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Virat Kohli – the man who can do, must do, will do it all

Wisden India logo Wisden India 10-03-2016

The Asia Cup was about many things.

There was the ordinary and the outstanding. There were excellent exhibitions of fast bowling, a couple of memorable batting performances on pitches that weren’t always favourable, the rise of Bangladesh as a Twenty20 force, Pakistan’s usual ups and downs, the continuing struggles of the Sri Lankans in the highest lane, and much else.

But Virat Kohli bossed it all, didn’t he?

Sabbir Rahman scored more runs than him, his best score was only the eighth highest in the tournament, his strike rate was well below that of many others, and he hit not a single six, but his average was up there behind only Mahmudullah, unbeaten hands helping their numbers.

But, in a T20I series where we had only three team totals of over 150, and only one over 160 – the generally accepted par score in the format – no batsman looked as unmoveable as Kohli did, no one looked as cool and composed when he walked out to bat, no one batted with greater class or skill than him. And he aced it not once, not twice, but thrice in five matches – he didn’t get to bat in one of them and scored 7 in another. That’s a massive performance.

To gauge the Kohli impact, however, one has to look beyond the stats.

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Pakistan had scored only 83, but when Kohli walked in to bat, India were 0 for 1, and in no time, 2 for 2. Mohammad Amir, after all, was announcing one of the great comebacks in the game at that stage. Soon after, Amir had made it 8 for 3.

The first ball Kohli faced off Amir was edged to third man for one run. He blocked the next and survived a 50-50 call for lbw third ball. Amir was making the ball sing at that stage. The next one, Kohli blocked again. Amir then came back for his third over and Kohli was just not in it – playing and missing, mistiming the ball, edging … he didn’t back off, but he was not fighting a winning battle at that stage.

Pakistan had no choice but to bowl Amir out. They did. But by then Kohli had settled into his rhythm. One time, Amir faltered, bowling at Kohli’s hips, and it was flicked for four. And then, the next ball, Kohli produced possibly the shot of the tournament, the perfect cover drive. Beautiful and brutal.

Once Amir had been dealt with, it was easy peasy, all the way to nearabouts the end, when he smashed it but was still given out lbw.

Kohli showed how fearlessness could tide you through the toughest situations. There was also the other big contribution: Helping Yuvraj Singh get some time under his belt, face some balls even if he couldn’t get bat on them a lot of the time. It was a small target, and Amir was the big threat. Once that had been negated, Yuvraj could bat on and score 14 not out from 33 balls. Kohli took care of the scoring – 49 in 51 balls; hardly a T20 effort, but it was about the need of the hour, and it was all class once the initial storm had been weathered.

Yuvraj’s time in the middle paid off later in the tournament, especially in the game against Sri Lanka, where, again, another side to Kohli was visible. This time, the chase was a tricky 139, and Kohli had walked in early, at 11 for 1.

Again, Kohli held the innings together. First, with Suresh Raina, the focus was on running hard, because the pitch wasn’t conducive to strokeplay. Fours were put away when they were on offer, nothing manufactured. And when Yuvraj came to take centrestage, Kohli slipped away into the background. Going by his track record, it’s anybody’s guess what Kohli could have achieved had he chosen to break loose as well. He didn’t.

Here was Mr Spoilt Brat sharing his toys. He got his only half-century of the tournament – 56 not out in 47 balls – scoring the winning runs with his seventh four of the innings, a powerful flick off Rangana Herath.

“Kohli has turned into somebody who reads the game very well,” said MS Dhoni afterwards. A bit of an understatement that.

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What Kohli had done with Yuvraj, he did with Shikhar Dhawan in the final, against Bangladesh. Again, the objective was to help an underperforming batsman get some form back, face some balls, spend time in the middle. Again, one can’t help but wonder what Kohli could have done had he chosen to score quickly.

He did pretty well anyway: scoring 41 not out off 28 balls. Just five fours there, so 21 runs in 23 balls otherwise; you had to see the running: When Dhoni and Kohli hared between the wickets towards the end, a Bangladeshi journalist sitting next to me muttered “Usain Bolt” under his breath. He could have been talking about either of them.

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Kohli has redefined many aspects of batting over the years, but underneath it all, he is as much of a purist as the modern game allows one to be.

Right at the start of the tournament, he acknowledged in response to a question that hitting sixes was not his thing. “I have come to terms with the fact that I cannot hit big sixes so I focus on boundaries.”

I don’t know what a big six is and how it’s different from a normal six, but you can argue with Kohli’s assessment. I was groundside at the Sawai Mansingh Stadium in Jaipur back on October 16, 2013 when he brutalised the Australian bowling to score an unbeaten 100 off 52 balls in a One-Day International. He hit seven sixes to go with his eight fours then. It was power hitting at its best.

So this spiel about not having the shots to hit sixes probably has less to do with what he can do and more about what he wants to do, and what the team needs him to be. Some of that was clear in those three strong batting efforts, where risk was brought down to a minimum. The way I see it, there is a bigger picture, and the biggest batsman in the Indian team has to paint it.

When circumstances are different, like they were in Australia where each of the three T20Is were high-scoring affairs, we saw the Kohli we are used to: 90 not out in 55 balls with nine fours and two sixes, 59 not out in 33 balls with seven fours and a six, and 50 in 36 balls with two fours and a six.

He can do that too. Hell, he can do everything in the shorter formats of the game (not to say he can’t in Test cricket, but that’s a different discussion).

But right now it’s about what he needs to do. For himself, and for his team. And that’s the Kohli we will have to get used to for the foreseeable future. A whole lot of hard running, biggies when possible, and be there, out in the middle, to finish the job. One man, many avatars.

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