In the midst of the silence that engulfed the arena, Virat Kohli stood, his blank gaze roaming the sky, with the desperate look of someone who had been betrayed. He puffed out his cheeks with pain and twirled his hair, in an unusual disorder, with long, cold fingers, as he impatiently awaited the agony of the tournament player collecting a plank, a souvenir of pain, on the saddest night.
Even at the most terrifying hour, he was the center of attraction for the crowd. A section of the fans, whose eyes filled with tears, chanted his name, while looks of sympathy were evident in every corner of the stadium. That would have made his pain more intense.
Hastily, coldly, he picked up the meaningless piece of trophy, worth no more than a stone, and hurried up the long stairs to the dressing room, the trophy hanging weakly at his side. There, in the unknown in a dark corner, he was finally able to cry, to break down, to wallow in the night that was and that never was.
Day and night heralded a perfect ending for a near-perfect batsman in a near-perfect World Cup. It didn’t end this way. It’s a pain that only athletes can understand. Years and months of physical labor and mental preparation fly into one deviation a night. All the success of the past collapses in one night. The sun will indeed shine the next day, Rahul Dravid said at the press conference, drawing on his extensive experience with heartbreak, but the darkness will persist, the bitterness will remain lingering, and the scar will remain unhealed. The athlete in them will move forward. Maybe the human is not in them. Defeat will haunt his 14 teammates, support staff and more than a billion people, but it will torment Kohli even more.
He was the driving force of his country, its hope and its dream. There were others around him too, but he was the centrepiece, the golden boy, on whom everything converged, the confidence behind Rohit Sharma’s aggression, the stability behind Shreyas Iyer’s enterprise, and the wave of crowd optimism.
En route to the final, Kohli scored three hundreds, each revealing a distinct quality about him. He equaled and surpassed Sachin Tendulkar’s record for most hundreds in the format, becoming the greatest ODI batsman of all time. He collected 765 runs in 95 overs, and no batsman has scored as many in this tournament. Every blow he struck was an expression of joy and a testimony to his frictionless greatness. But one bad night made things less than ideal, turning an unforgettable tournament into a most disappointing one. The disbelief when Kohli edged an innocuous Pat Cummins onto the stumps conveyed his frustration. It was the day he wanted so badly to make his own, but it wasn’t his. He had batted perfectly for his 54, up to that moment of indiscretion. If he were selfish, he would enjoy the afterglow of his personal success. But it’s not like that. Kohli is not driven by numbers or personal glory – these are merely incidental achievements to the larger cause of winning honors for his country.
Shine on the biggest stage
Kohli knows the taste of winning a World Cup. He was just 23 years old, and had only been in international cricket for three years, when he carried Sachin Tendulkar on his shoulders into the victory lap in Wankhede after winning the 2011 World Cup. He was just a chubby-faced debutant, but he had never given up on his love for chickens. With butter and butter chicken, he has not yet embarked on his strict body-sculpting regime, he has not yet been among the world’s great four, and he has not yet become King Kohli.
From then until now, Kohli has achieved many accomplishments, conquered every country he visited, subdued the demons that besieged him from time to time, led his country to a historic series of victories, became India’s most successful captain in the longest format, and developed different layers of his game, adding and subtracting. Stills from his repertoire.
However, he will feel lost and abandoned after the painful night in Ahmedabad. Waiting for ICC silverware after the 2013 Champions Trophy would harass and torment like an evil demon. And in each of the white-ball tournaments since then, Kohli has woven his own success. They have lost twice in the semi-finals of the 50-over World Cup, and once in the final of that tournament and the Champions Trophy. Twice in three T20 World Cups India have been among the semi-finalists after losing the 2014 final.
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The pain of the knockout continues to pile up. Even if Kohli had bagged winners’ medals in all these tournaments, the recent misery would have crushed him. He’s a proud, proud athlete, and every championship he doesn’t win will remain a new scar.
Ultimately, the missing blanks in the ICC Championship column will not diminish who the batsman and captain he was. He will not be left to a hundred years of isolation because of this. However, he himself will feel inferior. Such was the case for Sachin Tendulkar until he finally got his hands on a World Cup final three weeks before he turned 37. Kohli is two years younger now. But he will be 39 years old when the next World Cup starts. His moment may have passed, or it may not have ended.
But it’s hard to believe that he will fade away at the end of his career. Instead, he was burning desperately for redemption that could give his career a perfect ending. His fitness and motivation will not be a concern, perhaps his reactions will be a concern. If Kohli were asked to dwell on it he would take it year by year, series by series, and produce clichés like “four years is too far away”. Whatever the story is yet to unfold, 2023 has been a World Cup for Kohli, in which he has been both the hero and the tragic hero.