The legend of King Virat: How Kohli had to be Kohli to help India win T20 World Cup final

Looking back at Kohli's final T20I against SA as he completed white-ball cricket

CRICKET-T20-IND-ZAF/REPORT More than gold: Kohli talks to his family after the final | Reuters

Pride is often an adornment that kings don. But after his final war that ended in a great victory, this one, known for his impulsive valour, remained grounded.

His words: “This was an open secret. Not something that I wasn’t going to announce even if we had lost... It’s been difficult to hold [feelings] back and I think it’s going to sink in later. It’s an amazing day and I’m thankful...”

Twelve years ago, Kohli was player of the match in his first T20 World Cup match. He ended his last the same way.

The king did weep, but wiped his tears as he sat down to send word to his queen. The cameras zoomed in in awe as he blew kisses at the phone screen, made silly faces at his kids and tried his best to listen to them from a packed stadium that was roaring his name, alongside victory chants.

“This man is setting the bar high for the companions, husbands and fathers out there,” one netizen responded.

The chest-thumping, fist-pumping aggressor, India’s master run-chaser, and the man who famously silenced rivals, their supporters and even those who “sit and speak from the box” felt a far cry from the man that night in Barbados. At 35, having finally completed white-ball cricket by claiming the one trophy that eluded him for 12 years, Virat Kohli looked grateful if not relieved.

For Rajkumar Sharma, his childhood coach, there was no “new” Kohli at the post-match presentation. “The aggression has been and always will be his strength,” he told THE WEEK. “But outside the ground, he has always been humble. It was very good to see him publicly saying that he is a God-fearing man and believes in destiny. He was always like that. As he has aged, he has become more mature.”

The man may have remained unchanged, but his methods did, at least for the tournament. Unlike earlier, this time he would play the role of ferocious opener to suit the team strategy. “The captain and the senior members decide how you approach a particular tournament,” said Sharma. “It should be one in which the team performance reaches the highest level. The team strategy demanded he play that way and he did.”

Like captain Rohit Sharma, Kohli had not played T20Is since India’s exit from the 2022 World Cup. But, they found a place in the squad for the three-match series against Afghanistan―India’s last in the format before the World Cup―in January. The writing on the wall was clear.

But then came the IPL, which saw the rise of ruthless young turks like Abhishek Sharma and Nitish Reddy, followed by calls for the exclusion of “slow” seniors.

Yet, there Kohli was in the US. And he was swinging at every ball. It seemed like India needed him to be an Abhishek Sharma after all, only with more craft and experience. Do or die was the motto and, for the most part, he kept dying.

His dismissals against Ireland (one off five balls) and Pakistan (four off three) at the New York stadium came off aerial shots gone wrong―an occupational hazard for aggressive openers. He fell on the first ball against the US.

When the arena switched to the Caribbean, he started off with a run-a-ball 24 against Afghanistan before making 37 from 28 against Bangladesh. Familiar foes Australia sent him back for a duck and a nine-ball nine against England in the semifinal did not help.

Kohli was not out of touch. The six he smoked off Reece Topley over mid-wicket in the semifinal was audacious. He hit three maximums against Bangladesh as well. Neither pitch was a batter’s paradise.

The plan was simple. Someone like Kohli going all guns blazing could put any opposition on the back foot. If he fails, an array of hitters awaited to take his place. As long as there were balls to spare, India was in business. There was no need for a man to hang around to finish with a late flourish.

This “new” approach was tested in the IPL, where RCB won six games in a row to make it to the playoffs. In the first half of the tournament, where RCB lost six of its seven outings, Kohli was striking at 150. In the second phase, he upped it to 162.

However, on the night of the final in Barbados, Kohli had to get back into his element. India had made 23 in eight balls, but then lost three wickets in quick succession. Kohli, the survivor, had a decision to make. Keep going for it or stay on and hit out later. For the veteran of six T20 World Cups, the choice was obvious. His first big hit after the powerplay, a straight six off Kagiso Rabada, came in the 18th over. He finished with 76 off 59, which helped India post 176. He had played a Kohli knock and the rest was up to the bowlers. Jasprit Bumrah and co delivered, and there was a measured yet jubilant fist pump from Kohli as he saw Heinrich Klaasen depart.

Amid the emotional farewell after the match, Kohli was self-critical as well. The man who admires Cristiano Ronaldo, the mentality monster of the sporting world, confessed he wasn’t always good in the middle. “It’s hard to explain the emotions I felt after the game,” he said. “I knew what kind of mindset I was in. I wasn’t very confident in the last few games. I wasn’t feeling really good out there.”

But Kohli had held his nerve against South Africa and nothing else mattered. His captain and long-time comrade summarised it the best. “We all know what he has done for us,” said Rohit Sharma. “I am very happy for him that he batted like he did in the final. At some point, everyone has to say goodbye to the game and Virat was very clear that this is what he wanted to do.”

Twelve years ago, Kohli was player of the match in his first T20 World Cup match. He ended his last the same way. Eulogies and biographers can wait, though. Only this quest has ended, his saga wages on.