Virat Kohli provided an unforgettable birthday gift for his adoring fans by achieving his much-anticipated 49th ODI century in a determined, unbeaten innings, propelling India to a formidable total of 326/5 against South Africa in the World Cup. The cricketing world had been eagerly awaiting this milestone from Kohli, and it finally came on his 35th birthday.
The match was set against the backdrop of South Africa's resurgence and Kohli's pursuit of equalling Sachin Tendulkar's record of 49 ODI centuries, which he had missed out on twice in his previous three innings. The Indian run-machine had faced disappointment in his recent outings, getting out for 95 and 88 against New Zealand and Sri Lanka. However, he did not let down the enthusiastic crowd at the iconic Eden Gardens, scoring his historic century on a challenging pitch.
Kohli's moment arrived in the 49th over when he calmly pushed Kagiso Rabada for a single, marking his 49th ODI century. It was a testament to his hard work, coming off 119 balls with 10 fours. Kohli had to toil relentlessly to reach this milestone, taking 277 innings to match Tendulkar's record, who had achieved his 49 centuries in 452 innings.
The relief and joy were palpable as Kohli removed his helmet, kissed his bat, and acknowledged the crowd's standing ovation, with smartphone flashes illuminating the atmosphere. The century had seemed assured when Kohli confidently played Rabada through covers in the previous overs to reach 97.
With the exception of Keshav Maharaj, who bowled his full quota of overs economically, the South African bowlers struggled to make an impact on the changing Eden Gardens wicket, which slowed down as the game progressed and favored spin. To compound South Africa's troubles, pacer Lungi Ngidi had to leave the field due to injury, and Marco Jansen struggled with wayward deliveries.
Unlike usual days, the dry Eden pitch on this hazy, overcast evening offered significant turn, prompting South Africa to introduce their ace spinner, Maharaj, right after the powerplay.
India's rapid start, led by Rohit Sharma, had been halted by Kagiso Rabada's wicket-maiden first over, and Maharaj's classical left-arm spin removed the in-form Shubman Gill.
Kohli, known to have some difficulties against Maharaj, faced a stern test. However, he navigated this phase well in an intriguing battle against the spinner. Shreyas Iyer played a patient innings, but Kohli provided valuable support, forming a partnership that resembled a Test match alliance.
Kohli had a stroke of luck when he survived a caught-behind review on 37, as the Proteas appealed for a caught behind off Maharaj. The replays showed no spike on UltraEdge, saving Kohli from a potential dismissal.
Despite the challenging conditions, Kohli and Iyer showed great respect against Maharaj while seizing the opportunity to take charge against Tabraiz Shamsi. Kohli reached his fifty off 67 balls, marking his sixth fifty in eight innings in the World Cup during Maharaj's last over.
Opting to bat first, skipper Rohit Sharma gave India an explosive start before South Africa managed to break through with one wicket each courtesy of Rabada and Maharaj. Rohit had previously established an ODI world record score of 264 at this venue, and he started aggressively with a 24-ball 40 before a fantastic catch by Temba Bavuma at mid-off curtailed his innings.
Rohit had been in tremendous form, smashing Rabada through the covers, but the South African skipper held onto the ball. Rohit's innings had an early scare when he survived a close call for a duck, and he then went on to dominate Ngidi and Marco Jansen with his exceptional strokeplay.
Jansen, South Africa's main powerplay bowler, struggled to contain Rohit, conceding 91 runs for no wickets in his four overs. It was a dominant performance by Rohit Sharma, setting the stage for Kohli's century and India's imposing total.