suresh Raina don’t have consistency as their middle name. Kohli is the glue that holds the openers and the middle order together and more often than not, the glue that holds the innings together itself.
In the sixth over, Rohit Sharma came down the track, mistimed his shot and missed the ball completely. Shane Watson let out a war cry. The openers tryst with consistency was yet to come to pass.
Suresh Raina’s short stay at the crease yielded a boundary but little else in terms of contribution. Watson bowled a short one, the delivery Raina is yet to master and it got his glove on the way to the keeper. India were three down for 45 and staring down the barrel.
In came Yuvraj Singh, playing in front of his home crowd. In what is most likely his final T20 World Cup, the undisputed star of India’s first ever T20 World Cup triumph is now some distance away from his former self. In fleeting moments, he travels back in time and pulls out vintage shots and his fielding quality hasn’t dipped a bit. This is a Yuvraj Singh looking to taste glory one last time before the last rays of sunlight fade away into dusk.
Yuvraj edged a delivery that went for a boundary. He then set off for a single in the next ball and began hobbling. On a day when India needed every ounce of ammunition they could muster, their T20 warhorse was limping from one end to the other. The passage of play was surreal. At one end was Kohli who is sculpting his body, mind and soul to scale new heights and at the other end was Yuvraj who was wincing in pain after every move. Two’s became singles and Kohli, not known to hide his emotions, didn’t let his frustration at the situation get to him.
At the end of 11 overs, India still required 93 off 54 with one man on the field wounded. Kohli upped the ante with a massive six off Maxwell. India would need many more such missiles from Kohli. Yuvraj Singh struck a clean six off Zampa and it looked like the only scoring option for him as the running in between the wickets was drying up. It isn’t often that you wish for someone on your side to get out. But sadly, that was what many people were feeling when Yuvraj Singh was on strike. In another lifetime, Yuvraj Singh could plunder attacks at will with a class only a few could match. That seems like light years ago. Yuvraj Singh’s painful stay at the crease came to an end when he was caught off a superb effort by Shane Watson. It looked to be Shane Watson’s night. MS Dhoni walked into a situation he had been in many times. Kohli finally found a pair of able legs that could keep up with him.
The ensuing passage of play wasn’t just a test of ability, it was a test of fitness levels. On Easter Sunday, Dhoni and Kohli ran like hares (pun intended). In current form, Kohli is in the same league as Chris Gayle and AB de Villiers. But Gayle and de Villiers brutalize attacks and pummel the bowling. During the IPL, the home crowd for the Royal Challengers Bangalore cheer for Chris Gayle and AB de Villiers more than they do for Kohli. Like a surgeon who dissects his patient meticulously, Kohli is meticulous in his dissection of bowlers. Dhoni was content to watch from the other end as his successor took the Aussie attack to the sword.
After the 16th over, India required 39 off 18 deliveries. In that single over, Kohli struck two boundaries, one of them a beautiful square drive and a six over long-off. The over yielded 19 runs. 20 required off 12.
As Jasprit Bumrah showed in the match against Bangladesh, penultimate overs are the ones that stand between victory and defeat. Anything can happen in the final over. There are too many nerves and the margin for error is minimal. The penultimate over offers the chance to pull back a situation from the brink. In the second ball of the over, Kohli opened the face of his bat to strike a boundary through point. The shot was almost zen like, almost as if he was one with his bat. Kohli struck three more boundaries in that over, each shot stamping his authority even more and hammering another nail in the coffin of the Aussies.
James Faulkner was given the duty to complete the formalities and Dhoni struck a boundary over long on. It first looked like a six, an eerie replay of how he finished off the World Cup final in 2011.
In 1998, a 25 year old Tendulkar laid siege to the hearts of Indians when he single-handedly took on the Australians. Steve Waugh would go on to say that they lost to one man, not to India. Steven Smith said more or less the same thing on Kohli’s herculean effort. Statistically, Virat Kohli is catching up with Sachin Tendulkar. While Tendulkar danced to a tune of his own, Kohli is standing on the shoulders of giants and looks to outdo them.
For an entire generation that grew up with Tendulkar and equated meaning in their lives to his exploits on the field and mourned when he bid adieu to the game, never thought that his equal existed. Now they are being forced to reconsider.
18 years back, I was a 13 year old jumping in the living room watching Tendulkar decimate the Australians in his version of Desert Storm. On Easter Sunday, I sat rooted to my seat, scarcely able to believe what was unfolding in front of me. The excitement was the same that I felt all those years ago. Whether Kohli will scale the heights that Tendulkar scaled in his storied career and will he be as revered and put up on a pedestal like some God is yet to be seen. They are poles apart in terms of personalities; one was a child prodigy an entire generation grew up with and someone middle class India could identify with; no tattoos, no cussing, no attitude, no dalliances with actresses. The other is the face of an India that isn’t afraid to quit their jobs and stick it up to their bosses.
When Sachin Tendulkar retired, it was thought the likes of him would never grace cricket again. And whether you believe in the resurrection or not, if you watched Virat Kohli single handedly going up against the Australians and emerging the victor, it was like the resurrection of another innings played by another God.
It looks like the land of a million Gods has found place for another one.