”I wanted to enjoy the moment, it will never come again”, Arshdeep Singh offered philosophically when Bazid Khan asked him about his mental space going into a World Cup debut at the hallowed MCG. The stakes shoot through the roof when India collide with Pakistan, but the young left-arm was keen to embrace the occasion rather than being overcome by its magnitude. Much like Virat Kohli, who revelled in pacing the chase after India were kept to another dismaying PowerPlay total by their arch-rivals.
Counter-attacking your way out of trouble has been the preferred approach for batting units in T20Is over the last few years, with Sri Lanka emerging as strong advocates, in particular. After his heroics in the Asia Cup final, Bhanuka Rajapaksa said that going on the defensive at any stage of an innings puts a team on the backfoot.
Aaron Finch echoed similar sentiments, “You can’t go into a shell in T20 cricket. You have to be able to transfer pressure back on the opposition as quick as you can, and at times that comes with risk. So you have to be prepared to wear the consequences of taking risks at times.”
India themselves have made a concerted effort to be ultra-positive since the World Cup last year, but the situation was so dire and delicate that Kohli and Hardik Pandya didn’t reach out for their weapons immediately. The asking rate shot up close to a dozen at the halfway mark, as India were 116 runs away from what seemed like a manageable target at first. Axar Patel was promoted as a floater but his run-out left India with just three recognized batters, among which two of them were occupying the crease. That Kohli and Hardik saw merit in stabilization before throwing punches had a lot to do with India’s batting depth, notwithstanding R Ashwin’s inclusion over Yuzvendra Chahal.
The nudging and nurdling came to a screeching halt in the 12th over as Mohammad Nawaz conceded three sixes, alike his counterpart Axar. While Hardik relied on brute force to clear the ropes, Kohli generated power by waltzing down the track. The flurry of runs not only gave India a decent dollop of momentum but also the optimism that they were well and truly into the contest.
Babar Azam sensed the shifting of the tectonic plates and quickly brought back his strike bowlers. Although Naseem Shah and Haris Rauf couldn’t make an incision, they did a fine holding job to complexify the equation for India. Kohli was approaching fifty, his strike-rate not in keeping with modern standards but reasonable under the circumstances.
The run-a-ball knock though received a fillip in the 18th over as Kohli tore into Shaheen, whose run-up had an element of gingerliness, most probably due to the lack of game time since injury return. There was a strange yet highly effective shot sandwiched between the pulls that Kohli unfurled. He backed away to the leg-side as Shaheen followed him with a low-full toss. It appeared as if Kohli was taken aback by the late improvisation, but recovered nicely to crouch a bit and shovel the ball over cover.
“I think when Shaheen bowled from the Pavilion end, that’s when I spoke to Hardik that we need to take him down. Then the conversation was simple. Hardik said Nawaz has to bowl one over. So I told him if I can take Haris down then they will panic because he was their prime bowler. So I was kind of pumping myself up to hit two sixes when we needed 28 off eight and that became 16 off six,” Kohli told broadcaster Star.
Rauf was frugal to start with but couldn’t close out the penultimate over as Kohli indeed hit a couple of maximums. The latter was reminiscent of the short-arm jab off Chris Woakes in Pune back in 2017, albeit the direction was a lot straighter this time around as he, quite astonishingly, punched Rauf’s back-of-a-length slower ball over long-on. Kohli rejoiced, egged himself on and fist-bumped Hardik with the zeal that has become synonymous with his name over the decade.
The set batter has a psychological edge over the bowler in final-over jousts where the requirement is around 15. The pressure told on Nawaz as soon as Kohli claimed the strike. A benevolent full toss slipped out of his hand, got scythed for six and was adjudged a no-ball to make matters worse. The free-hit castled Kohli but Pakistan’s game awareness came under the scanner as third man forgot to tend to the ricochet. By the time the ball was tracked down, India sneaked three vital runs to beckon glory.
“When Hardik came in and he hit a few boundaries, I kind of opened up,” Kohli reflected. ”It’s T20 cricket at the end of the day, we have to hit boundaries, you have to go up to the bowlers. But that partnership – when it got to 100, we didn’t even realise because we were just enjoying soaking that pressure together and kept talking, running hard. And we kept watching their body language. And we knew that it’s going to turn at some stage. It turned quite late to be honest. I’d have liked to do it earlier, but then we could not have afforded any more wickets at that stage.”
As Ashwin’s uber-cool loft took India home, Kohli underwent a gamut of emotions, ranging from pure ecstasy to wild jubilation to sincere gratitude. A lump in the throat and a tear in the eye accompanied his mildly resigned expression, as if thanking God for the trials and tribulations that led him to the introspective journey essential to his hard-fought renaissance.