Ask any kid batting on the maidans across India as to who their cricketing hero is and you’re unlikely to get more than two names.
The most common answer would be Sachin Tendulkar, arguably the greatest batsman to have played the gentlemen’s game and a man still worshipped across the country more than a year after his retirement.
The second name, increasing exponentially with every passing game, is Virat Kohli.
A decade or so ago, Kohli would have been among those kids citing Tendulkar’s name.
Today, just 26 years of age, he has 22 ODI hundreds, 10 Test centuries and a World Cup ton against Pakistan to his name, coupled with strikingly good looks, a vibrant personality and a Bollywood star as a girlfriend.
Kohli, if you didn’t already know, is India’s new cricketing superstar.
On Sunday, Kohli hit a pressure-sapping century to help India beat arch-rivals and neighbours Pakistan by 76 runs at the Adelaide Oval in both teams’ opening game of the 2015 World Cup.
— ICC (@ICC) February 15, 2015
Doing so, India recorded their first win in an official international match on Australian soil this season since arriving in late November. More importantly, to their fans at least, they extended their winning run over Pakistan in the World Cup to 6-0.
However, despite the morale-boosting win and the tag of being defending champions, India have a long way to go before they can even be mentioned in the same sentence as the World Cup final on March 29.
As India began their title defence, the onus was clearly on the batsmen to notch up above-par totals for their rather pedestrian bowling line-up to defend.
The Indian bowlers had managed to take all 20 wickets in just two out of 13 Tests played outside Asia since December 2013, winning just one and losing seven.
They were no better in the Carlton Mid One-Day International Tri-Series featuring Australia and England just before the World Cup, not only failing to win a single match but also unable to take 10 wickets in a game even once.
Thus, it did not help that their most reliable batsman, Kohli, was out of form. His last six one-day innings had yielded just 47 runs.
However, if sport has proven one thing, it is that statistics and form usually go for a toss in derbies when you’re taking on your arch-rivals.
On Sunday, Kohli reminded the world as to why he is widely considered the successor to Tendulkar with an innings of pure authority on what is now confirmed as his favourite hunting ground.
“I want to wrap this ground and take it home,” he told Ramiz Raja after the game. “This has been a really special ground for me.”
Indeed, it has.
Kohli takes to the Adelaide Oval as if it were his own backyard. He has played some unforgettable knocks at the venue in the last three years, including back-to-back hundreds in a Test against Australia in December.
Coming in at No 3 after the loss of an early wicket, Kohli took the attack to Pakistan and allowed Shikhar Dhawan, who was struggling for form, to settle in. Unlike his slam-bang ODI hundred at this ground three years ago against Sri Lanka, Kohli was in no hurry to score runs.
He waited for the bad balls to play his wristy shots and, along with Dhawan and Suresh Raina, kept ticking off quick ones, twos and threes. India’s running between the wickets on Sunday was as good as it had ever been and it put the pressure on the Pakistani bowlers.
He was dropped twice, but Kohli brought up a deserved fourth international century at the Adelaide Oval that helped India post a just-above-par 300 on the board. He is the first Indian batsman to hit a hundred against Pakistan in a World Cup, overcoming Tendulkar’s epic 98 at Centurion 12 years ago.
He also became the fastest player to hit 22 ODI centuries, having taken just 143 innings. Again, it was Tendulkar who held the record before him, who is also the only Indian to have scored more ODI hundreds (49) than Kohli.
— OptaJim (@OptaJim) February 15, 2015
Four years ago when India won the World Cup in Mumbai, it was Kohli who lifted his idol, Tendulkar, onto his shoulders.
Today, at 26, he is being labelled the next Tendulkar, and given his prolific career statistics so far, there’s a good chance he will erase some of the Little Master’s records if he plays as long.
To be compared to and spoken of in the same breath as Tendulkar, a demi-god in India, is as good a compliment a young batsman would get, but also a tad unfair considering the Indian maestro’s divine status.
Plus, Kohli has done enough in his relatively young international career to warrant his own identity — his own stamp on the game.
Today, Kohli is definitely his own man — one of the most prolific and destructive batsmen in the world, the captain of the Indian Test team and captain-elect of the two other international formats.
Still, all Kohli could do was profusely blush when Raja reiterated the comparison with Tendulkar.
“Expectations are going to be there when you do well for your country,” Kohli said, after regaining some of his composure. “I just look to stand up to those because I hate to lose, and I play passionately. I like the pressure and the expectations.”
— ICC (@ICC) February 15, 2015
India might be rank outsiders for a shot at defending their crown, but Kohli would know that the expectations on the team, and him particularly, are still immense.
Joke all you want about the fact that all Indian cricket fans care about is a win over Pakistan, but by the time India take on South Africa next Sunday, it’s a new day and a new game that they are expected to win — no less against a team they have never beaten in three attempts in the World Cup.
Featured image courtesy: himanisdas (Creative Commons)