Cool Kohli conquers the chaos
Twenty20 is chaos. In such a crunched timeframe, to use a phrase that suits the era the format was created for, s*** happens, and s*** can have a deep impact. There is hardly ever time to recover, to think, to plan. Sometimes, in matches that don't have a lot riding on them, you can play carefree innings with sensational hitting - less thought means less clutter generally - but to play the innings Virat Kohli did with so much riding on him is the closest thing you will get to Twenty20 genius. And it was not his format to begin with, he himself says he envies the six-hitting of someone like Rohit Sharma.
Just imagine the condition Kohli started his innings in. This event is India's showpiece. India are the favourites. Everybody expects them to win, and everything is being thrown at them. There is nothing to prove this is happening by design, but the challenging pitches - raging turners, slow low ones - seem to be following them wherever they go. The bowlers have found it easier, but the batsmen are being made to work hard and are only just scraping by.
Some have really struggled. Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit have scored 88 runs between them, Suresh Raina seems to have all the luck but he has not gone beyond 30, and MS Dhoni - good though he still might be - is not the same batsman he was. Kohli saw India through against Pakistan, but this was going to be different.
Suddenly a pitch where 190 was looking a par score was drier and slower for an India game. Nor is this Bangalore. Mishits don't carry for sixes in Mohali, at least not square of the wicket. Australia didn't have the spinners of New Zealand's class, neither did they place the required trust in what they had, but their fast bowlers realised early enough that if they kept banging the ball in and kept running their fingers across it, a target of 161 was going to be really difficult. Rohit, Dhawan and Raina perished soon enough with the asking rate having reached nine for the last 12 overs.
Yuvraj Singh bowled superbly, but it wouldn't be unfair to say that he has become a bit of a lottery with the bat. If he doesn't start well, he can really struggle. If he starts well, he can play an important role. Yuvraj started well. He middled his first ball, had some luck at the start, and Kohli had found an ally. Just then, though, s*** happened. Yuvraj twisted his ankle. Twos became ones. On a generous count Yuvraj's injury cost India five runs just as a consequence of slow running.
Had there been any other batsman at the other end - dare we say even Dhoni at his best - in this format, in such high pressure, this would have required some insane six hitting to save India. In not needing to take such high risk lies Kohli's genius. Even when Yuvraj injured himself, you knew Australia were not going to win this without defeating Kohli. It just didn't look like Kohli was going to contribute to his own demise.
Just imagine the situation, and then imagine the cool. The conditions have always been stacked against his batting throughout the tournament. Now with every dot, with every two being converted into one, the game, the tournament, was slipping out of India's hands. Through a mixture of the slow pitch and big boundaries, oversized modern bats were taken out of equation. At least psychologically. You couldn't just swing hard knowing a half hit had a decent chance of going for six.
In that chaos, Kohli kept playing his game. A single here, a two there, knowing - and not forgetting it in this cauldron - that he can catch up with the asking rate later. That he can wait for the mistakes from the opposition. Room for that error with Kohli is very little. Just sample the pressure the bowlers felt the moment Kohli came in to bat. Until then they had placed their two fielders allowed outside the circle at deep square leg and deep point. They were digging the ball in, and kept the two openers under check. With Kohli's cover drive, though, they were forced to bowl with both the deep men on the off side. Kohli milked the second ball he faced - its only fault was that it was angled in from over the wicket - through midwicket, taking it from in front of off.
Only twice did Kohli have to stretch himself and take risks. On one such moment, a few centimetres swung the game India's way. Australia had not bowled Adam Zampa, their only specialist spinner, in the first 10 overs. It was clear India were going to put him under pressure. He checked every box: young, inexperienced, a wrist spinner and hence more prone to error. But Zampa bowled a superb first over, the 11th of the innings. With Yuvraj struggling, with Australia closing in, now the asking rate had crossed 10. Kohli himself had been forced to slow down. At 20 off 20, against the more experienced Glenn Maxwell, Kohli took risk in the 12th over, stepping out, and not middling an inside-out loft.
Australia looked back in hope as the ball hung up in the air. It sailed just over long-off, into the mote that runs around the boundary, and Maxwell sank to his knees. India had breathing space and Australia knew they would need some more excellent bowling to bring such a shot out of Kohli again.
There is a reason why Kohli can play so coolly in such chaos. He trusts his game. He trusts his game because he knows it is that damn good. He trusts his legs to run as fast as any other man with pads on when the boundaries are not coming. He says these are the moments he trains for. Hours in the gym, the diet, the strength training, the thousands of balls hit in the nets. Just for these 90 minutes of sheer brilliance and ecstasy. He says the ultimate aim of his training is to be able to run just as hard when he is tired as when he is fresh.
Ashish Nehra says Kohli's game is all right, but the biggest standout with him is what he does outside matches and nets. If you go out for a meal with Kohli, you can forget about getting Indian curry. Kohli's whole lifestyle is designed to be able to do his best in these situations.
With Yuvraj gone and in Dhoni's company, Kohli ran Australia ragged. Dhoni later said that when you can pinch two off the best fielders, the slightly slower ones start dreading the balls being hit towards them. Not always can you say that of Australia, but Kohli and Dhoni did that to them.
Then came the final decisive blows. Australia didn't trust their spinners enough. James Faulkner was under the pressure of having to bowl two out of the last three even though 39 were required. His first, a slower short ball, was just off target. Kohli placed the pull with precision. The yorker next up missed its mark by inches, and Kohli steered it for four through point. The celebratory dance had begun. A celebration of all the hard work put in. Now every shot was played with freedom. In minutes Australia had lost.
Given the composition of their attack, and the lack of faith in their spinners, Australia threw all they could at India, but Kohli shielded his team. The only way Australia had a better chance of defending 160 was to not get a single wicket, to not bring in India's No. 3.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo