No 71 was all we wanted Kohli to be. It wasn’t the Kohli we had seen over the past 1020 days — looking to tentatively play himself in, struggling with his timing and then finally falling when you least expected him to. Instead, No 71 saw him throw all his worries away and spank the ball in all directions with a freedom that had gone missing from his game. It came against an Afghanistan outfit that was clearly demoralised after the loss to Pakistan on Wednesday, but that wouldn’t matter to Kohli or his legion of fans.
And if one wanted further proof of that one just had to see Kohli’s reaction after reaching his century with a six. The joy, the relief and the big smile — all showed that the century drought and the lack of form had clearly weighed him down. Recently, he’s spoken about feeling alone in a room full of people, he has spoken about how he was faking it and he has said so much more without saying anything at all.
That is, precisely, why this feels so much sweeter. It feels like the end of a phase and the start of something greater. It may prove to not be the case but we have seen some greats recover from a slump and find a higher level — one that even exceeded where they had been at earlier and the hope is that Kohli can do the same for Team India. In a way, the low guides them to a high; they know the pitfalls and having been starved for runs for so long, they can’t wait to seize the moment.
Kohli has rightly pointed out that he has been through a low phase before (in England 2014) and his return to form after that propelled him to the ranks of the very best in world cricket. But then he needed to fix technical errors that had crept into his batting. This time the challenge seemed to largely be a mental one. He wasn’t quite sure what was wrong but the runs weren’t coming at all. Initially, it only seemed like a blip but the average kept dropping and the anxiety kept rising. Now, however, he’ll feel he has restored some order to his world.
A similar low that comes to mind right away is one experienced by Sachin Tendulkar. With the tennis elbow troubling him, the master batter found run-scoring exceedingly difficult in the mid-2000s. He struggled in ODIs and Tests for three seasons between 2004/05 and 2006/07 and the cricketing gods seemed to have very much abandoned him. In 23 ODIs played in the period, he averaged 31.99 and in 12 Tests 30.53 — both numbers way below his lofty standards. But then when he found his method, runs came at a very good clip. Following the three tough seasons, his average never dropped below 40 in ODIs and in Test cricket, he rebounded by scoring at an average of 60.25 (2007) and 63.20 (2007/08).
There are others too. Former Australia skipper Ricky Ponting in 2000/01 could hardly put bat to ball in India. During a phase of 13 innings during that season, he only averaged 23.54. But in his next four seasons, he averaged 42.75, 61.36, 63.25 and 98.66 respectively.
Former England skipper Alastair Cook, whose run of poor form wasn’t as long as some of the others, struggled in the 2010 season when across 10 innings he averaged just 22.60. The following season, he scored 766 runs at an average of 127.66.
And who can forget former Australia skipper Michael Clarke’s struggles in the 2010/11 season when he averaged just 17.53 across 13 innings. Then he put together a 2012 that counts as one of the greatest ever. He scored 1595 runs — still the fifth highest aggregate of runs scored in a single year.
All of this simply illustrates that all batters, including the greats, go through a slump over the course of their careers. But when and if the greats manage to get their game back together, their response usually represents a huge leap forward. Kohli does have more formats to master.
For now, Kohli’s got the foot back in the door; a start. Nothing more. Nothing less. But we know what he is capable of as does the world, and for that reason alone, the potential upside is huge. Having the 33-year-old back in form can lend a very different aura to the Indian batting line-up and inspire the others to operate on a higher level too.
India play Australia in three T20Is in September and that series will immediately be followed by the series against SA (three T20Is and three ODIs). Good performances in both those series will go a long way towards helping Kohli feel even better about his game and returning closer to the King Kohli that India knows and loves.
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