Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo
SA v BAN (W) (1)
Abu Dhabi T10 (3)
BAN v NZ (1)
SA v WI (A tour) (1)
BBL 2023 (1)
AUS v PAK (1)
Asia Cup [U19] (2)
A nine-year-old girl was jumping up and down in the Brabourne Stadium stands. She had a placard held aloft, waiting for the TV cameras to help her tell the world that she had travelled from Telangana, roughly 700 kilometres away from Mumbai, only to watch Virat Kohli. And to see him succeed. She was one of several hundred Kohli fans in the stadium, and among thousands across India and beyond that desperately wanted Kohli to score. Score big. To put an end to the rotten run of form in which he had even collected successive golden ducks.
Kohli's facial expressions have always been somewhat exaggerated, but after every failure in the past month, he appeared more and more lost. The man whose greatest strength, arguably, is his clear head, looked confused. Royal Challengers Bangalore couldn't drop him. The experts could not stop giving suggestions. But his fans - they would not give up. If you've been to any of the IPL venues on a Royal Challengers match day, you would have seen virtually every fan wearing the "Virat 18" on their backs.
Having been treated to all sorts of Kohli spectacles over the years, his fans were - and are - willing to be patient. And despite 40-plus-degree (Celsius) heat on Saturday afternoon, Brabourne was abuzz an hour before toss. When Kohli walked out to take throwdowns before the game, the stands virtually shook with excitement.
A bit later, bat resting on his right shoulder, Kohli walked out to open with Faf du Plessis, his body language as positive as always. He pushed the first delivery of the match, pitched on length by Mohammed Shami, toward the leg side confidently. Shami then missed his run-up twice in a row and had to re-measure it. Kohli waited patiently. The fans not so; they booed the bowler. Shami resumed, but the length was slightly full. Kohli punched a straight four and then powerfully flicked the next delivery for another easy boundary. "Kohli! Kohli! Kohli!"
After facing ten balls, Kohli had 14 runs, the joint-highest this IPL for him in terms of the strike rate in his first ten-ball phase. Alzarri Joseph replaced Shami to deliver the fifth over. He started with a loosener, which Kohli flicked past midwicket for a four. Next ball was on length on the fourth stump, and Kohli took a big stride and placed his drive between short cover and wide mid-off for another four. Gujarat Titans' skipper Hardik Pandya, who was wide at mid-off, gave up the chase almost as soon as he had started. Hardik might be carrying a niggle (he didn't bowl on the day), but even if he had been fully fit, he would have known the chase was futile.
The fans had now started to dream. The numbers were on their side: Kohli averages 88 and has scored at a rate of 161 in T20s each time he got five or more boundaries in his first 20 balls. He also had 11 fifties and two hundreds in 18 such innings before Saturday.
Lockie Ferguson bowled the eighth over. He has blown hot and cold in the last few matches, but he cramped Kohli for room with tight lines and his signature high pace this time. Four dots and Kohli played his second not-in-control stroke. Responding to a short-and-wide delivery, he attempted a ramp but away from the body. The outside edge, though, fell in front of the fielder at third man. Kohli was annoyed with himself, visibly, realising he could have done better, perhaps by going on the back foot and attempting a cut.
In Ferguson's next over, Kohli picked a six over long-on off a full toss. Ferguson repeated the short delivery outside off at nearly 145 kph. This time, Kohli moved closer to the line, opened the face of the bat, and steered the ball for four. "Kohli! Kohli!" You would have been forgiven for thinking Kohli was in complete control, totally dominant.
But at the end of that Ferguson over, which also was the halfway stage of the innings, Kohli had 44 from 38 balls. He was striking at just over 100. He would eventually raise his bat to acknowledge the cheers upon reaching his first fifty of this IPL. But he had taken 45 deliveries to get there. Stack that up against the two best batters so far this IPL. Jos Buttler strikes in the high 150s and KL Rahul over 140. They have scored five centuries between them, taking an average of about 60 deliveries to get there.
Kohli has scored 48 half-centuries in the IPL over the years and his effort today was his second slowest. More stunning is the fact that his innings strike rate of 109.43 on the day was his slowest in all T20s.
Understandable. Kohli needs time to get back to his best form, which he is still searching for. But the question that both he and Royal Challengers would need to confront is: did Kohli's scoring rate hurt the team in the end?
Rajat Patidar, who hit a 29-ball 50, as well as Glenn Maxwell (33 in 18) and Mahipal Lomror (16* in eight) in the Royal Challengers innings, and then David Miller (39* in 24) and Rahul Tewatia (43* in 25) proved that the pitch was full of runs and there were no demons in it.
Unless he speaks, we won't know what was on Kohli's mind during his innings. But if Kohli is opening the innings and aims to bat deep, he needs to score quicker.
The afternoon started with the Kohli question. Tewatia and Miller grabbed the headlines in the end. But Kohli will remain the talking point as we wait to know the answer.
When he picked a single to get to the half-century today, there were no exaggerated celebrations. He raised the bat in the direction of the team dugout and his family and then looked heavenwards. Then came a sigh of relief. But when the team meets to review the game, Kohli will be the first to raise his hand and acknowledge that he has work left to do. The fans will wait, with a prayer on their lips.