Kohli’s innings against Pakistan on Sunday was a watershed moment for him, the team and the nation.
It was a script many had read many times before: A rampaging Virat Kohli taking India home in what seemed an impossible chase.
As Kohli ran from the non-striker’s end to complete that winning run, Pakistan heads dropped in the middle, in the stands and at home.
India had just pulled off a mighty chase, beating Pakistan by five wickets in the sides’ T20 World Cup opener in Melbourne.
The scenes that played out a while later told a bigger story.
Hardik Pandya linked heads with Kohli and roared in his face. Add the tightness of the normally reserved KL Rahul’s embrace and the manner in which captain Rohit Sharma lifted Kohli on his shoulders to aptly illustrate what it meant.
Amid all the euphoria around him, our protagonist shed a tear. He’s always worn his heart on his sleeve but this was an emotion we’d never seen from him on the field.
.@imVkohli, it was undoubtedly the best innings of your life. It was a treat to watch you play, the six off the back foot in the 19th over against Rauf over long on was spectacular! 😮
Keep it going. 👍 #INDvPAK #T20WorldCup pic.twitter.com/FakWPrStMg
— Sachin Tendulkar (@sachin_rt) October 23, 2022
In the lead-up to this game, there had been signs that Kohli had turned a corner.
In his last 11 T20Is, he averaged nearly 60 with six scores of 30-plus. While many proclaimed his return following his century against Afghanistan – a dead rubber in a tournament India had already been eliminated from – it softened the clamour of his return to the throne.
But the profundity of Sunday night didn’t come from the performance. It came from the stage. It had to be against Pakistan. It had to be in the World Cup. It had to be in front of 90,000 people at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG).
As renowned French journalist Philippe Auclair wrote of Thierry Henry’s comeback goal at the Emirates for Arsenal in 2012: “The script was written and he read it”.
Beyond a general sense of remorse as a fan, Kohli’s barren patch over the past three years had an unsettling effect on the nation.
The Indian cricket team embodies billions and Kohli was its figurehead. His force of nature persona waned as he began to lose his identity as a champion batter.
Every sporting champion faces a decline in performance after a certain age, following which they gradually recede from the limelight.
But Kohli’s case was different. Despite the loss of form and captaincy, he didn’t lose his spot in the team. His star faded but he remained an active part of people’s consciousness.
No longer the talisman of the team, Kohli began to take on different forms for the nation. The boldness with which he called out those who abused Mohammed Shami on the basis of religion following India’s loss to Pakistan in the World Cup last year pushed him into the eye of a political storm.
The manner of his removal from the captaincy further brought into focus the power struggles in Indian cricket. The openness with which he spoke about his mental health struggles during the lean period made him the face of the growing mental health movement in the country.
Special win. Thank you to all our fans for turning up in numbers. 🇮🇳💙 pic.twitter.com/hAcbuYGa1H
— Virat Kohli (@imVkohli) October 23, 2022
Ultimately, Kohli’s loss of form gave the nation an identity crisis. Having consecrated and put him on a pedestal for so long, where does he go now that he isn’t scoring any runs?
The barren run made fans question what it was they loved about Kohli. Was it his aggression? Was it his energy on the field? Was it just his centuries?
The innings at the MCG helped answer this question.
It’s his undying belief in himself to rise to the occasion. His crisis of confidence over the past three years was a national issue because it made billions question the one thing they had always been able to depend on.
His loss of form felt existential to the country. That’s why Sunday night was as much a catharsis for Kohli as it was for India.