Virat Kohli, KL Rahul
India’s Virat Kohli (left) and his teammate KL Rahul during the 2023 ICC Men's Cricket World Cup match against Australia at the M.A. Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai on October 8, 2023. The two posted 165 runs for the fourth wicket take India to a six-wicket win. Image Credit: AFP

Virat Kohli and K.L. Rahul are like two peas in a pod. They are conventional batters equally at ease in white-ball cricket and Tests. The two prefer to absorb the pressure and wear down the bowlers before launching into an avalanche of shots.

Their technique and temperament came under intense scrutiny as India weathered an early storm to chalk up a good win in their opening match of the Cricket World Cup 2023. At 2 for the loss of three wickets (Rohit Sharma, Ishan Kishan and Shreyas Iyer scored ducks), Australia had grabbed the match by the scruff of its neck before Kohli and Rahul took India home.

It wasn’t easy with Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc finding movement at high pace. The lively attack called for abundant patience. Kohli was lucky to see some of his ill-advised swats miss the ball en route to the keeper. But his biggest reprieve came at the hands of Mitchell Marsh. Kohli was on 12, and India were 20/2. That spilled catch was indeed the turning point of the match.

How Kohli’s life became the turning point

No team can give Kohli a life and get away with it: Australians learnt it on Sunday at the M.A. Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai. They call Kohli the chase master. He’s so good at choreographing a run-chase, even from hopeless positions. Remember how Kohli and Hardik Pandya engineered an unlikely Indian win over Pakistan during the 2022 Twenty20 World Cup.

That’s what Kolhi does. Long before his three-year slump (by his lofty standards), Kohli clobbered pace aces to set up wins. The assaults against Sri Lanka’s Lasith Malinga and Australia’s Nathan Coulter-Nile remain fresh in my memory.

The Chepauk scenario against Australia was similar. Kohli stood tall even when Hazlewood and Starc kept beating his bat. He played and missed often but never missed chances to score. Hard running interspersed with boundaries is the Virat Kohli method of keeping the scoreboard moving. That eases the pressure, and it becomes manageable when newer bowlers are deployed. It worked well, and Rahul’s excellent touch made the task easier.

Ever since Rahul returned from his recent injury, he’s been a changed batter. The fluency of old has returned, and his batting has again become an absolute joy to behold. The middle-order role seemed to fit him perfectly, as he no longer has to struggle against the new ball, like in T20 games. The ODIs allow him time to play himself in before unfurling his silken strokes.

The Karnataka batter was the more aggressive of the two, which eased Kolhi’s burden. With Rahul reeling off occasional boundaries, Kohli didn’t have to take undue risks. The first over from Australia’s ace leg-spinner Adam Zampa epitomised Rahul’s superb form.

Remember, Zampa has been the most successful ODI bowler since the 2019 World Cup. His haul of 74 is best of all bowlers from the 10 nations at the 2023 World. None of that seemed to worry Rahul, who unleashed two delicious late cuts and cover drive in Zampa’s first over, and the 31-year-old spinner’s confidence seemed to wilt. With no wickets from their leggie, captain Pat Cummins had to fall back on his pace stalwarts.

By then Kolhi was buzzing. Even a Starc bouncer that slammed into his helmet failed to stop the former India captain. Did it rattle Kohli? A sumptuous square drive was the answer as Starc pitched one up. It was so pleasing that Kohli afforded himself a smile.

With the two Indian batters whittling down the target (they had put on 165 for the fourth wicket), the prospect of a Kohli century loomed as he reached 85. Will he score his 48th ODI ton and take his tally of international hundreds to 77? Barely had the thought crossed my mind, Kolhi pulled a short ball from Hazlewood to Marnus Labushagne at short midwicket and walked away. A hush fell over Chepauk. An anti-climax. A tame end to a valiant knock. But that’s cricket.

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When Pandya walked in, India were looking to push the run-rate up. That was clear when the Indian allrounder launched a six, but that diminished Rahul’s chances of reaching three figures. With five to win, Rahul needed a four and six to get his century. But the extra-cover drive against Hazlewood was so well-timed that the ball sailed over the boundary ropes and Rahul sank to his haunches.

He may have missed a ton, but his unbeaten 97 helped India to a winning start. That too against the might of the Australians. And the knock was indeed a vindication of the Indian team’s faith in him, even when Rahul went through a rough patch of injuries and inconsistent scores.

Rahul’s talent was never in doubt, but the worry was: Is he over the hill? This knock puts that concern to rest.