Virat Kohli, on his 35th birthday, will look to equal Sachin Tendulkar’s most ODI centuries during a World Cup 2023 match against South Africa at Eden Gardens.
70000 people screaming “Happy Birthday” when you walk out to bat must feel surreal. But then again, would it have made any difference if it wasn’t his 35th birthday? Does any day make any difference to Kohli? Batting or fielding, IPL or internationals, nets session or World Cup match… there is rarely a moment where the spotlight deserts him. If you are Kohli, you can’t hide from expectations. If you are Kohli, the intensity is always high and scrutiny is so minute and frequent that it becomes boring.
Even by these standards, Sunday’s India vs South Africa World Cup 2023 match will be slightly different, maybe not for Kohli but certainly for us. And it’s not just because he turns a year older but because this birthday has the potential to become the most precious one of them all. It can officially take him on the same pedestal as Sachin Tendulkar, his childhood hero.
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A couple of days ago, Kohli fell 12 short of equalling Tendulkar’s world record 49 ODI centuries at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai. How grand would it have been to attain Godly status at God’s home, that too against Sri Lanka, the same opposition India beat 12 years ago to lift the World Cup at the same venue? But it wasn’t to be.
This time, his date is with South Africa at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata. Surely destiny would not ditch him twice, not on his birthday, not on the ground where it all started for him 14 years ago. On a cold December evening in 2009, Kohli, still finding his feet at the international level, smashed a sublime 107 off 114 balls – his first century – to help India chase down 316 with 7 wickets in hand. Gautam Gambhir was the Player of the Match for his unbeaten 150 but he called Kohli after the match to share the award.
It was the first of Kohli’s 48 ODI centuries and also the first of his 27 in a run-chase. The occasion of scoring an international century in front of a large crowd might have been different but the feeling was not. He was, of course, no stranger to scoring centuries a the Eden Gardens. Despite being a Delhi boy, Kohli has played a lot of cricket at the historic venue during his formative days and scored hundreds, the last one being barely six months before that fateful night against Sri Lanka, during a P Sen Trophy final.
14 years later, Kohli will return to Eden Gardens as the undisputed King, in search of his illusive 49th hundred. The venue too had grand plans of handing out Kohli masks to every spectator and having a cake-cutting ceremony before the start of play but all of that had to be scrapped at the last moment as ICC does not allow such grand gestures for any player during a World Cup.
But who needs gestures? Kohli surely doesn’t. This World Cup is his. He is the conductor of this orchestra, make no mistake. Otherwise, how would you explain the Delhi crowd taking a 180-degree turn in favour of Afghanistan pacer Naveen-ul-Haq after just one gesture from Kohli? Would you be able to find another reason than Kohli for the packed Wankhede Stadium to change their ‘Sara Sara’ chants to “Shubman Shubman?”
Expect much the same on Sunday at the Eden Gardens. The teaser was there on Saturday itself when Kohli asked a small gathering to keep quiet and let him train. The “Kohli Kohli” chants gave way to silent admiration.
Kohli took throwdowns and then padded up to face the bowlers. One cover drive, a flick there, a solid defence in between, a down-the-track lofted shot… It was business as usual. No excitement of entering 35, no nerves of nearing a world record 49.
“I think Virat’s been really relaxed and as you can see in his performances, you know, batting really well for us, really keen to do well as he always is. So, look, I haven’t noticed anything different. He’s always been the same. He’s always been professional, always been hardworking, always been switched on. So, nothing different. And no, I don’t really think he’s thinking too much about 49 and 50, and probably certainly not about his birthday getting a year older. But no, I think he’s been really focused on winning the tournament and playing some good cricket for us. I think he’s doing that really well,” said India head coach Rahul Dravid on the eve of the match.