May 21, 2009. The final league match of the Indian Premier League (IPL) season, at Supersport Park in Centurion. Royal Challengers Bangalore and Deccan Chargers were level on points, with the winner guaranteed third place in the table. Manish Pandey, who had played in the victorious Under-19 side led by Virat Kohli, had faced precisely two balls in the tournament, in Durban three weeks earlier. But in a crunch game, RCB asked him to open alongside Jacques Kallis. Pandey clattered four sixes and ten fours in a dazzling 73-ball 114. Kohli’s contribution was 19 from 9.
In the semifinal against MS Dhoni’s Chennai Super Kings, Pandey made 48 from 35 balls. Kohli finished unbeaten on 24 from 17. Both failed in the final as RCB narrowly missed out on the title, against the very Chargers team that Pandey had eviscerated three days earlier.
After the way he finished the tournament, Pandey was suddenly at the forefront of the IPL generation, the one most likely to graduate to higher honours. Kohli may have played more games for RCB, but there were plenty of doubts about his temperament, and ability to manage distractions.
When Ray Jennings, then RCB coach, chatted to me earlier in the tournament in Durban, about the strategies he’d employed to keep the youngsters grounded – “I told them no one gives a **** what they did as Under-19s” – Pandey was one of the first names he mentioned. The consensus seemed to be that he was ‘sorted’, while Kohli was anything but.
It’s a good thing that journalists, and even some coaches, are not asked to perform the thankless task that is the selectors’. Kohli had already been capped by then – on a tour of Sri Lanka in 2008 – and when the squad for the Champions Trophy in South Africa was picked a few months after the IPL in South Africa, it was he and not Pandey that got the nod. It was also there, at The Wanderers in Johannesburg, that he played the innings that would be the launchpad for what followed.
India were out of semifinal contention by the time their game against West Indies began, and they faced a tricky run chase on a lively pitch to seal a consolation win. Kemar Roach, who would send Ricky Ponting to hospital a couple of months later, was bowling incredibly quick, and Kohli was decidedly jittery in the early exchanges. But over the course of his two hours at the crease, the mood changed, and he finished the game with an assured unconquered 79 (104 balls).
Later that year, he shared a huge partnership with Gautam Gambhir as he made his first century at Eden Gardens. This was a time when India were exploring all permutations ahead of the 2011 World Cup, and Kohli was one of the few young ’uns entrusted with providing support for what was left of 2003’s Golden Generation. But if it was supposed to be a supplementary role, someone forgot to tell Kohli. In the World Cup opener against Bangladesh, he matched Virender Sehwag stroke for stroke while making a superb 82-ball century.
And though the narrative around the final was hijacked by the Dhoni six that finished it, it was the Gambhir-Kohli partnership that stabilised a rocky Indian ship and charted the course to glory. When myopic commentators speak of Kohli’s weakness in the big games, they invariably forget the 49-ball 35 in the biggest game of cricket that India have ever played.
Since then, with the Tendulkar-Sehwag-Yuvraj triumvirate declining and fading out, the Kohli progression has been both steady and spectacular. Since his breakthrough moment in 2009, Kohli has only had one bad year (2015), if you consider 623 runs at 36.64, with two hundreds, underachievement. In every other year, he has averaged at least 47.
As captain, that record is even more exceptional. In 41 games, he has struck nine hundreds while averaging a mindboggling 74.75 – all this while scoring at nearly a run-a-ball. But the numbers only tell part of the story. In his early years, Kohli was considered a limited batsman, someone who would struggle if you blocked off his main scoring areas on the leg side. But he worked on his cut, he practised his sweep, and now has two or three options for every ball he faces.
Most of all though, he pared his ODI game of almost all risk. With his IPL evolution having given him the confidence that he can unveil the big shot when he needs it, Kohli has become a master at rotating the strike and not giving the bowlers a sniff. The deflection down to third man, the flick off his pads through mid-wicket and the on-drive, especially against spin, are bread-and-butter strokes, while the whiplash cover drive comes out any time the bowlers err in width.
Two [batting] generations before Kohli, Viv Richards made one-day batting look ridiculously easy. Both in the numbers he put together, and the attitude with which he made them, Richards was a class apart. Kohli has many gifted peers, but not one who can really be called an equal. Hashim Amla scores his hundreds at just as prolific a rate, but has no major honour to his name. Kohli, who played a standout innings in the abbreviated Champions Trophy final of 2013, already has two major honours to go with all the records.
The way he and the team he leads are going, you’d get short odds on him adding to that medal collection.