With an innings of unshackled brilliance Kohli ends century drought in Asia Cup

There was a moment of suspenseful silence. A moment when all the eyes in the stadium were tracking a white ball’s path. Then as the ball landed onto the scantly-filled gallery behind the midwicket fence, the stadium let out a collective roar of joy so loud that it could stop traffic at the bustling Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Road. Then the collective converged onto the five-foot-eleven sleek figure of Virat Kolhi, standing in the middle of the ground, statue-like, immersed in a transcendental dream. He woke up from the trance of his 71st hundred — a hundred after 1020 days, his longest ever wait — kissed the wedding ring tied onto the chain on his neck, one for his wife and daughter flashed a hearty smile, removed his helmet and applauded the crowd in every stand. Not like a man liberated or unburdened but a man contented and satisfied, at peace with himself.

The celebrations were quiet and graceful, a far cry from his peak, when he used to hit centuries for fun. No punchy blows in the air, no leaps and growls, no emotional excesses, no rage or anger, but a restrained show of emotions from a matured cricketer. Later, in the mid-innings chat with the host broadcasters, he said: “Last two and a half years have taught me a lot. I am going to turn 34 in a month. So those angry celebrations are a thing of the past.”

The wait for the hundred, though, seemed eternal and had spiralled into a national obsession, the frenzy matched only by the wait for Sachin Tendulkar’s hundredth hundred. Like Tendulkar, who achieved the landmark in a nondescript Asia Cup match at Dhaka, Kolhi’s arrived in an inconsequential Asia Cup encounter against Afghanistan.

Both teams had already crashed out of the team, and the match would have been forgotten before it was over. But Kohli has injected context, consequence and archival value into a game that would have been of only academic value. The few thousands assembled here — the stadium was scantly-filled — would return with a treasured memory that they would savour for a lifetime, a scrap of memory that will remain fresh in their mind, and would be passed onto generations, as a legacy or heirloom, with obvious flourishes and exaggeration in the narration.

No one would remember the result (India won by a landslide 101 runs) or any other detail of the match (like Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s impeccable 5/4), or the physical drain and emotional fatigue of Afghanistan players, but the Kohli hundred. Only the Kohli hundred Not just any other. His 71st. After 1020 days. The whole cricketing world had waited the wait for Kolhi’s hundred.

The wait passed through distinct stages—from casualness to concern and worry to fear and doubts. There were hushed whispers of his career doomsday and dread that he would never emerge from the drought. It was an uneasy wait for Kohli himself too, who had recently confessed of the mental demons he was tussling with in the last two years, a time when he had to fake emotions, when he had to feign intensity, and when his heart was not fully in the game.

Kohli is back being Kohli, doing Kolhi things, like scoring a hundred with divine ease. In a press conference last week, he had admitted that he was feeling as fresh as he had ever felt, as focussed and driven as he was at the start of his career. In the Asia Cup, he has exuded the heyday energy and vibrancy, but without the fury and hyper-intensity of his turbulent twenties. As if he had exorcised the ghosts that were haunting him.

During the 61-ball 122 not out there was a rare symmetry in everything about him on Thursday —shimmered with newfound freedom and uninhibited aggression, like his early days. Opening the innings in the absence of Rohit Sharma, the start was watchful, carefully accrued, nudged or tapped singles and twos.

The first four arrived off the fifth ball, but off the thick inside edge through square leg. The unshackling began in the sixth over, off Mujeeb-ur-Rehman. He shimmied down the wicket, and crunched the young spinner’s wrong’un through extra over, a shot of pure bottom-handed power. A ball later, he swept him through square-leg, a shot that he usually reserves for Nathan Lyon in Tests. Then to demolish the last strands of Mujeeb’s self-belief, Kolhi screamed down the track and lofted him over long-off.

A distant hope of a Kohli hundred began to flicker. They could sense that Kohli was in an irresistible mood and in unstoppable touch. He would play his strokes all through and not revert to grit and graft mode, for which he has copped flak.

The enterprise almost undid him—he lobbed a ball to deep midwicket, but like a goalkeeper tipping a ball over the crossbar to safety, the fielder cushioned the ball over the line. Luck, a virtue that had largely eluded him in the pursuit of his No 72, was finally winking at him, on a moonless night in a desert city. His kismet was written on the skies. Perhaps he knew it, for he stared long and deep into the skies after the century.

At the halfway stage, though, a century seemed a long shot. After the 10th over, he was on 45 off 29 balls. India were yet to lose a wicket, and sooner than later, Kohli and KL Rahul would look to hit the next gear. The wickets of Rahul and Suryakumar in the same over dulled the scoring and delayed the final push. After 15 overs, Kohli was 59 off 40 balls. Some wondered whether he was getting tired or there was any instruction from the team management to drop anchor. Whatever the reasons, Kolhi soon switched into beast mode. A glorious six off Rashid Khan over long-on was just a portend of the fury to follow, before he went hammer and tongs, treating every bowler with scant regard. He thus plundered 72 off just 21 balls in an exhibition of unrestrained orthodox hitting, in the process striking 12 fours and half a dozen sixes.

The fourth of the six sixes was most special. The six that ended a national obsession, a long wait and a sceptre of doubts. Kolhi was amused that the hundred finally arrived in a format wherein he had never scored one at the international level. “Actually I was shocked. This is the last format I thought [that I would score a hundred].” But destiny has a way of pulling off surprises.

But unlike Tendulkar’s hundredth hundred, Kolhi’s 71st does not denote a closure for a spectacular career. But a revival, a new beginning, the start of another golden phase, of a man contented and satisfied, at peace with himself.

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