By Ameya Ranade:
He hit the ball square, through extra cover, on the rise, without any thought about the pitch being slow or the ball gripping. He showed the full face of the bat to the ball, into a straight drive, the shot that he owned like his fingerprints. He stepped down to Murali and Dharmasena at will, hitting them over the infield, immune to the roars of a 100,000-strong partisan crowd at Eden Gardens. Sachin was in the ‘zone’, as comfortable as Lord Natraj, with a fearless and elegant performance tempting the audience by the sheer virtue of his glamour.
While he was at the crease, India reaching the finals of WC 1996 seemed to be a mere formality. Batting seemed like child’s play on the field that people worried had demons planted in it. It was only after his wicket that the landmines in the pitch exploded as Sri Lanka spun its web around the batting that followed. The horror of the collapse was unbearable to the crowd that began rioting, leading to the game being infamously truncated and awarded to Sri Lanka, ending the dreams of India reaching the finals of the World Cup.
Exactly 20 years later, again in a World Cup, same venue, in front of the same crowd, Team India was again chasing, an easier score but made stiffer by a top-order batting collapse. Though not a semi-final, it was a knockout game for India and if not a knockout for Pakistan, surely a do-or-die one, given the history they have against their arch rivals in World Cups across all formats. So, the enormity of the occasion was not lost on the minds out there, the 90,000-strong crowd in the stands and the billions of spectators glued to the TV sets. This time, if not by spin, India were torn apart by the brute force of the Pakistan pace attack. The passions are so out of control in these high-voltage bilateral encounters, that had India lost this one, another fire riot was unavoidable.
But, as if oblivious to all this, stood Virat Kohli, crafting a magical innings, carving yet another memorable chase. Extremely consummate in his approach he was more interested in showcasing his finest skills like a painter in a trance drawing out bold strokes of bright colours. But it was not till he reached his much deserved 50 that the real drama unfolded. The flood of emotions engulfed everyone as he bowed down towards the stands and the cameras focused on the glowing face of Sachin. India, yet again, defeated Pakistan in a World Cup encounter. The sense of joy in this moment had so much power that it erased the painful memories of that forgettable match from the past.
That bow was not just out of respect for the legend in the stands but also a reassuring statement Kohli intended to make, “You carried Indian Cricket on your shoulders for 24 years, now it’s my time to take the legacy forward from where you left.” That night, when Sachin would have been alone, he would surely have leaned back with relief, eyes closed, and felt satisfaction in the core of his heart.
Further on in the tournament, we saw Kohli almost singlehandedly take India to victory during a tough chase against Australia, again bringing back the memories of Sachin’s Sharjah magic in 1998. He again unfurled a signature innings against West Indies in the semi-finals. Unfortunately, some brilliant batting performance from West Indies halted the progress of Team India at Wankhede. But the breathtaking performances from Kohli won him a well deserved Man of The Tournament award.
The baton indeed has been passed but the run hasn’t yet been completed, the finish line far from reached. While in the shorter format we see Kohli breaking records one after the other, the Test average of 41 just isn’t good enough. This surely has to go up, at least above 50, before the comparison with previous masters can be justified. On one hand, he has piled up huge scores in the longer format against the formidable Australians in their own den, on the other, England seems to have got the better of him allowing him to score a measly average of about 13 in their own backyard. In the upcoming Test Series this year, in the Caribbean against West Indies, he would like to live up to his reputation and pile up huge mountains of runs, where in the past he has managed only 76 runs in his 5 Test innings.
All the greats who have played the game have scored against all the teams, all over the world, in different conditions. That’s a feat that this ambitious cricketer must be desperate to emulate. Though we know it’s just a matter of time before he breaks these barriers, purists will wait for that to happen to put him in the league of those extraordinary gentlemen who have graced the game.
Now, there will be loads of expectations each time he walks onto the pitch, with each innings of his being scrutinised under the microscope. With each of his failures raising eyebrows. Criticism can be gut-wrenching and can exert a huge amount of pressure. Bowlers from all over the world shall be searching for the chink in his armour to penetrate and get the better of him. But he has the talent and ability to conquer these obstacles, the work ethic of continual improvement and, above all, the much-needed passion for the game to see him through. All these qualities helped those legends from the past and we wish this ‘legend in the making’ takes his career to ever greater heights.