Blazing at Bellerive
Best ODI batting performanceVirat Kohli
133 not out v Sri Lanka, CB Series
India played their first match of their last Australia tour on December 15, 2011. Seventy-three days later they were dispirited, broken and beaten. They had lost all the Tests, and had had about one good week in the ODI tri-series. Australia had just demolished them in Sydney, again, and the staff had begun to remove furniture from the SCG so that the ground could go into renovation. MS Dhoni, India's captain, hobbled - possibly relieved that it had all finally ended - into the press conference, and discovered, as he was questioned, that they still had an outside chance of making it through to the final if they beat Sri Lanka by a bonus point two days later in Hobart.
While it beggared belief that all the coaches and laptops had overlooked the playing conditions, you could empathise with the team. This had been a tough tour; you couldn't grudge their wanting to get away from the losses and barracking and media, and also each other. You could imagine how torturous it would have been to first come to terms with defeat and then - having finally given up - being told that they weren't dead yet.
Two days later, at the Bellerive Oval, on a chilly night, India put up a performance that lit up the stunningly beautiful surroundings. A power cut meant TV viewers didn't get to watch the first four or so overs of the Indian chase. Had the power not been restored, television viewers would have missed the quickest chase of a 300-plus total in ODI history.
At the centre of the chase was a young man who had had an emotionally sapping tour. After the first Test of the series, everybody wanted Virat Kohli dropped. During the Test he was photographed flipping the bird to a few abusive yobs who had possibly had a few too many. The resultant righteousness from all quarters had been overwhelming. During the third Test he almost broke down at a press conference, pleading for time before he was labelled a one-day specialist. In the fourth, he showed the time given him was a good investment, becoming the only Indian to score a century in the Tests.
A month later, Kohli's effort at Adelaide Oval remained the only international century by an Indian on the tour. India had played 15 innings over those 73 days, and managed just one hundred. No wonder Dhoni had almost laughed off the possibility of the bonus point before the Hobart match. India were struggling to compete; how were they to muster a performance 25% better than the opposition? This was a side that had been bowled out four times in their seven ODI innings up to that point, three of those for less than 200. How were they to chase 321 in less than 40 overs?
Kohli knew the solution. They had nothing to lose, and they needed to play as if they knew that. A day before the match he spoke to his family back home, but hung up the moment they began to talk about cricket. He had felt "mentally tired" and "very sad" at various times on the tour; now he was going to just enjoy himself and bat like it was his last day in the country.
He walked in at 86 for 2, in the tenth over, and faced first up an errant yorker from Lasith Malinga, a delivery he is one of the few to have done well against. The second ball he faced was a yorker again, off its mark by about six inches, and he flicked it through midwicket for four. For the next five overs, neither Kohli nor Gautam Gambhir hit a boundary. There seemed to be some semblance of control for Sri Lanka, but they chose not to take the Powerplay, which - in a game practically reduced to 40 overs - meant India would get more or less a chunk of ten Powerplay overs towards the end.
Kohli had had a good sighter by now, and entered a phase where field positions ceased to matter. They could have put six men outside the circle, he would have still found the boundaries. It began with a trademark cover drive off Thisara Perera in the 16th over, and was followed by some of the most outrageous hitting you can hope to see from a batsman whose side has been down in the dumps for close to three months.
Kohli charged Angelo Mathews, he paddled Perera, went deep into the crease and flicked Malinga. Rangana Herath he respected. Nuwan Kulasekara he demolished. Sri Lanka finally took the Powerplay in the 28th over. Kohli took it easy for the first three overs after that, his ability to keep picking the singles destined to suffer in comparison with what was to follow.
Kulasekara began the 31st over with Kohli at 75 off 63, and India still needing 91 runs. The first ball was inches short of being a yorker, and he whipped it through midwicket. Kulasekara over-compensated with the next, and the full toss was sent to the midwicket boundary. Just to show he didn't need bad balls, and could do as he wished, Kohli made room for the next delivery and went through the covers.
That over was not, however, the most memorable of the match. Later Kohli ripped into Malinga sensationally, taking 24 in the 35th over (and he went in the air only once). It was devastating and risk-free. The first of those deliveries was a flick through midwicket for a two to bring up his century. He had a big smile on his face after that. He celebrated by lofting the next ball, a length one, into the stands. For the next four balls it was all a matter of about six inches here or there - enough for Kohli to hit fours through the field and not over it.
The game was over for all practical purposes, but Kohli finished it off with successive boundaries off Malinga, consigning the best death bowler in the world to the worst-ever economy rate in an ODI innings.
This innings was a reminder of what can be achieved through a perfect mix of a free mind and skill, but as the rest of the year showed, it is not a state of mind that can be manufactured.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo