By Jamie Alter
Mumbai, 15 Nov: The noise outside the Wankhede Stadium at 1:32 p.m. Mumbai time as a snaking queue of Indian cricket fans, in blue jerseys almost all bearing the word ‘Kohli’ on their backs, yelled in unison, told the story of this Indian cricket team at the World Cup. Their mobile phones had updated them that Rohit Sharma had won the toss and that India would be batting in the first World Cup semi-final against New Zealand. Standing in line to enter the Wankhede Stadium hours before the toss, collectively these Indian cricket fans let out a massive chant because they knew, in their hearts, that winning the toss had ensured India had won the match.
Before this semi-final, all but one match held at this venue during the World Cup has been won by the team batting first. That one anomaly was down to a freak double-century from Glenn Maxwell that hauled Australia from the depths of 91/7 to the most astonishing victory you will ever see in a World Cup. Thus, India winning the toss against their bogey team New Zealand gave the home fans reason to feel very optimistic.
As he had done in seven of nine previous matches, Rohit helped India get off to a strong start. His 47 off 29 balls, with four sixes and as many fours, helped the score to 71 in 8.2 overs before Rohit fell trying a fifth six and was excellently taken by Kane Williamson who ran back a long way from mid-off. The crowd loved Rohit’s innings, given his status in Mumbai, and they cheered the vibe that Shubman Gill gave off during his 65-ball 79, with three sixes and eight fours, which ended when he had to retire hurt in the 23rd over.
But the Kohli factor … Now there’s what the differentiator was. Everywhere this Indian cricket team has gone during this World Cup, the fans entering those nine stadiums around the county have come, primarily, to see one thing: a Kohli century. At each of these nine stadiums, the blue jerseys worn by fans have predominantly had the name ‘Kohli’ written on them. Twice in this World Cup, in Pune and Kolkata, these fans have got their money’s worth. Four times, in Chennai, Dharamsala, Mumbai and Bengaluru, they have seen visions of Kohli getting to three figures, but each time he has not been able to.
His landmark 49th ODI century, to draw level with Sachin Tendulkar, happened at Eden Gardens. One match before this, at his adopted home ground in Bengaluru, Kohli made 51 and the fans were delirious until his dismissal. Come the biggest match of the tournament for India, and Kohli dug deep into his reservoir of skill and determination to get that 50th ODI century. In a World Cup semi-final, against New Zealand who India have never been able to beat in ICC tournament knockout matches. The fans inside the Wankhede Stadium lapped it up. This was, for them, the second-best sensation to India winning the World Cup.
To go where no batsman has ever managed to go in ODIs is something else. Tendulkar’s mythical figure of 49 centuries has been broken by the man who at the age of 24, said in a private meeting that he would get past his idol. To think about it, Kohli should have gone well past 50 ODI centuries by now, considering the form he had entering the 2019 World Cup. Kohli was on 42 ODI centuries before that tournament, did not add to his tally during it, and by the time 2019 closed he had just two more to make it 44 in total.
It would be over three years and four months before his next, in December 2022. He entered this World Cup on 47 centuries and moved level with Tendulkar at Eden Gardens before finally entering uncharted territory at the Wankhede Stadium during the semi-final.
Kohli was on 80 off 85 balls for the start of the 36th over, when Trent Boult was called back by Williamson to bowl. This is usually the period where Kohli slows down, with the goal being to get a century. First ball of the over, Boult dropped just short and Kohli placed the ball past midwicket for four. Between two singles to Kohli, Shreyas Iyer hit Boult back over his head for six and then threaded the gap behind point for four. The fans loved those shots, but they wanted Kohli back on strike.
At 5:07 p.m., after he hurried between the wickets for the two runs that gave him his unique hundred, Kohli stopped once he had crossed mid-on and sank to his knees. He let it soak in, went through his customary celebrations and then bowed to Tendulkar, on his feet with the rest of the stadium and clapping in awe. Not only had he gone past his idol in terms of ODI hundreds, he also broke Tendulkar’s record of most runs in a single World Cup, the 673 set two decades ago in 2003.
It was fitting that two Tendulkar records were bettered in one innings by the batsman who has come closest to bringing Indian cricket fans together after the immortal man himself.
Pics: Kamal Sharma
(Jamie Alter is a sports writer, journalist, author and actor. He belongs to Mussoorie.)