A majestic six over midwicket finally put an end to the wait—83 innings in cricketing parlance, 1021 days to be exact. So long, arduous and torturous has been the interlude that all Virat Kohli could do was smile in relief. No pumping of fists, no gesticulation, just a calm reiteration of class in the form of a hundred in the most unexpected format, against a jaded Afghanistan playing back-to-back matches. The sense of occasion had already been sucked out by Pakistan. But if India are going back with at least one takeaway from a forgettable Asia Cup, it’s Virat Kohli’s grand return. The drought is over. He is back. And maybe as a viable opening option for India.
There haven’t been too many near-misses since that fluent 136 against Bangladesh at Eden Gardens on 23rd November, 2019. A one-day 85 against West Indies in Cuttack in December 2019, followed by a couple of 89s against Australia at home and away in 2020, Kohli back then was oozing confidence, not faking it as he had admitted to some time back. And then between the space of seven days came three top-notch T20I innings against England at home—73*, 77* and 80, all at home. A final, flickering glimpse of that confidence was on offer at Cape Town this January, when Kohli battled to 79 to almost dig India out of a hole in the third and final Test.
But no one probably saw this coming. Afghanistan, though giant-killers, can also lose their composure easily in the face of sustained battering. Kohli preyed on that vulnerability, never taking his foot off the pedal. This wasn’t Kohli playing Afghanistan. This was Kohli finally exorcising his demons, shot after shot. When he finally reached the coveted hundred, off 53 balls, Kohli had joined Ricky Ponting as the second highest scorer of hundreds (71) after Sachin Tendulkar (100). Ponting took 668 innings to get there. Kohli, despite this near-three-year gap, took just 522 innings.
“I was a bit shocked as this was the format I least expected for a century to come anytime soon,” Kohli said during the innings break. “Since I came back into the team, the team has been open, welcoming, helpful and given me space to work on my game. I know there was lot of stuff going on on the outside but they really kept my perspective right. I kissed my ring in the celebrations as well, you see me standing like this right now and all the things being put in perspective has been done by one person, who stood by me through all these difficult times that is Anushka (his wife). This hundred is especially dedicated to her and our little daughter Vamika as well.
“When I came back I wasn’t desperate, I was grateful for what God blessed me before, people were talking about me not getting a hundred but I looked at how much he has given me already. That really calmed me down and relaxed me. I was just happy to come back, six weeks off, I was refreshed, I understood how tired I was mentally and physically, your competitiveness does not allow you to take that call and I wanted to be the best version of myself for the team. When I came here, when I started playing in the nets, I felt like my old rhythm was coming back and it was about getting those performances in the middle.”
Luck played a part too. Kohli was on 28 when Ibrahim Zadran was scrambling back to the deep midwicket boundary in the eighth over, having misjudged the trajectory of the lofted shot. He misjudged it to the extent of going for a one-handed catch and palming the ball over the fence for Kohli’s second six of the innings. In the context of Kohli’s innings, that dropped catch was ultimately reduced to a simple assertion of the right to preside over substandard bowling. And Kohli was intent on taking full advantage of that, all 20 overs of it, as opener, like he always wanted to. He went on to hit four more sixes, along with 12 boundaries. The acceleration was timed to perfection. Ten off 10 balls, Kohli decided to cut loose in the sixth over, carting Mujeeb Zadran’s off-breaks for two boundaries and a whopping six over long-off to race to 25 off 16 balls. Reaching 50 off 32 balls, Kohli needed just 21 more balls—including seven boundary hits—to reach his hundred.
There were flicks, straight drives, cuts and inside-out hoicks, even an uncharacteristic sweep. But it was the shots off the backfoot, across the stumps and off the pads that truly told us he was back. He hit it in front of square or behind it, up high or along the ground, rolling his wrists to keep it down or just swatting it to the stands. Along the way, the stance changed too—wider at the start but deeper in the crease and more across the stumps towards the end. Everything Kohli did spoke of a genius of many shades and character, a man who never gave up even when the world had almost given up on him.