It all began here. In the grandeur of the hallowed Eden Gardens on the Christmas eve of 2009. Even as thousands gathered for a festive tipple a few lanes away on Park Street, a 21-year-old had got the party started early on the cricket ground against Sri Lanka.
A certain Virat Kohli had danced down the track and punched the air in sheer delight when he reached his first international hundred.
Fourteen winters later, Kohli is at the same venue, batting on 90* on his 35th birthday. India is playing against South Africa in a top-of-the-table World Cup clash.
The occasion cannot get bigger. The rather chubby young man from 2009, however, owns the partisan crowd now. The puppy fat is a thing of the past too; in fact, an epic transformational journey has made Kohli one of the fittest sportspersons in India. Each time his face pops up on the big screen, it is enough to send fans into delirium.
He enjoys a cult-like following: 262 million if you merely go by Instagram numbers as of writing. It is second only to footballing superstars Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi among sports personalities. Each time he steps onto the turf now, he has the aura of a gladiator.
He is 10 runs away from equaling the legendary Sachin Tendulkar’s record of scoring 49 ODI centuries. Nine now, after he dabs one for a single through long-off. Two deliveries later, Suryakumar Yadav falls, courtesy of a stunning take from Quinton de Kock. Kohli looks a bit frazzled as he takes strike next over.
Two more singles; it becomes evident he doesn’t want to stumble in the nervous nineties again. He fell five short of his hundred against the Kiwis in Dharamsala. He had scored 88 against Sri Lanka, failing to raise his bat to the Wankhede crowd with Tendulkar himself in attendance—both in person and as an imposing statue which had just been unveiled ahead of the game.
And then it comes—a leg-cutter, pulled back a tad from Kagiso Rabada. Kohli sees the opportunity and makes it count, slapping through extra cover for four. 97*. The sound of angry tapping of laptop keys in the media tribune suddenly stops. All eyes are glued to the pitch now. The next delivery is a yorker.
In the stands, thousands of blue shirts have started fishing out their phones to switch the flashlights on. “The stars have descended,” someone quipped, breaking the tense silence but nobody moved.
At the turn of the over, Temba Bavuma goes to his trusted wrist spinner Tabraiz Shamsi. Maybe a bit of spin would do the trick, the Protean skipper would have thought. But Kohli took it easy. First up, a length ball rolls down to square leg. The single takes Kohli to 98.
The bellow of superfan Sudhir Kumar’s conch shell rents the air now. The next delivery Kohli faces has been tucked behind square. At 99, some Indian flags, which were nowhere in sight prior to this, start getting unfurled in the Pankaj Roy Stand.
The next run from Ravindra Jadeja brings up India’s 300.
With Rabada back, the tension soars. In 10 innings, he has had Kohli twice. The fomer India skipper is finally on strike for the third ball of the 49th over. The air inside the press enclosure suddenly feels a few degrees colder.
One could swear, a few prayers were heard across the table when Rabada was at the top of his mark. And then, Kohli got on the backfoot and punched the ball through cover, an area on the ground he loves to explore.
For a passing moment, it seemed time stood still before it all came gushing back in. As the stadium wakes up to what has just transpired, the broadcasters inform that the decibel levels have touched 118. Repeated exposure to noise at a level of just 70 dB can cause permanent hearing issues.
Amid the chaos, Kohli stands with outstretched arms—a figure of pristine calm after facing 119 deliveries in the sweltering heat. He takes it all in before Jadeja envelops him in a bear hug. Something each person in the stands and behind their screens would have wanted to do at that moment.
It is almost poetic that Kohli, who has now become the third Indian batter after Tendulkar and Rohit Sharma to score in excess of 500 in a single edition of the ODI World Cup, has reached the elite mark at the very sacred arena where it all started.
From “Sachiiiin... Sachiiiin...” to “Kohli! Kohli!”, cricket has come a long way. The chapter of Tendulkar’s glory woven with Kohli’s modern-day brilliance has merged the past and present, intertwining the stories of the two cricketing titans.
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