Cricket-Kohli marks 35th birthday with record-equalling 49th ODI century

By Pritha Sarkar

KOLKATA (Reuters) -When India last hosted the World Cup in 2011, the only team to beat them was South Africa.

As it was, that three wicket group-stage win failed to stop MS Dhoni’s men from lifting the World Cup on home soil and 12 years on, the 2023 edition of the Indian juggernaut seems to be unstoppable as they maintained their 100% record at the tournament with a 243-run win over South Africa on Sunday.

Virat Kohli, the only survivor from that 2011 Nagpur line-up, was celebrating his 35th birthday on Sunday and even when a lone fan had the crowd chuckling as he started belting out an out-of-tune rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ – the batsman turned a deaf ear to the commotion.

That laser focus sums up the way India has approached this World Cup as they remain the only unbeaten side among the 10 participating nations, having won all eight of their group matches.

A sea of blue-clad India fans kept filing into the 66,000-capacity ground for several hours before the 2pm local time start as excitement mounted for the top-of-the-table showdown that many believe will be a dress rehearsal for the Nov. 19 final.

With a place in the semi-finals already bagged by both teams before Sunday’s contest, India put on a dazzling show with bat and ball to keep the home fans roaring at full throttle for hours and hours.

Leaving the likes of captain Rohit Sharma (40 off 24 balls) and Shreyas Iyer (77) to smash the crowd-pleasing sixes into the stands, Kohli never lost sight of the long game even as deafening chants of “Kohli-Kohli-Kohli” kept reverberating around the cavernous Eden Gardens ground.

The 25th meeting between the two teams since India last hosted tournament showed just how far Kohli has come since his contribution in that 2011 Nagpur tussle with South Africa amounted to one measly run.

On Sunday, he avoided the temptation of going for the big hits over the boundary as he scored a record-equalling 49th ODI century – a milestone he now shares with Indian great Sachin Tendulkar.

While Tendulkar scored his 49th century in his 451st ODI innings, Kohli reached the landmark in his 277th innings, a fact noted by the Little Master who celebrated his 50th birthday in April.

“Well played Virat. It took me 365 days to go from 49 to 50 earlier this year. I hope you go from 49 to 50 and break my record in the next few days. Congratulations!!” Tendulkar said on social media platform X.

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Tendulkar clearly meant a lot to Kohli.

“Every opportunity to play for India is big one for me. To be able to do that on my birthday, in front of the whole crowd, it’s stuff of dreams, something that as a child you wish had happened,” man-of-the-match Kohli said.

“Tendulkar’s tweet is quite special. It’s all too much to take in for now. It’s a huge honour to equal my hero’s record. He’s perfection with the bat. It’s an emotional moment. To receive appreciation from him means a lot to me.”

When Kohli reached triple figures with a single off Kagiso Rabada in the 49th over, he left the organisers to mark the occasion with some pyrotechnics while he simply removed his helmet, looked skywards, acknowledged the cheers and within seconds he was back marking his crease.

His unbeaten 101 off 121 balls included 10 fours but tellingly no sixes in a match that the Indians had started off at a fast and furious pace, with the hosts reaching 61-0 after five overs and then 91-1 after 10 overs.

Though it was inevitable that India would not be able to sustain the early 12.2 or 9.10 run rates over 50 overs, the 326-5 total they ended up posting proved to be insurmountable for South Africa.

Bowled out for 83, South Africa fell to their second defeat of the 2023 tournament after being stifled by Ravindra Jadeja’s left-arm spin. Jadeja finished with five for 33.

(Reporting by Pritha Sarkar, editing by Christian Radnedge)