Updated: October 26, 2021 2:37:48 pm
It was as if a switch had been flicked. Virat Kohli jaunted down the pitch and blasted Shaheen Shah Afridi over long-on in the fifth over.
The shot was not unusual, but the situation was. India had lost both their openers in the most high-pressure game of the tournament, and one wouldn’t expect the captain to unfurl a stroke so fraught with risk. But the shot stoked imagination and possibilities, and as always when Kohli bats, a rush of spontaneous hope. Was it a counterpunch? Or was it his new batting template? A bristling new avatar in his T20 captaincy farewell.
The thrill the stroke instigated was spontaneous — the crowd went rapturous, it surged, the energy crackled; Afridi suddenly looked bedevilled; Pakistan captain Babar Azam looked ponderous, even as the broadcasters began replaying the shot on a loop. Anticipation and excitement brimmed and the audience could sniff something special set to unfold. A sequel to the only Desert Storm in the history of the game? Or maybe, even better? Or maybe, an end to Kohli’s century drought? Or the greatest T20 knock of all time?
Alas, it was not to be. Alas, it was never meant to be. Kohli reverted to characteristic Kohli mode, the swift-running, the field-manipulating, the gap-piercing, classical genius. It could have been easy to get carried away and let the rushing adrenaline dictate him and attempt more macho strokes. But Kohli never makes an attempt at pretence. In any format. He cannot morph into an eye-blinking hitter like Kieron Pollard or a head-turning six-hitter like Rohit Sharma. Just as he cannot stonewall like Cheteshwar Pujara or Rahul Dravid. Certainly, in the course of a career, great batsmen end up fiddling with different roles. But the primary nature, the instinct remains the same, which for Kohli is batting sensibly, finding solutions and answers.
— T20 World Cup (@T20WorldCup) October 24, 2021
The cure to India’s feverish start was some stability, more so after they lost Suryakumar Yadav to a rather loose stroke. The next three batsmen are more power-hitters than stabilisers. But before they could take off, if at all the circumstances afforded them that freedom, they required a platform, an axis on which they could revolve. Kohli was that axis. Without that unflinching axis of assurance, India could have crumbled embarrassingly like the West Indies the other night. The night ended in blushes, but without Kohli it could have been catastrophic.
Playing the situation
The pitch was slumberous, though not depressingly slow. The Pakistani spinners bowled as adeptly as it were their backyard. It indeed was the backyard for some of them, having played most of their international and Pakistan Super League games in Dubai. Shadab Khan, especially, was un-hittable, his assortment of brisk wrong ’uns, sliders and leg-breaks not easy to break down. He would, intermittently, toss a few balls at Kohli, tempting him for a rush of indiscretion. But Kohli resisted, as he always does, in the circumstances he found himself in. One misjudgment was all that was needed for India’s innings to go akimbo.
In isolation, it was more akin to batting in the middle overs of an ODI, like tapping the ball into a minute gap for a jet-heeled single, converting singles into twos, and not letting dot balls pile up. Only the loosest of loose balls were brushed to the rope. Like when Harris Rauf missed a yorker and strayed onto the pads. Kohli just glanced it between the ’keeper and fine-leg.
There were other duels that should be watched in isolation. Like how comfortably he dealt with Afridi, how authoritative the movement of his feet was, how those soft hands defanged the detonating hand-grenades. There seemed to be a Test match within a T20 game.
It was only after Rishabh Pant’s exit that Kohli changed gears. He picked the perfect bowler too — Hasan Ali with his medium pace all-sorts. Change of pace and scrambled seam cutters are never going to torment Kohli. Even here, his aggression was restrained. He waited for semi-ordinary balls. Like a leg-sidish ball that he whipped through fine-leg; or a ball later, a classical cover drive off a fuller ball. In his next over, he pillaged Ali through extra cover, his last four before his departure.
Shaheen Afridi strikes again ☝️
— T20 World Cup (@T20WorldCup) October 24, 2021
Nit-pickers and fair-weather fans would quip at his strike rate (116), an invariable outcome of a prolonged quiet period in the middle overs. The dearth of boundaries, the seeming lack of ‘intent’ and calculated risk-taking. But Kohli was just being Kohli, figuring out a solution to the problem that had unfolded in front of him. The problems his teammates failed to solve, though his best efforts turned out to be inadequate, an act of defiance gone waste. The six turned out to be all but an anti-climax.