There was rain, but the Eden Gardens wasn’t submerged. There was a pitch that made spinners seem like grenade launchers. There were 61,337 people including certifiable legends of the game from Sachin Tendulkar to Imran Khan. All of it added to the spectacle of India-Pakistan cricket, but Virat Kohli rose one step above with an innings of gumption and class.
India needed to win tonight to stay in control of their fate at the World T20. A few tactical errors left them with a competitive 119 to chase. When the ball grips into the deck, slows down and simultaneously turns, a batsman’s judgment becomes of great importance. Hitting on the up carries risk. Playing too far away carries risk. Finding a run a ball can be troublesome. Kohli found 55 of them in only 37 balls to beat Pakistan for an 11th time in ICC global events.
Kohli’s thirst to compete was apparent when he said a cricketer needs tough pitches. He had the 18 overs that Pakistan had to bat to assess the one in Kolkata. There were a few shots that he needed to avoid, and a few things he needed to exploit – like his speed between the wickets. He fed his innings with 19 singles and a two, playing his shots as late as he could, and every time he played one, it was with the intent to get some runs. Kohli allowed only nine dots in his innings.
The loss to New Zealand had “hurt” Kohli. “We don’t perform like that at home,” he said in the post-match presentation. The shots that he hit tonight as he neared his half-century – two scorching cover drives when the bat barely strayed away from his body – typified exactly how one should play on such pitches. The longer he was at the crease, the weaker Pakistan became and the night eventually ended with the man who Kohli bowled to upon reaching his fifty – Tendulkar – waving the India flag aloft.
It wasn’t a flawless day for the hosts though. They had a chance to be chasing far less. They didn’t bowl R Ashwin out on a surface made for him and their fast bowlers bowled length balls and full tosses in the death when the offcutter seemed the logical choice. Pakistan’s lower order, marshalled by Shoaib Malik and Umar Akmal, swung into the leg side with glee and ransacked 51 runs off the last five overs.
Even after such a rich return in the death, Pakistan’s total remained in the competitive range. And that was because of the control India had in the early going.
Bats these days have a lot of wood in their middle. The ball and the Kolkata pitch colluded never to find it. The leading edge was allowed a peek. The outside edge tried to pipe up, but it was always beaten. On-and-off rain since 5 pm had shortened the game to 18-overs a side, but the pitch was dry enough that all anyone had to do was roll their fingers over the ball to be menacing. Ashwin turned it square in the second over. Ravindra Jadeja couldn’t bowl his wicket-to-wicket line because he couldn’t believe how much the ball was deviating.
Considering that, it seemed Pakistan had stabbed themselves by dropping a spinner, and a handy batsman, in Imad Wasim to add Mohammad Sami to their XI. However, Pakistan being Pakistan and Sami being Sami turned a liability into a strength. Shikhar Dhawan and Suresh Raina – two men who seem to struggle badly in a touch situation – chopped onto their stumps and Sami was on the cusp of a hat-trick in every form of cricket. Yuvraj Singh soaked in that pressure and contributed 24 runs to a match-winning 61-run partnership with Kohli.
Pakistan’s batsmen, who were heavily maligned leading into the tournament, acquitted themselves quite the ball was darting around. On top of that was the inherent pressure of this match. But Ahmed Shehzad laid a solid foundation with his 25 off 28 balls. They eased past the first 10 overs with only two wickets lost. Ashwin had only one left in his quota and Jadeja had two. Dhoni didn’t think about Yuvraj Singh at any point in the game, and kept at it with his seamers. Pandya gave away 15 runs in 14th over and Bumrah 13 in the very next.
At that point, it seemed Pakistan had the edge. Then Kohli came out and took it away from them.
Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo