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Match Analysis

Kohli shreds Dubai's nerves with perfectly imperfect comeback knock

Coming back after a 42-day break from cricket, he was India's joint top-scorer without ever finding his fluency

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
A couple of vintage pull shots illuminated an otherwise scratchy start from Virat Kohli  •  AFP/Getty Images

A couple of vintage pull shots illuminated an otherwise scratchy start from Virat Kohli  •  AFP/Getty Images

The noise levels had soared by several decibels as Virat Kohli walked out to bat, third ball of India's chase. As he stood marking his guard, the giant screen played a package of his imperious cover-driving against Mohammad Amir during the 2016 Asia Cup. Kohli took a fleeting glance at it before settling into his stance.
As the first delivery tailed in, he left it alone, trusting the bounce. He looked at the spot from where the ball had lifted, giving it a wry smile. The surface was a little tacky. There was grip if the bowlers were willing to dig it in, like Hardik Pandya had done during Pakistan's innings. Ravindra Jadeja had got it to turn sharply from leg to off. With India chasing only 148, maybe this was Kohli's opportunity to dig in and not go after the bowling straightaway, despite the chatter around intent and India's new batting template.
Kohli was returning from a month-long break where he hadn't picked up a bat. His ferocious intensity can lift the team. It can lift the entire stadium. As it did when he was among the first players to bound out to the nets in India's first training session four days ago.
Starting Wednesday, whatever he's done on the field has been closely captured, reeled, storied, and shared widely: his towering hits, his exchanges with Babar Azam, his 50-metre sprints, the goals he's scored in warm-up football.
On Sunday too, he was among the first to walk out for India's pre-match routines. The pleasantries with the opponents were done. He was a picture of concentration amid the noise. He took throwdowns initially, and then proceeded towards the boundary edge to take some catches. Within 10 minutes, Kohli was in and out. He wasn't going to drain himself in the afternoon heat.
It was a big occasion. His 100th T20I. He was about to become only the second player, after Ross Taylor, to play as many games in all three formats. Rahul Dravid invited Kohli to give the team a pep talk. He spoke passionately, and the huddle dispersed with a chorus of claps. With that, Kohli's comeback was officially underway.
He had played just four T20Is this year prior to this game. He hasn't been a part of India's changing template consistently, and so there's this matter of having to buy into the philosophy, and then fit into it, which can be easier said than done. Perhaps it would have been a cakewalk for the Kohli of 2016, when he could flick on a switch and kill chases with ridiculous ease. Or blast his way out of the blocks while batting first and smash both pace and spin.
Back to the present, though.
It's the second ball of his innings. Kohli's instincts draw him into a drive. Except the ball isn't quite there and it hits the seam and nips away. By the time Kohli has played the ball, he knows he's in trouble, but a diving Fakhar Zaman grasses the chance at slip to the collective despair of the western block of the stadium, which is dominated by Pakistan fans in green.
You begin to imagine what could have been had the chance been taken. 'Kohli out for duck after opening up about mental-health struggles'? 'Kohli's much-anticipated return ends in damp squib'? There was potential for an explosion of headlines, memes and judgments. But luck has smiled on Kohli and he gets off strike next ball with a nudge to fine leg. He is off the mark.
Now he's up against Shahnawaz Dahani, the reason why Pakistan are defending 147 rather than 135. Kohli plays out three dots and then mistimes a lofted hit that plonks into the outfield after beating mid-off. Dahani is quick and zippy, and Kohli hasn't managed to get him away. Whether he feels it or not, you feel the pressure.
Square leg is in, and fine leg is out. The short ball could be coming, and it does. Kohli belts out a roar after getting into excellent position to wallop it to the midwicket boundary. He's up and running.
Or is he? Next ball, Kohli gets a thick inside edge. On another night, this may have rolled onto the stumps. Tonight it rolls down to short fine leg. India, 10 for 1 after two overs, have made a nervy start.
It remains that way. KL Rahul is gone, Rohit Sharma is scratchy. In the next over, Kohli top-edges Haris Rauf for six over the keeper's head. More luck. Surely it's his night?
Kohli is chewing gum, smiling, fist-bumping Rohit. The ball isn't always flying where he wants it to, but he's still in the contest. There's a sliced drive over backward point off Dahani in the fifth over. He had been looking to go over cover only for his bat to turn in his hands.
Multiple times over the last two years, Kohli has played imperious innings that haven't lasted as long as they promised to. This innings is promising to be different - scratchy but enduring. But then he flicks a switch and plays a majestic flat-batted pull over wide mid-on. He stands and admires the shot until the ball crosses the boundary, and turns back to look at the replay on the giant screen. He's nailed it off the sweetest spot on his bat.
It's been a perfectly imperfect Kohli knock - hard to categorise in any way.
But in some respects, we've seen this innings before. At the end of the powerplay, he's batting on 29 off 24. Then the spinners come on and the fields spread. Against Shadab Khan and Mohammad Nawaz, he scores 0, 1, 1, 1, 1, 0, 1, 0, 1. In that time, India lose Rohit. A seemingly straightforward chase is turning rather tricky.
Then Kohli steps out, and chips Nawaz straight to long-off. Just like that, his stay is over. A perfectly imperfect end to a perfectly imperfect innings.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo