“He is the chase master,” Sunil Gavaskar crooned on air. Then, with a little more emphasis and feeling, “He is the chase master.”
The former India captain was stating the obvious; after all, that is exactly what the current India captain is. It wasn’t so much what Gavaskar said as how – admiringly, with affection and no little respect – that was telling.
Virat Kohli had just breezed to his 33rd One-Day International, his 20th in a chase and, as it turned out, his 18th in a successful assault of a target. He had done so without hitting a shot in anger, without breaking sweat, with ice in his veins and a computer for his mind. He had also done so with immaculate precision and industrious running, with incandescent strokeplay and indestructible will. There was an inevitability to the denouement once he took a deep mental breath in the immediacy of Shikhar Dhawan’s run out in which the skipper was the guiltier party. Kingsmead was conquered a couple of hours later, India scoring their first ODI victory at a venue so very Indian in its support and consigning South Africa to their first defeat in a home ODI in 18 matches.
Afterwards, savouring the success of the team more than having completed a set of ODI tons in every country where he has played, Kohli briefly reflected on his second-innings heroics in limited-overs cricket. “I have a lot of energy and, sitting outside, I get very restless,” was the broad gist. “But when I am out in the middle, I am very calm. When you have a target, you know what you have to do to get there.” Essentially, there is a tangible to aim for, an opportunity for the competitor and a millstone for the less certain.
All through our lives, we are constantly on the chase – from everyday happenings like literally running after/for a bus, to the more deep chases involving dreams and ambitions, goals and aspirations. For each one of us, our Promised Land is different. And each of us takes a unique, individual route towards that — some fearful and apprehensive, others gung-ho and excited.
By its very definition, chasing is a reactive process. In cricket, for instance, you are reacting to a total posted by the opposition. Outside of sport, we are reacting to our own desires, to our interpretations of success and glory and their manifestations thereof. The steeper the target, the more daunting the journey. And while it is always imperative to keep the final destination in focus, it cannot become so overwhelming that it doesn’t allow you to concentrate on and enjoy the various steps and stops along the way. The process, as they say, and not merely the outcome.
For every successful chase, there will be hundreds of failures, chronicled or otherwise. For each stirring tale of guts and glory, thousands of heart-wrenching narratives of blood, sweat and tears ending in disappointment will remain untold. That’s how it has been, that’s how it is, and that’s how it will be. It isn’t the chase that defines the person, it is the heart in the chase. In Kohli’s case, those two come together beautifully, seamlessly, bountifully.
Maybe six months down the line, we will not remember this special chase orchestrated by a special batsman with any great clarity. There is just too much cricket, and especially if it isn’t a global tournament, these feats become impossible to remember in detail over time, no matter how extraordinary the contest or an individual performance. And, one might say, Kohli has done it so often that how much can you recall? Magic in Hobart against Sri Lanka, mayhem in Dhaka against Pakistan, magnificence in the same series against Australia, in Jaipur and Nagpur. Virat Kohli has spoilt us, and if we don’t instantly remember all his sparkles, then we can conveniently lay the blame on his doorstep.
The ones that stick in our memory – or maybe one is generalising, in my memory at least – are the ones that relate to Test cricket. Kohli’s fourth-innings average in victories is a staggering 73, inflated by three not outs in five hits. In time, he will surely add to his solitary half-century in a victorious fourth-innings effort. The man who he is increasingly matching up to in the unfair comparison stakes is the one who has been involved in more than one soul-stirring chase, even if he hasn’t always been on the right side of the result.
The two that readily spring to consciousness were both fashioned at the same venue, split by nearly a decade and triggering vastly different emotions. In January 1999, Sachin Tendulkar produced an innings of such valour, resplendence and courage that he didn’t deserve to be on the losing side. Single-handedly, he thwarted Pakistan’s most accomplished attack at Chepauk while at the same time grappling with a debilitating back injury. Run after beautiful run, run after painful run, cascaded off his wonderful willow, the cry of anguish and the clutch of the back transporting his discomfort to everyone watching at the ground and on television.
Eventually, Tendulkar ran out of steam. He ran out to Saqlain Mushtaq, put up a catch to mid-off and trudged off to an applause of the sort I have seldom seen before or since. 136 of the very best even in isolation, magnified by the stage, the opposition, his own physical travails. As he dragged himself off the park with victory 17 runs away, you sensed that he felt the match was gone, even though India still had three wickets in hand. He was proved right 21 deliveries later as Pakistan sneaked home by 12 runs; they say that even after all these years, not all of his tears have been washed away from the home dressing-room at the MA Chidambaram Stadium.
Tears of a different kind flowed at the same changing-room in December 2008, less than three weeks after the horrible attacks on Mumbai. England had magnanimously agreed to return to India for two Tests after cutting short their ODI tour, and played their part in a classic first Test. They might have reckoned 387 was a safe target, Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar more than equipped to exploit a wearing surface. They hadn’t reckoned with the free spirit of Virender Sehwag, who set up the victory, and the steel of his hero, who completed it with a wonderful unbeaten 103. “If I have been able to put a smile, however temporarily, on the faces of my countrymen, then I am happy,” said the Mumbaikar, joy tempered, voice choked.
Oh, and how can one forget the twin triumphs scripted by VVS Laxman, both within three months of each other, both with a dodgy back, both completed with three batsmen in the middle – runners were allowed once upon a time, yes. At the P Sara Oval in August 2010, the Hyderabadi magician uncorked a memorable unbeaten 103 to orchestrate a chase of 257, gritting his teeth, girding his loins, steeling his heart. In October, he hobbled and grimaced and smiled and dazzled to 73 not out as India made heavy weather of a tally of 216. Pragyan Ojha managed in that chase what India’s selectors hadn’t for 14 years despite treating Laxman badly – make him angry through his tardy running.
Laxman, by the way, averages 100.50 in eight fourth-innings heists in Test cricket. Safe to also call him a chase master, right?