It was a night when Virat Kohli couldn’t stop smiling. The monkey was finally off the back, most unexpectedly, and the seemingly interminable wait for No 71 (Kohli's 71st century) came to a spectacular end after a massive 1020 days.
When Kohli made 136 on 23 November 2019, on day two of the first day-night Test in India at the iconic Eden Gardens, no one had imagined that the journey from 70 to 71 would take this long. A string of sub-par returns in the interim made sure that the talk of No 71 was emphatically shoved to the back burner.
Between 70 and 71, Kohli saw more lows than highs – the ignominy of 36 all out in the pink ball Test in Adelaide, the humiliation of a first-round elimination at the 2021 T20 World Cup, the abdication of the Twenty20 international, and Test captaincy crowns sandwiching his sacking as the one-day international skipper.
With the law of diminishing returns catching up, he was a man under intense scrutiny. While he didn’t exactly buckle, he did appear weighed down by the weight of the world.
Realising the pressing need to regain perspective and rediscover zeal, Kohli took a six-week break from the sport, opting out of the eight-match limited-overs tours of the Caribbean and the US. He revealed a fortnight back that for one month during that period, he didn’t so much as look at a bat.
It was understandable why the primary stakeholders of Indian cricket were so seized with anxiety at which Kohli would turn up for the Asia Cup, given the imminent T20 World Cup looming.
A scratchy 35 in a tense victory in the opener against Pakistan suggested a long, winding, arduous road back, but that was merely the calm before the storm.
Tryst With Fluency
As he got miles in his legs, Kohli’s fluency started to impose himself. Half-centuries against Hong Kong and Pakistan indicated that his comeback was on the right track, the fourth-ball duck against Sri Lanka seemed a mere aberration.
Even so, few would have stretched the limits of their imagination and seriously believed that, with elimination guaranteed, the Kohli of yore would resurface with stunning authority in India’s final hurrah at the Asia Cup, against Afghanistan on Thursday.
When KL Rahul walked out for the toss, the talking point was who amongst Suryakumar Yadav or Rishabh Pant would replace rested skipper Rohit Sharma at the top of the order. When Kohli accompanied the stand-in captain at the start of the innings, it was to gasps of surprise but not disbelief.
Kohli had opened eight times for the country in T20Is previously, and when he smashed four centuries for Royal Challengers Bangalore in 2016, they all came donning the opener’s garb.
What would Kohli do this night? How would he front up after the ugly hoick against Dilshan Madushanka in the last game? Would he be conservative and circumspect, or commit whole-heartedly to the new template of intent and fearlessness?
The answers weren’t immediate in coming. Against a tired but unflagging Afghan attack – they were playing their second game in as many nights – Kohli was careful at the start, whipping a four here, drilling a four there.
As per norm, he was on the lookout for runs but stopped short of manufacturing strokes, given the luxury of 20 overs at his disposal.
With Rahul finally finding his feet, India sailed along untroubled until, in the eighth over, Kohli rocked back to pull Mohammad Nabi. The connection was anything but sweet and the ball dollied towards Ibrahim Zadran on the deep mid-wicket fence.
When catching it appeared the easier option, the young man allowed the ball to burst through his hands; worse, it sailed over the ropes. Kohli should have been out for 28, instead there he was, scarcely believing his luck, now on 34.
Century? What Century?
For the next 20 minutes, he turned the strike over, creamed Rashid Khan through the covers, flicked Azmatullah Omarzai over mid-wicket, and raised his bat dugout-wards after bringing up 50 for the third time in five innings.
Then, in the space of three deliveries, he lost Rahul and Suryakumar. With seven overs left, he was on 56, a century not even in the realms of the fantastic.
The floodgates didn’t open until the 17th over, when Fareed Ahmad felt the first signs of fury from Kohli’s broadsword. A whip to long-leg, another through square, and the man was purring. Suddenly, the crowd, sparse as it was, started buzzing. Could it happen? Could it really happen?
In the next over, the quintessential Kohli was on view. Two glorious fours off Fazalhaq Farooqi, the left-arm quick, and three electrifying twos that were a tribute to his fitness that late in his innings in such tremendous heat even though the sun had gone down.
This is a man a month and a bit shy of his 34th birthday, and here he was, haring around so furiously that the much younger Rishabh Pant was hard pressed to keep pace.
Kohli got into the 90s in the penultimate over, drove a shocked Fareed furiously past him for four and pulled the next decisively over mid-wicket for a towering six to reach his first T20I hundred.
The helmet came off, his face bathed in a smile that was half-relief, half-delight. Or maybe a little more of the former and a little less of the latter. 50 to hundred had taken 21 balls, and the piece de resistance was yet to come.
The final over of the innings, from Farooqi, began with sixes to two different parts of the ground and climaxed when Kohli stood his ground and caressed the ball through cover, the startled, transfixed sweeper a mere statue.
Kohli as we knew him was back – 59 off his first 40 balls, a staggering 72 off the next 21. This tournament hasn’t seen a better exhibition of beautiful brutality.
It might be tempting to write this off as ‘only’ against Afghanistan, ‘only’ in a dead rubber. There was, though, nothing ‘only’ about this unbeaten 122, 61 balls, 12 fours, six sixes. Or maybe there was. Only class. With the World Cup six weeks away, that can only be good news for Rohit and for Indian cricket.
(R Kaushik is a Bengaluru-based freelance cricket writer with more than three decades of experience and 100 Test matches under his belt. He is the co-author of VVS Laxman's autobiography, 281 and Beyond, as well as GR Vishwanath's autobiography, Wrist Assured.)