So far, in this series, Virat Kohli had been steady without being spectacular. Scores of 22, 49, 53 and 66 in the first four matches were decent enough, but his trademark, a century, was missing. The stand-in skipper had saved the best for last.
If the first half of this match at the JSCA International Stadium here at Ranchi belonged to Angelo Mathews, then Kohli overshadowed him after the lights came on. Mathews’s 116-ball 139 not out (6×4, 10×6) was about watchfulness upfront and all out attack at the death. Kohli’s unbeaten 139 in 126 balls (12×4, 3×6) was sublime. It was his 21st hundred in this format and one of his best, a dead rubber notwithstanding.
Chasing 287 on a turning pitch, India had lost their openers with just 14 runs on the board. After his batting pyrotechnics, Mathews made his presence felt with the ball as well. Ajinkya Rahane was a little unlucky as the ball rolled along the surface to hit the middle stump. Rohit Sharma inside edged a length ball onto the stumps as he attempted a pull. After his world record 264 in the previous game, the Mumbai batsman today got out for nine. Silence descended on the stadium.
Kohli enlivened the fans with a gorgeous square drive off Mathews in the seventh over. A four off Shaminda Eranga – a flick through mid-wicket – was even better. A glorious cover drive followed. He was timing it superbly. Fifty came in 45 balls — a trademark drive through the covers (Ajantha Mendis was the bowler) took him there. The ton took 107 balls.
As a captain, Kohli spoke about being ruthless in his approach. Some of his team mates, however, looked a tad complacent for this fixture. Kohli more than made up for their flaws. A 136-run third-wicket partnership set up the chase. Ambati Rayudu played very well for his 59 (69 balls) but got out at the wrong time, misjudging a non-existent single. Robin Uthappa looked good but fell to a brilliant catch from Mathews at short mid-wicket. Debutant Kedar Jadhav hit three fours to get to his twenties but went for one hit too many.
Stuart Binny committed the same mistake to present Mendis with his third scalp, while Ravichandran Ashwin departed next ball to give the Sri Lankan off-spinner his fourth. For the first time in the series, the hosts were under serious pressure.
The score read 233 for seven after 44 overs. India required 54 runs from 36 balls at nine runs per over. Kohli was the last recognised batsman standing. He took on Mendis in the 46th over. A six over extra cover and a four to the straight boundary eased the pressure a bit.
Young Axar Patel, too, rose to the occasion, hitting a four off Eranga and giving his skipper the support he needed. The 20-year-old is fast turning out to be India’s leading spin-bowling all-rounder, showing remarkable composure and maturity for his age. Apart from his runs, he finished as the highest wicket-taker of the series with 11 scalps.
An unbroken 57-run partnership for the eighth wicket gave India the victory and a 5-0 clean sweep. Patel played the supporting role perfectly for his 17 not out off 14 balls. At the other end, Kohli was toying with the bowling. Thirteen runs were scored in the 47th over bowled by Eranga. The next over, bowled by Mathews, fetched eight. Then Kohli hit two sixes in Mendis’s over and India were home and dry. They won by three wickets with eight balls to spare.
Earlier, Sri Lanka won the toss and decided to bat first. India rested Suresh Raina and Umesh Yadav with Jadhav and Ashwin replacing them. The visitors handed ICC’s Emerging Player of the Year Niroshan Dickwella his ODI debut.
Sri Lanka, as usual, struggled upfront and at 85 for four, they once again appeared to be going down without a fight. But Mathews was not ready to give up, and in Lahiru Thirimanne (52, 76 balls), he had an able ally. Together they put on 128 runs (26.3 overs) for the fifth wicket. Then Mathews had a 45-run association (17 balls) with Thisara Perera for the sixth wicket. Sri Lanka scored 114 runs in the last 10 overs and out of that 73 came in the last five. Mathews stayed till the end to take his team to their highest total of the series. It still proved to be insufficient.
Back to Kohli and his match-winning knock. His ODI career average is 51.43. But it becomes 80-plus in India’s successful run chases. Today he scored his sixth ODI hundred against Sri Lanka.