In the midst of the silence that engulfed the arena stood Virat Kohli, his vacant stare wandering into the skies, with the forlorn look of someone betrayed. He puffed his cheeks out in anguish and ruffled his hair, in unusual disorder, with long cold fingers, as he waited impatiently for the torture of collecting the player of the tournament plank, a souvenir of pain, on the most heartbreaking of all nights.
Even in the most harrowing hour, he was the centre of the crowd’s attraction. A section of teary-eyed fans chanted his name, as glances of sympathy peered from every corner of the stadium. Those would have made his pain even more intense.
Hastily, coldly, he picked the piece of meaningless trophy, its value no more than that of a stone, and hurried up the long stairway to the dressing room, the trophy dangling limply at his side. There, in the anonymity of a dark corner, he could finally weep, break down and wallow in the night that was and the night that never was.
The day, and the night, had the promise of a perfect ending for a near-perfect batsman in an almost-perfect World Cup. It didn’t end that way. It’s a pain only sportspersons could fully comprehend; years and months of physical labour and mental preparation blown away in one aberration of a night. All the success of past crumbling in one night. The sun indeed would rise the next day, as Rahul Dravid said in the press conference, gleaning from his own vast experience of heartbreaks, but the darkness will linger, the bitterness would cling on, the scar shall remain unhealed. The athlete in them would move on; perhaps not the human inside them. The defeat would haunt the 14 colleagues of his, the support staff and a one billion-plus population, but it would torment Kohli even more.
For he was his country’s driving force, hope and dream. There were others around him too, but he was the central piece, the golden boy, on whom everything converged, the assurance behind Rohit Sharma’s aggression, the stability behind Shreyas Iyer’s enterprise, the groundswell of the crowd’s optimism.
En route the final, Kohli scored three hundreds, each revealing a distinct quality of his, he equalled and went past Sachin Tendulkar’s record of most hundreds in the format, becoming the greatest ODI batsman ever. He collected 765 runs at 95, no batsman has ever scored as many in this tournament. Every knock of his was an expression of joy, an attestation of his frictionless greatness. But one bad night rendered it imperfect, turning the most memorable tournament into the most disappointing one. The disbelief when Kohli edged an innocuous Pat Cummins to the stumps conveyed his frustration. It was the day he badly wanted to make his own, yet it was not his. He batted perfectly for his 54, until that moment of indiscretion. If he were selfish, he would bask in the afterglow of his personal success. But he is not. Kohli is driven not by numbers or personal glory — these are just incidental achievements to the larger cause of winning accolades for his country.
Shining on the biggest stage
Kohli knows the taste of winning a World Cup. He was only 23, and just three years into international cricket, when he carried Sachin Tendulkar on his shoulders on a victory lap at the Wankhede after winning the 2011 World Cup. He was just a chubby-faced batting tyro, yet to shed his love of chhole bhature and butter chicken, yet to embark on his rigorous physique-chiselling regimen, yet to be among the Fab Four of the world, yet to be King Kohli.
Between then and now, Kohli has swished past several milestones, conquered every country he has toured, subdued the demons that had besotted him from time to tine, led his country to historic series wins, became India’s most successful captain in the longest format, developed different layers to his game, added and subtracted shots from his repertoire.
Yet, he would feel lost and abandoned after the Ahmedabad night of pain. The wait for ICC silverware after the 2013 Champions Trophy would tease and torment like an impish demon. In each of the white-ball tournaments since, Kohli weaved personal success. Twice they lost the semifinals of the 50-over World Cup, once each in the final of that tournament and the Champions Trophy. Twice in three T20 World Cups were India among the semifinalists after losing the 2014 final.
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The pangs of knockouts just keep piling on. Even if Kohli had collected winners’ medals in all these tournaments, the latest misery would have still crushed him. A supremely-driven and proud athlete that he is, every tournament that he had not won would remain a fresh scar.
In the end, the missing blanks in the ICC tournament column would not diminish the batsman he is and the leader he was. He would not be consigned to one hundred years of solitude for this. Nonetheless, he himself would feel a sense of imperfection. Like it was for Sachin Tendulkar until he finally laid his hands on a World Cup three weeks before he turned 37. Kohli is two years younger now. But he would be 39 when the next World Cup winks in. His moment might have passed, or not passed.
But it is hard to think that he would fizzle out into the twilight of his career. Rather, he would burn brightly for the redemption that could furnish his career with a perfect ending. His fitness and motivation would not be a concern, perhaps his reflexes would. Kohli would, if asked, dwell on taking it year by year, series by series, producing cliches like ‘four years is too far away.’ Whatever be the narrative that is yet to unfold, 2023 was Kohli’s World Cup, one wherein he was both the hero and the tragic-hero.