On the eve of India’s clash against South Africa in Kolkata on November 5, his head coach had referred to him as the ‘wrong-footed inswinging menace’. Over the last ten days, in Mumbai and Kolkata and for large periods on Sunday night in Bengaluru, chants of ‘Kohli ko ball do’ reverberated around stadiums. Rahul Dravid had admitted that India were ‘very close to throwing the ball to him’ in the previous game in Mumbai, but it wasn’t until the final fixture against Netherlands at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium that Rohit Sharma acquiesced, summoning Virat Kohli to the bowling crease.
The Chinnaswamy is Kohli’s bastion. Nominally, he is a Delhi lad – that’s where he was born, and it was for Delhi that Kohli played all his representative cricket before his India debut in August 2008. But for all practical purposes, he is a Bengaluru boy. The only man to have played for the same IPL franchise since the tournament’s inception in 2008, Kohli is more Bengalurean than most true-blood Bengalureans, a bond of mutual affection and respect tying the protagonist with the adoring masses.
Rohit could not afford to ignore the ‘Kohli ko ball do’ roars any longer. A packed house had been buzzing with anticipation in the afternoon when India batted. Having drawn abreast of Sachin Tendulkar’s record 49 ODI hundreds in the City of Joy, the expectation was that in the nation’s IT capital, Kohli would ride a fairytale to a record-breaking ton No. 50. He’d gone just past half the distance when he was cleaned up by Roelof van der Merwe, himself a Royal Challengers Bangalore alumni, plunging the stadium into disappointment, if not dismay and anguish.
Their mood was lifted somewhat by local hero KL Rahul breezing to a spectacular seventh ODI hundred and putting on 208 with fellow centurion Shreyas Iyer, their association muscling the hosts to 410 for four. It was a total far beyond Netherlands’ reach, so the festive crowd needed another incentive to find its voice.
Hence ‘Kohli ko ball do’. It started somewhere near over 16 of the Dutch chase, by which time they had slumped to 72 for three, the result a foregone conclusion. Rohit wasn’t having any of it, not for another half-hour at least. Then, with a wicked internal grin (that much license is allowed, right?), he brought on Kohli from the North End, triggering a crescendo of claps and whistles that could have been heard a thousand miles away.
Kohli bowled a tidy first over, no great pace, the menace of his inswing well concealed. That was over No. 23; then, at the start of over No. 25, he again whipped off his cap and handed it over to Chris Gaffaney, took a deep breath and set off once more.
Sunday wasn’t Kohli’s first bowl this World Cup. He had sent down three deliveries in Pune against Bangladesh to complete an over Hardik Pandya left unfinished after sustaining an ankle injury that has since ended his tournament. But before Pune, Kohli hadn’t bowled in an ODI for six years. Was a second over just to keep the crowd amused, or was it to get him some bowling-time ahead of the knockouts, as insurance for one of the five specialist bowlers having a rare off day?
Whatever the reason, it was the over that ignited delirium. To an innocuous delivery headed down leg, Netherlands skipper Scott Edwards somehow managed a tickle. Moving beautifully to his left, Rahul held on to the catch with dexterity, throwing his hands up as Kohli came charging down the track to embrace his wicketkeeper. Kohli has celebrated most of his hundreds with gusto – and cuss words – but seldom has he been so uninhibited, so delighted, so overjoyed than when he sunk into Rahul’s arms. It was his first ODI scalp since January 2014, when he dismissed Brendon McCullum in Wellington. No wonder he was over the moon.
Kohli’s joy was shared by his disbelieving teammates and earned him a third over, after which he was done for the night. 3-0-13-1, his figures read. Nothing sensational but hey, this is Kohli, right? Sensational, for sure.
Rohit wasn’t done with his part-timers. He brought Shubman Gill on after Kohli for two overs, then Suryakumar Yadav for two more. By now, the crowd wanted the captain himself to have a bowl. The last time Rohit bowled his off-spinners in a 50-over game was in January 2016. Would you believe it, he picked up a wicket too, his first in 11 and a half years. And was he over the moon too? Take a wild guess.