Kohli in a zone of his own
Just how far is Virat Kohli ahead of his peers now? Sample this. It is an achievement for Manoj Tiwary, a very fine batsman, to get a game. Rohit Sharma, probably the most talented of the lot, wonders how he can make some runs, somehow. Ajinkya Rahane seems to have accepted his position on the sidelines for now. Kohli, the youngest of the four, thinks he has no business getting out soon after reaching a hundred. You can bat in the zone. Kohli, at the moment, is living in the zone. When you are so far ahead of others, you can feel lonely at the summit. Kohli is searching for higher peaks to conquer.
You aim to improve on your routine. Kohli's routine right now is making centuries. So now, he wants to make them "big". As if making 133 not out, 108, 66, 183, 106, 1, 38 and 128 not out in your previous eight innings is not big enough. That 38 he made in the third ODI bothered him. He was disappointed that he got out, disappointed that he took 65 balls to make 38, disappointed because he rarely fails nowadays.
"So I thought about it in the nets," Kohli said. His brand of thinking was to bash every bowler during practice with an intensity that was searing to even watch. On the eve of this game, he was clobbering everything thrown at him in the nets. Spinner or fast bowler, Indian or Sri Lankan. He almost broke Ashok Dinda's hand with a piledriver of a drive.
Come match situation today, and Kohli the brute became Kohli the machine, again. Lasith Malinga's swinging yorker had taken out Gautam Gambhir in the first over. Kohli jogged in and calmly left his first ball alone. The man's aggression may be in-your-face, but he knows an international batsman has to respect international bowlers at times, though he can display his intent when he gets the chance.
The first came off his ninth ball, a short one outside off from Malinga. Kohli hooked. Not the desperate hook borne out of insecurity, but a calculated, crisp one. The ball almost went for six over deep midwicket. Intent shown, he went back to displaying more respect again.
He was 23 off 40 at one stage, a strike-rate lower than what he managed in the third ODI. Today, though, he was determined not to throw it away. When Kohli starts churning the singles and twos calmly, you know he has switched into marathon mode. His fifty soon came, in 65 balls, with just two boundaries.
Meanwhile, Virender Sehwag sparked briefly and went, Rohit's struggles continued, Tiwary fell after a start. Kohli was asked what his approach was with Rohit, probably playing for his place in the XI. He said he told Rohit to let him take all risks as a set batsman and try to play himself in. Too bad Rohit lasted 14 balls.
Kohli finally found support from Suresh Raina. Apart from some nervy running initially, there was no knowing that they had come together at 109 for 4 chasing 252. Kohli had an explanation for the running as well. "They have some really good fielders inside and [we made] an error of judgment. You don't run singles off good fielders. It can happen every now and then but after that [we] pretty much sorted it out - who has a good arm, who is quick across the outfield and in the inner circle. [We] made a few mistakes but corrected them quickly."
The explanation shows that Kohli and panic just don't go together. "It is very easy to [panic]," Kohli said, before going on to tell why he doesn't. "When you play about eight dot balls it is very easy to step out and go for that big one. But when you get out you realise that you lose one more wicket and the new guy going in, he might play 10-15 dot balls more. So you have that advantage over that guy coming in to bat because you are set. You can actually start rotating the strike and hit the odd balls in between for boundaries.
"It is all about analysing what's going on in the middle. Today was not one of those quick wickets. Wickets in Sri Lanka are pretty slow so it was all about assessing that. We have players like Viru bhai [Sehwag], Suresh and MS [Dhoni] coming in who can smash the ball at will. My job was to make sure we don't lose any more wickets. That's what I and Suresh discussed in the middle. Because defending 250 you need to take wickets at regular intervals. So our main plan was to stop that and try and create some sort of partnership. We knew we had the batting Powerplay and we [can] cash that in the end."
Fifty-five runs came in the batting Powerplay, Raina got to another fifty, Kohli to another century, after which he finished the game in the 43rd over with eight boundaries off his final 16 deliveries. Kohli's been cracking hundreds for nearly a year now but he said the vice-captaincy, which he got during the Asia Cup in March, had made him more responsible.
"If people think you have those qualities for handling responsibility … I have been given a post, I was happily surprised with it and I feel much more responsible when I play in the middle. Not that my behaviour or my attitude towards my team-mates has changed. It is all about thinking yourself in a more responsible way. That's how you get more mature. If you are given challenges you got to live up to it and it makes you mature as a player and as a person as well."
His growing maturity and productivity is reflected in the fact that he has already made more than a 1000 ODI runs this year, after making 1381 in 2011. We are fortunate to be witnessing one of the most productive streaks in international cricket. His young peers are lucky to be witnessing a live manual every day on how to manage their careers. Whether they learn from it, and how they apply it is another matter.
Abhishek Purohit is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo