Cricket World Cup 2023: Virat Kohli is the one-day king and the king for one day

They call Kolkata the City of Joy. What better place, then, for a party?

With the whole of India invited, Virat Kohli had the opportunity to mark his 35th birthday with yet another magical milestone as the hosts continued their seemingly unstoppable charge towards World Cup glory.

Eden Gardens is the spiritual home of Indian cricket. It could have been the Garden of Eden, so rich was the promise of paradise.

The match against South Africa was billed as a clash of the two best teams in the tournament – and could yet be a dress rehearsal for the final. It turned into a celebration of all things Kohli, the birthday boy carving out a 49th one-day international century and equalling a Sachin Tendulkar record once thought to be unreachable.

The signs were all there beforehand. A day earlier, India coach Rahul Dravid talked of Kohli being allowed to have a bowl. There were reports of cancelled plans to have 70,000 Virat masks and a birthday cake in tow – perhaps Kohli wanted to let his batting do the talking. As he left the field just after the national anthems, a fan rushed on to touch his feet.

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Not that being the centre of attention is anything new to Kohli, the most famous cricketer on the planet.

Each generation has one. WG Grace was mobbed before he could step off the ship in Adelaide in 1891, Denis Compton was the Brylcreem boy and Geoffrey Boycott’s name was scrawled on the Berlin Wall.

Kohli has inherited the mantle of Tendulkar and MS Dhoni as the totemic presence of the planet’s cricketing powerhouse. Where Kohli differs from the others is that his career has been played out entirely in the age of social media, with a greater connection and scrutiny from India’s fanatical following.

There were torches passed from both Tendulkar and Dhoni. After the 2011 World Cup final, the last time India won a world title of any sort, a chubby-cheeked Kohli carried Tendulkar on his shoulders around Mumbai before taking over as India’s middle-order maestro. Kohli inherited the captaincy from his great friend Dhoni and will arguably leave a larger legacy to the game in India than both.

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Shaped in Kohli’s image, the India team are uber-athletes on the field and multi-media personalities off it. Ravindra Jadeja, Hardik Pandya and Shubman Gill are just a few to slip into the Kohli slipstream as modern megastars. When Shreyas Iyer, batting with Kohli on Sunday, removed his helmet to bat with a cap on his head and a ring in his ear, it was like the younger brother copying his older hero.

Kohli the captain did not emulate Dhoni in taking India to a trophy the country craves, but did pass his predecessor’s records in terms of Tests led and won. Kohli’s passion for the longer format did much to energise Test cricket in India.

He will almost certainly not push Tendulkar’s Test record of 15,921 runs – that challenge looks to be for Joe Root alone. But Kohli is ticking off the Little Master’s achievements in one-day cricket as part of a career that surely marks him out as the most accomplished limited-overs batter of all-time.

There are other debates that rumble on across generations, seemingly destined to never have an answer – Pele v Maradona, Hamilton v Schumacher, Serena v Navratilova – but it is a rare privilege to see the undisputed best at what they do in the prime of doing it.

Kohli’s 49th one-day ton came in his 277th innings, some 175 fewer than played by Tendulkar. In terms of innings played, he is the fastest to 8,000, 9,000, 10,000, 11,000, 12,000 and 13,000 ODI runs.

But it is when guiding a pursuit that Kohli really stands head and shoulders above the rest. He is the master run-chaser, with ice in his veins and a super-computer of a brain.

Of those 49 centuries, 27 have come in the second innings, 23 of which came in wins. In ODI chases, Kohli averages 64.49, a number that jumps to 90.40 when India get over the line. It’s the same story in T20 internationals, with an average of 73.44 in the second innings of a match.

This latest hundred, on the same ground where he made his first almost 14 years ago, was not gift-wrapped as a present, birthday or not.

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With India batting first on a Kolkata surface offering plenty for the skilful South African spinners, Kohli had to adapt his game, absorb the pressure and park his ego.

He hit four fours in his first 13 deliveries to have 17 runs to his name, but found the boundary only once in his next 63 deliveries.

Kohli pushed, prodded and whipped the ball into gaps, then hared between the wickets. His legendary fitness regime has him around 13kg lighter than the start of his career – he has spoken about how he has had to convince his mother that a lean physique is not a sign of ill health. Of the 61 accounts he follows on X, previously Twitter, one is Britain’s former Olympic 100m champion Linford Christie.

His half-century came from 67 balls. Usually, such a landmark would signal a change of tempo. Across his career, Kohli scores in excess of six runs an over once past 50, an acceleration not close to being possible on Sunday.

As the century neared, anticipation grew. Lights from mobile phones danced like fireflies in the stands. If he had been bowled, Kohli would have probably felt within his rights to put the bails back on. This was his show.

The hundred itself was not reached in spectacular fashion – a push into the covers for a single – but the outpouring of delirium was palpable.

Kohli faced only two more deliveries in India’s 326-5, but his 101 not out – from 121 balls – was enough to beat South Africa’s 83 all out on his own.

He called it the stuff of dreams, but perhaps the ultimate dream is to be played out in the coming weeks. There is the tantalising prospect of a record 50th ton to be made in guiding India to World Cup glory.

Kohli is not to everyone’s taste, mainly for the histrionics seen in the field as the Proteas collapsed. Over-the-top celebrations, dad-dancing in the field.

But he is a showman, a superstar and a supreme run-scorer.

The one-day king, king for one day.