The Dubai pitch was slow and two-paced. Virat Kohli had started slowly against one of the best death-bowling teams in IPL 2020. But, he rose above everything.
He entered in the third over after Deepak Chahar had stormed through the defences of Aaron Finch with an inswinger. Devdutt Padikkal, the other opener, too was tentative against Chahar's swing. Kohli, though, stood outside the crease and resolutely defended him. He bedded in to calmly push the Royal Challengers to 65 for 1 in the tenth over.
In the next over, Padikkal and AB de Villiers looked to force the pace off Shardul Thakur, but both were foxed by Thakur's cross-seamers. Then in the 15th, Kohli tried to force the pace against Sam Curran by shimmying out, but got too close to a bouncer and spliced it over the keeper for six. He had a sheepish smile and gesticulated that he had skied it off the back of the bat. This wasn't a track where you could simply throw your bat around and get away. That six was the only real risk that Kohli took until then and he managed to get away with it.
Otherwise, he manipulated the field smartly by dinking the balls into the gaps. He ran like the wind and ramped up the pressure on the Super Kings' slow-moving legs. Even a gun outfielder like Faf du Plessis fumbled once as Kohli hustled for the second. Fifty of Kohli's 90 runs came via singles and doubles, and in all he faced a mere five dots in his 52 balls. He had reached his half-century off 39 balls when he got on top of the bounce and swivel-pulled Thakur to the boundary.
The plan from Curran was to take the ball away from Kohli's reach, but Kohli planted his front leg, latched onto the width and shovelled him with the wrists over long-on. Just like that, he dismantled the best-laid plans of Curran. The left-arm seamer then straightened his line, but this time Kohli jumped down the track, manufactured his own length and shovelled him flat over square leg for six.
Thakur turned to the slower offcutter in the 19th over, but Kohli, having stepped out, delayed his loft and used his bottom hand to swat it straight of wide long-on. Kohli often unleashes his bottom-hand swat over midwicket, but on Saturday, he was wisely taking on the short straight boundaries rather than the longer leg-side boundaries.
Then, in the final over, off Dwayne Bravo, Kohli did something out of the ordinary. He anticipated an on-pace wide yorker, jumped across off, and scooped him to the vacant fine-leg boundary despite falling on the floor. He didn't quite nail it like his good friend and team-mate de Villiers does, but he reaped reward for his "intent" to accelerate, something that was missing in the Super Kings' chase, according to their coach Stephen Fleming.
Kohli didn't find the boundary off the next five balls off Bravo, but his intent and urgency meant that he still scored nine runs - 2,2,2, 2, 1. He isn't a big power-hitter like Kieron Pollard, Andre Russell, or Hardik Pandya, but instead he tries to make up for that with hard-run twos. Six-hitting is probably the best approach at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru, but on the bigger grounds in the UAE, Kohli's style has worked for the Royal Challengers. In that Super Over against Jasprit Bumrah at the same ground, Kohli had rocked up along with de Villiers, despite struggling to 3 off 11 balls in regulation time, because he felt that he could do the job with singles and doubles alone.
In the 2016 T20 World Cup match against Australia in Mohali, Kohli did the job with his frenetic running, even stretching MS Dhoni at the other end. "He needs to pay me for running all his runs," Dhoni had quipped then, when asked about completing runs that wouldn't have been possible most times. More than four years later, on a similar bigger ground in Dubai, Kohli changed the game with his running, but this time Dhoni was behind the stumps for the Super Kings.
After being on 34 off his first 30 balls, Kohli, in his own way, amassed 56 off his next 22. "It is [about experience] and understanding conditions and playing respect to the game," Kohli told host broadcaster Star Sports at the post-match presentation. "When you don't get too far ahead in the game, then the game rewards you in the end with something extra and then push you forward.
"I think it's every important to be respectful of the conditions you're playing in rather than arriving onto the field and thinking I'm going to hit everyone onto the second tier of the stadium. That's what experience is. Having played so much cricket and T20 cricket, I understand - and the batting group understands - that if you're in at the death overs and you have a score behind you and if you're hitting well, you can capitalise big time."
Later in the Super Kings' chase, both Faf du Plessis and Shane Watson fell inside the powerplay, trying to knock the leather off the ball. It was Kohli's perfect assessment of the conditions and his acceleration that proved the difference between the Royal Challengers and the Super Kings.