Virat Kohli is a champion of the game and will go down as a legend of Indian cricket – but his indisputably selfish pursuit of personal glory in reaching a century in their World Cup win over Bangladesh might be as low as he has ever stooped.
In case you missed the dying stages of India’s clash with the Tigers in Pune, here’s the backstory: with 11 overs left, the hosts and tournament favourites needed just 19 runs for victory, with Kohli and KL Rahul well set.
The issue for the veteran was that he was on 81, exactly 19 short of his hundred, with Rahul having just belted Shoriful Islam for a six and a four to race to 34 off just 34 balls.
Apparently, to do as Rahul himself had done in a superb innings against Australia in their World Cup opener, in which he never failed to put the team first to the point he stranded himself on 97 not out when an attempted four to tie the scores instead failed for six, just wouldn’t do for a man with 47 ODI centuries to his name already – just two behind leader Sachin Tendulkar from nearly 200 fewer innings.
Kohli’s solution was simple – and disgraceful. After moving to 85 with a slog-swept four on the first ball of Nasun Ahmed’s over, he drove the third ball to the deep cover fielder – and turned down the single.
A six over mid-wicket followed off the next ball, before Kohli only chose to take one off the last ball of the over and take the strike.
In the next over, it happened three times more: Kohli turned down two more easy singles off Hasan Mahmud and another to short fine leg that would have been safe had they showed any interest, before miraculously finding one off the over’s last ball – in between sprinting like the devil himself was chasing him in getting back for a pair of quick twos and nearly running Rahul out in the process.
He’d do it once more in what proved to be the last over of the match, before whacking Nasum Ahmed for another six and soaking in the adulation of a jubilant Pune crowd, raising his hands aloft as if his century wasn’t the most contrived in living memory.
Umpire Richard Kettleborough deserves criticism as well: long regarded as one of the best in world cricket, his decision to not call an obvious wide down the leg side from Nasum – accompanied by a faint smirk – was either a shocking missed call that should at least earn him a stern rebuke from the ICC, or a disgraceful deliberately wrong decision unbecoming of an umpire at any level, never mind the biggest stage of all.
Equally disappointing was the way Indian commentator Sanjay Manjrekar, calling the match on the ICC’s official television coverage, chose to gush over Kohli’s appalling selfishness as shrewd tactics rather calling it out for the farce it was.
“The plan is set in motion – Virat Kohli’s on 85, 15 to get, and KL Rahul knows it,” Manjrekar said after the first denied single.
Even more pathetic was his cry of ‘No!’ when umpire Adrian Holdstock called a wide during Hasan’s over, and then ‘great placement!’ as he found a single off the last ball: forget being partisan, this was just embarrassing from a veteran and widely respected commentator who is better than relentlessly fawning over a great player behaving appallingly.
All up, Kohli faced the last 17 balls of the innings, ensuring he’d either get out or reach the century he so craved.
Had any Australian attempted something so brazenly selfish, one would hope their non-striker had had the sense and the stones to either force them to take the single or run themselves out; alternatively, they would have been rightly ridiculed both in the press and in a public statement from Cricket Australia. There’s a non-zero chance, if the powers that be felt the team could afford it, that they’d have paid for it by being dropped for a game or two.
Kohli’s was a wonderful knock, there’s no denying it – but it would have been just as meritorious had he not so brazenly pursued the glory of another triple-figure score and instead put the team – and its net run rate – first, and finished unbeaten on 92 or 93.
Most likely this will have no long-term consequences for Kohli or India. He would, in all probability, have surpassed Tendulkar’s ODI century record anyway, and it’s all but inconceivable that the slightest of net run rate reductions from those denied singles will cost India a semi-final berth, with even the rights to a ‘home’ final inconsequential given this is their own tournament.
But that doesn’t make it any more disappointing to have witnessed a man who as captain was relentless in transforming India from a team obsessed beyond all else with personal glory into a ruthless winning machine that succeeded across the globe in all formats while rigidly adhering to a team-first philosophy, to throw everything he apparently stood for out the window with the most selfish century since Geoff Boycott was dropped for his painfully slow 246 in a Test against India in 1967.
On the field, his hot temper has got the better of him on more than one occasion, most famously in his tirade at South African broadcasters during a ball-tracking DRS controversy in early 2022; but never in his long and glittering career has he so obviously and so disgracefully put himself above the team he once led.
A 90 in a World Cup match-winning run chase would have meant as much for Kohli’s legacy as any triple-figure score: but the way in which he achieved said score now makes it mean so, so, so much less.