When Sachin Tendulkar got going in his glorious career, pundits forecast that he would break every major batting record before he was done with his career. And when Virat Kohli’s international cricketing journey gathered steam, big expectations from him meant he was anointed as the man to break Tendulkar’s landmarks.
On Wednesday, when Kohli, 35, surpassed one of Tendulkar’s grand records at the maestro’s home turf by scoring his 50th ODI century against New Zealand in the World Cup semi-finals, he was also fulfilling those early cricket prophesies.
The Wankhede Stadium packed to the rafters provided a perfect setting. As thousands of fans rose as one to salute India’s modern cricket talisman, Tendulkar waved to Kohli from his enclosure high up in the stands. Time seemed to stand still and all noise fade into the background as Kohli bowed towards the man who he has often spoken off has his guiding light.
Tendulkar carried the cricketing dreams of a billion fans for over two decades, and hence his quest for that one missing accolade – a World Cup win – was the abiding sentiment as India finally ended a 28-year wait to be crowned champions at home in 2011.
It has been 15 years since Kohli made his debut, and the biggest moment of his early career was rubbing shoulders with Tendulkar in that World Cup and carrying him on his young shoulders as a fellow champion.
Although Tendulkar played on for two more years, the 2011 World Cup in the eyes of fans was pretty much an ultimate farewell for the teen to titan cricket star. Kohli, pretty much like his hero, has emerged the central figure of the 2023 World Cup, although still very much the force that has helped forged a steely unit.
Kohli’s century No. 50 has left former greats in awe. “We used to think Sachin’s tally of 49 was ridiculous, that Virat has surpassed it is hard to fathom,” Pakistan great Wasim Akram said on A Sports.
At the Wankhede, Kohli, hailed as the master by everyone, chose to remain the pupil for the man whose name will always be mentioned with his own. And Kohli’s sense of timing and occasion only burnished the passing-of-the-mantle theme – reaching the milestone at the Wankhede, where Tendulkar began his cricket journey, achieved the dream of a World Cup triumph, and played his last innings for India in 2013.
In a way, Kohli’s glorious career has come full circle. After the 2011 Cup victory, Kohli made a great statement after carrying Tendulkar on his shoulders during a lap of honour. “He’s carried the burden of the nation for 21 years, it was time we carried him.”
This is Kohli’s fourth ODI World Cup campaign. But unlike the ‘this time for Sachin’ sentiment of 2011, India players haven’t been dedicating performances to Kohli. He has plenty more to give Indian cricket.
Instead, he has slipped beautifully into his role, to take time to settle down and then anchor the innings after skipper Rohit Sharma provides the attacking starts.
After his rescue act against Australia in the opener with a vintage innings, Kohli’s level has never dropped. Here are the scores at which Kohli came to bat when he got six of his next seven 50-plus scores: 156/1 in the 19th over against Afghanistan, 88/1 in the 13th over against Bangladesh, 71/1 in the 12th over against New Zealand, 62/1 in the sixth over against South Africa, 100/1 in the 12th over against Netherlands, and 71/1 in the ninth over in the semis.
Rohit Sharma and coach Rahul Dravid have often mentioned that each player has absolute clarity about their role in the eleven. It’s something Kohli reflected on after his century in Mumbai. As much as Kohli’s stability from one end has allowed his partners to bat more freely, the boundaries and the constant release of pressure from the other end have helped work in tandem.
India have enjoyed flying starts thanks to Sharma’s early aggression. If he falls, Shubman Gill takes over the responsibility to help the innings motor on while Kohli rotates the strike from the other end. Deeper into the middle overs, No.4 Shreyas Iyer, as he again did magnificently in the semi-final, takes the responsibility of ramping up the run rate.
Kohli too can hit a boundary and run five singles in an over to dominate. He has been a master of this art over the years. But in what has been a fitting tribute to him by his teammates, he’s had the privilege of almost going unnoticed for long periods at the crease.
The others have brought the firepower while Kohli, in his inimitable style, has remained the rock. It has led to the former India captain amassing a record tally of runs in the tournament, going past his idol for the aggregate in a single World Cup as well.
“If I could paint a perfect picture, I would want it to be this,” Kohli said after achieving his landmark century with his wife Anushka Sharma as well as his cricketing hero Tendulkar present.
Each of Kohli’s performances, other than the leap of joy in Mumbai on Wednesday, have led to celebrations that have been far more subdued and thoughtful than in the past. In a team full of performers in this World Cup, Kohli’s batting exploits have been a nice embellishment.
‘This time for Virat’ isn’t being said out loud but as this World Cup has unfolded, and as India have extended an unbeaten run in this tournament that stands at 10, there is no doubt who is the leading light in this India side.
Adding win No. 11 on Sunday will be a perfect way for Kohli to sign off the tournament, with thousands inside the stadium and a billion plus all over rooting for their batting talisman and his band.