THREE BALLS into the 48th over, the moment 65,000 pairs of eyes had waited for at the Eden Gardens for the entire day finally arrived. With a back-foot punch, Virat Kohli ran the run that equalled his tally of ODI hundreds with his idol Sachin Tendulkar.
For a man born for theatre, the celebrations were sombre. He removed his helmet, raised his arms, soaked in the magnificence of the moment for a fleeting second, closed his eyes and gazed skywards, as though offering a silent note of prayer, waved his bat towards the dressing room and slumped onto the shoulders of his batting partner Ravindra Jadeja.
Perhaps, he was too tired for the effervescent hundred celebrations that marked his bristling youth. The heat, humidity and age — he turned 35 on Sunday — had taken their toll on their body.
Perhaps, scoring hundreds and scaling milestones have long become routine so that they don’t excite him as much as they once did. Perhaps, the magnitude of the feat was sinking in. For nine balls later, at the end of India’s innings, drenched in sweat, he shed emotions.
“To equal the record on my birthday in front of such a huge crowd; it’s the stuff of dreams,” he said, choking for the right word, concealing his tears in the vivid smile of his.
“As a child you wish something like that happens, so I’m very grateful to God that I’ve been blessed with these moments. So much love from the fans as well. I’ll just continue to try to help the team in any way possible,” he said, to the deafening applause of the crowd.
The narrative thread could not have been more dramatic — Kohli scoring his 49th hundred on his birthday in front of the most storied cricket ground in the country. The wait for this moment had begun long ago, almost as early as Kohli missed a hundred by 12 runs in Mumbai three days ago.
On Saturday, when Kohli and Co came for practice, a few thousands waited for a sighting of him at the entrance, fervently chanting his name, like a mantra.
On match-day, they flocked to the stadium in the morning, wearing the No.18 jersey and ‘Kohli masks’. When he approached the landmark, they switched on the flashlights of their smartphones, which flickered like glow-worms in the hazy evening.
Only Kohli mattered on Sunday.
The world began and ended with him. Kohli, as Kohli does, took them along with his journey. It’s the gift of Kohli, as it was with Tendulkar. He strikes such an intimate personal connect that his innings is theirs too; his pain and joy theirs too. The bond is something Kohli had acquired over 14 years of sustained excellence, a period wherein he defined and redefined the art of batting in this format, a span when he lifted the bar of greatness higher, to an almost unscalable peak.
Whether he is a master of the shortest format can be disputed; whether he would equal Tendulkar’s body of work in the longest format is doubtful. But in the 50-over game, Kohli is King. The epithet King Kohli rests fittingly on his shoulders.
Stats-trawling would bewilder. Kohli’s haul of 49 hundreds have arrived in only 277 innings. That is one in six innings. Tendulkar’s 49 consumed 452 outings, one in almost nine innings. Unlike Tendulkar, who laboured to his 100th century, or Kapil Dev, who clung for several months for his record 432nd wicket, Kohli’s wait was nonexistent.
It was just at the start of the year that he cracked his 45th; only 20 innings later, he is on 49. Of them, 40 have ended up in winning causes.
The numbers reveal how outrageous Kohli has been, how incredible his batsmanship is in this format. As much as the numbers, it could be said that no other batsman has touched the soul of this version than Kohli. There are few who could construct a chase, few who could set up a target either. He could switch roles with consummate ease. This innings was a classic example — he started off as the aggressor, converted to an accumulator, and then reconverted to the unshakeable pillar that held the building together from crumbling.
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He didn’t put on the destroyer role at the Eden, not because he can’t, but he didn’t find the need to. He later explained: “My job was to keep the momentum going when I got in. But after 10 overs, the ball started gripping and the wicket started slowing down. My role was to bat deep and till the end after the openers fell.”
There are few strokes that are beyond his level of skill, but no one has glamourised the craft of running singles and twos as Kohli has. A nudge here, a tap there, there are few better judges of the single, or quicker, hungrier runners between the wicket than him. Even when he was tiring, even when the sweltering humidity was sucking every ounce of energy out of him, he kept running. You would seldom see him stroll for singles.
En route to his hundred, Kohli unzipped several glorious strokes, including an extra cover-drive to get off the mark and a regal straight drive off Kagiso Rabada, but he aptly completed his record-equalling 49th ton with a single that fulfilled the purpose of the day. For the 65,000-odd pairs of eyes that watched the slice of history at the Eden as well as the millions who soaked the moment on smartphones and television sets.