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Match Analysis

Unshackled Kohli brings the joy factor back to his batting

He ended his 1020-day century drought with relentless, pressure-free and unhurried batting taken to the next level

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
It had a 'they're dancing in the aisles in Sharjah' vibe to it. Except, there weren't too many in the aisles in Dubai. Yet, when Virat Kohli swatted Fareed Ahmad over deep midwicket to bring up his 71st international century, the monkey that had probably grown into a giant-sized dinosaur was off his back.
Just like that, Kohli had rendered all those who kept count of the days between No. 70 and this one, jobless. The count ended at 1020 days, a period that was intercepted by a full-blown pandemic, and one that had taken Kohli, and many others, down dark alleys of lockdowns, quarantines and isolations and bio-bubbles.
When the moment arrived in the 19th over of India's innings, Kohli was as free-spirited and expressive as you'd seen him in recent times. He carefully unlocked his helmet and belted out a big smile towards his applauding team-mates. There was this distinct look of disbelief on his face, as if he was suggesting this was the format he was least likely to break that deadlock in.
All the while, Rishabh Pant stood still with a smile, allowing Kohli to soak in the moment and then embraced his former captain with a hug. Kohli didn't stop there. He looked up at the skies, then yanked his gloves off to pull out to kiss his ring that had the initials of his wife engraved on it. By now, the shutter bugs who had frantically positioned themselves at appropriate angles, besides each other by the boundary rope, were clicking away to capture that 'perfect' moment.
Before the moment passed, Kohli looked around the ground with a big smile, scanned his eyes towards pockets that had maximum fans and raised his bat. For all the ferocity he can display on the field, with his nerve-popping celebration and yelps, angry growls and send-offs, this was a moment of pure, unadulterated happiness.
Once Kohli had regathered himself, it was business as usual. No dropping of guard, no ugly slogs suggesting he was done. He was going to carry on. Early in his innings, he trusted the good balls on merit, even defending them or nudging them around until he got his eye in. Now, he was in that batting zone players often talk of where they're so in the moment that they let their instincts take over and muscle memory dictate their game. It was as if Kohli has transported himself to his 2016 vintage.
This was fearless, pressure-free, relentless and unhurried batting taken to the next level. He uncorked his wrists to scythe wide yorkers behind point, got into positions quickly to sweep bowlers off their lengths. It's a shot he almost never plays, but had seemingly pushed boundaries here, willing himself on to replicate shots he'd been training for. And when he wasn't going down on his knees to sweep, he was slicing wide deliveries behind square, decking low full tosses deep over the extra-cover fence with his solid bottom-handed power.
Kohli was having fun, he was toying with the bowling. He was backing away slightly, as if to ask the bowlers to follow him. When they didn't, he'd bring his left foot back in line and play the most awe-inspiring cover drive. So what if there was sweeper cover? So what if the fielder had anticipated the shot and started running to his right as the shot was hit? He had no chance. This was Kohli at his regal best.
As Kohli's innings progressed, the gum-chewing aggression that brings with it the typical swagger was back in full view. Kohli wasn't just seeing ball and hitting ball, he was enjoying that pristine feeling of finding that sweet spot and balls flying off in different trajectories. For a change, not many were looking at scores or runs or overs remaining. The small crowd had lost their voice in cheering for a majestic hundred. At that moment, nothing else mattered. Not India's score, and most definitely not their early exit from the Asia Cup.
His innings was magical. It was a display of the level he'd cranked his batting intensity to. All the while having a big smile. He was stepping out to deliveries as if he had the free license to bat the way he liked, and hitting them to different corners, as if he was merely listening to chants of the fans.
And when you thought you'd seen it all, he played one of the most majestic no-look sixes you'd see. He got into position no sooner than Fazalhaq Farooqi had released the ball, knowing fully well what was coming, and sent it soaring over deep square. The glove punch with Pant that followed told you how much he enjoyed it.
This was Kohli having fun. This was Kohli unshackled by expectation. There was a glistening smile that you couldn't take off his face, litres of sweat dripping off his shirt as he walked off bat raised, gloves up, giving a victory sign and then a beautiful namaste.
The joy factor in his batting was well and truly back. He had threatened all tournament, and on Thursday, all that positive energy that had been brimming on the surface had burst open like confetti on a grand stage. The giant screen flashed a message: welcome back, King.
The King was indeed back.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo