[Editor's note: The following story appears in ESPNcricinfo's 2015 Cricket World Cup Special Guide. Click here to purchase your copy.]
Dhaka, March 18, 2012. India are chasing 330 to beat Pakistan in the Asia Cup. They have the required rate under control, but there is still a long way to go. And Pakistan's leading bowler, Saeed Ajmal, is beginning to exert his influence on the game. Ajmal is halfway into his fifth over and has conceded only 13 runs. He has just dismissed Sachin Tendulkar with a doosra, caught at slip for 48-ball 52. India need 192 runs from 170 balls.
Ajmal floats an offbreak outside off stump. It is an invitation to drive against the turn, and the ball drops a few inches short of being a half-volley. Virat Kohli, batting on 77, leans forward and works his wrists to force the ball away to the right of the fielder at short cover. At long-off, Aizaz Cheema hares madly to his left as soon as Kohli shapes to play the shot, but he has no chance of stopping the ball that is racing towards the boundary. Such is the power Kohli achieves with the whip of his wrists and the torsion of his right forearm.
But Ajmal isn't perturbed. He bowls the next ball on the same line but pulls his length back a fraction -- the classic offspinner's response to being driven against the turn.
Kohli strides forward again but realises he can't get close enough to the ball to drive it. No problem. He lets the ball turn into him and slices it away to the right of the slip fielder, with an open bat-face. It speeds away to the third-man boundary, and Ajmal can't believe what he has just seen. He stands there, chewing gum, wiping his face with the sleeve of his left arm.
Kohli goes on to score 183 off 148 balls, and India wrap up the win in the 48th over. Only 19 days earlier, Kohli had smashed an unbeaten 86-ball 133 in the Commonwealth Bank Series, against Sri Lanka in Hobart. Needing to chase down 321 in 40 overs to stay alive in the tri-series, India got there in the 37th over. Kohli treated Lasith Malinga with the same sort of disdain that he reserved for Ajmal, whipping middle-stump yorkers to the backward square-leg boundary.
Kohli's Dhaka hundred, in his 85th ODI, was his 11th in his career. He has ten more hundreds in the 61 games since. In his 144th match, he became the quickest to reach 6000 runs, five innings quicker than the previous record holder, Viv Richards.
Among Kohli's contemporaries, only the two South Africans, Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers, stand with him on the top tier of ODI batsmen. Going into a World Cup with a bowling attack that is notorious for leaking big totals, India are still among the favourites because their batting line-up is capable of chasing down pretty much any target. And Kohli is the most important component of that line-up.
Against Australia in Jaipur last year, he smashed an unbeaten 52-ball 100 as India chased down 360 in 43.3 overs. Fourteen days later, India chased down 351 in Nagpur. Kohli made another unbeaten hundred that day: 115 off 66. It was almost inevitable. During Kohli's career, India have successfully chased 280-plus targets 12 times. In those 12 games, Kohli has scored eight hundreds and a 91.
While the cricket world has come to take for granted the unending stream of centuries and record-shattering performances from Kohli, few would honestly say they expected him to go on to such heights when he began his career. Kohli was already an India under-19 player when he made his first-class debut in 2006-07. Former India opener Aakash Chopra remembers an 18-year-old Kohli coming into the Delhi team with "the power to hit as hard as a 25-year-old" and a big appetite for runs.
But his technique, Chopra says, had gaping holes in it.
"He used to have a very short front-foot stride, and he used to have to play too far across his body, so that made him susceptible to balls that were pitched fuller and those that were moving in, or moving away at times," Chopra says. Initially, and even a few years into his international career, Kohli wasn't too comfortable against the short ball.
"I remember playing an Irani Trophy game [in Vadodara in 2008] where Munaf Patel and RP Singh were playing for Rest of India," Chopra says. "Delhi were the [Ranji Trophy] champions, and on a dead track, on an absolutely grassless pitch, they bowled bouncers and [Kohli] was in trouble.
"He was in trouble in the IPL, in the first edition [in 2008]. Ashish Nehra bounced him out a couple of times. He went to the West Indies, played his first few Test matches [in 2011]. He was suspect against the short ball there too."
But Kohli worked on his short-ball game and improved beyond recognition.
"We've seen a lot of players who were suspect against the short ball and still are, after seven or eight years of their career," Chopra says. "This guy improved on that aspect as well. There are two possible responses. One is to shelve the shot and keep swaying, ducking, whatever, take a few blows on the body -- the Steve Waugh way -- or what Kohli has done. He took the aggressive path, and it comes naturally to him, and he is now a fantastic puller of the ball, in fact the best Indian player against the short ball."
Similarly, Kohli made a subtle adjustment to his front-foot stride. "Now his front foot is not going across so much, it's going a lot straighter, so that obviously makes him a more complete player," Chopra says. "The flip side of that story is if he moves too straight and the ball is consistently moving away from you, then what will happen is what happened with James Anderson [on the 2014 England tour]. It's bound to happen because you're too far away from the ball, because the front-foot stride is still a small one."
In one-day cricket, though, the short stride gives Kohli an advantage. "It works in the shorter format -- it gives you room to free the arms and play your shots," Chopra says. "The less you move in limited-overs cricket, the better you are. You will never be off balance if you haven't moved much, and you will have the liberty to free your arms because you're not cramping yourself up."
The room he has to play his shots, allied to his bottom-hand-dominant technique -- which causes him to whip, rather than drive in the classical manner, even through the off side -- gives him both hitting range and power, allowing him to routinely drill fours between deep midwicket and long-on, or between long-off and sweeper cover.
"In one-day cricket, you need to bludgeon the ball at times, and if you are a bottom-handed player, you are able to bludgeon the ball better," Chopra says. "Rohit Sharma is an exception. He is a top-handed player, but he is a fantastic striker of the ball.
"Kohli's power is outstanding. It's a lot to do with the bat speed he generates, because there is no flourish as such, there is not a huge amount of backlift, there is very little follow-through. So it is all to do with his wrists, his strong forearms and the speed that he generates by cocking and uncocking his wrists. In a sense, it's a very Australian way of batting. Ricky Ponting used to do that beautifully. Virat Kohli, in his own unique way, is doing the same thing."
The wagon wheels of most of Kohli's big one-day hundreds paint the same picture of his strengths -- a marked leg-side bias counterbalanced by the drives drilled through and over extra cover, and especially over the last three years or so, lots of boundaries scored via the pull. The most influential change from his early days, however, is probably a far more basic one.
In an interview with ESPNcricinfo back in 2011, Kohli reflected on his game as it had been when he first came into the Indian side. "I was very new and didn't know how to take singles in the first series I played," he said. "And Gary [Kirsten] and I discussed that initially, and he told me how important it was to take singles in international cricket."
This is borne out by the numbers. In 2008, his first year in international cricket, Kohli faced 238 balls and failed to score off 177 of them -- this amounted to a dot-ball percentage of 74. It's remarkable how quickly he changed his game. In 2009, his dot-ball percentage fell to 55, and in 2010 it came down to 50. Since then, it has fluctuated roughly between 50 and 45. Through all this, the percentage of balls he hits to the boundary has stayed pretty much the same. It was 9.24 in 2008, when he was a newbie, and 9.09 in 2012, which was perhaps his best year in ODI cricket.
Some of the knocks he has played in recent times are remarkable for his ability to find scoring options. Against South Africa in the 2014 World T20 semi-finals, Kohli made an unbeaten 72 off 44 balls and played out only three dot balls. Again, the change Kohli made to be able to do this was a fairly small one -- he began playing much later, much closer to his body.
"If you play close to your body, you will always be able to find the gaps," Chopra says. "If you reach for the ball, if that is your game, then you can't delay your shot. But if you are fundamentally playing the ball close to your body, then every now and then you can play slightly early and put it in the gap. That option is still there.
"Obviously, he is a very smart batsman, like MS Dhoni, who has this unique ability to put the ball in the gaps. Kohli also has the same ability, and that's what makes him a great chaser. You can't keep chasing successfully without taking a lot of singles, by putting the ball in the gaps. Because you can't hit fours all the time. You can't chase by hitting fours and sixes. You need to know, okay, six an over, seven an over, three singles, a couple, this, that and the other. This is how you manipulate and manage your innings. Which he does beautifully."
While Kohli's ODI figures while batting first are still top-class (he averages 39.25 and has a strike rate of 86.42), they leap into the stratosphere while he is chasing. Batting second, Kohli's average climbs to 64.26 and his strike rate to 92.84. Fourteen of his 21 ODI centuries have come in chases.
Chopra can't pinpoint what makes Kohli up his game to that extent while chasing. But he says a lot of batsmen simply prefer chasing when they are on top of their game. "Then you're in complete control," he says. "There were only phases in my career where I thought, 'Okay, let's chase.' Because no matter what the total is, I know how to pace my innings. I'm not thinking what the ideal total is. I know what the total is and how to chase it.
"In Kohli's case, it goes on. It's not a phase. It's the way he is. He continues to bat and score runs while chasing. Maybe it puts him in that zone where he is able to control the innings a lot better. So he has cracked that chasing code."
It can't be that bowling attacks haven't thought of ways to stop Kohli, but on the evidence of his remarkable record, they simply haven't caught up with him. Over the past two years, he has added another facet to his game to raise his strike rate from the mid-80s to the late 90s: He is clearing the ropes far more frequently. In the first five years of his ODI career, Kohli hit 21 sixes in 87 innings. In the past two years, he has hit 40 in 50 innings.
The one lean patch Kohli went through, on India's tour of England in 2014, is a mild cause of worry going into the World Cup, likely to be played in bowler-friendly conditions in Australia and New Zealand. Chopra, though, doesn't think Kohli's weakness of playing away from his body against the away-going ball is going to hinder him in ODIs.
"Bowlers don't bowl that line in one-day cricket, and the ball doesn't swing after five to seven overs," Chopra says. "If the ball isn't swinging and there aren't three slips waiting, then it is unlikely to trouble him too much. It happened [in England] because the ball was swinging prodigiously and there was some seam movement as well, and James Anderson was on top of this game. That's not how it is in one-day cricket, and I don't see a bowler who can trouble Kohli consistently in one-day cricket."
Chopra expects a big contribution from Kohli at the World Cup but wants him to bat at No. 3 in the line-up. During the recent ODI series against West Indies and Sri Lanka at home, Kohli was batting at No. 4.
"He is a phenomenal player, and he should be able to score centuries," Chopra says. "He should be able to change the course of the game, but that can only happen if he gets to bat around 40-odd overs. If he is batting only 25 overs, his potency will be reduced to half. So I hope he bats at 3."
The man regarded as the world's best ODI batsman might not fret over whether he bats at No. 3 or 4. All he would want is the opportunity to seize every game -- and the World Cup -- by the throat.