Virat Kohli and Steven Smith during Rising Pune Supergiant-Royal Challengers Bangalore clash © BCCI
Virat Kohli and Steven Smith during Rising Pune Supergiant-Royal Challengers Bangalore clash © BCCI

Too much of cricket has its side effects. Just over a month back, a gruelling Test series between India and Australia concluded at Dharamsala and the buzz fizzled out with the start of the Indian Premier League (IPL) 2017. Franchise cricket took precedence over the outright display of nationalism. Ajinkya Rahane’s leadership became the talking point when he downed Steven Smith’s men in the final Test, helping Virat Kohli’s India reclaim the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. Quite amusingly, a few days down the line, Smith and Rahane were vehemently plotting Kohli’s downfall…

When Australia arrived to the Indian shores in February 2017, many pundits predicted they would suffer a whitewash. The contest was billed: Kohli vs Smith, undoubtedly, two of the finest batsmen of this generation, who were leading their respective sides in an intense series. At stake was the coveted Border-Gavaskar Trophy and the ranking that determines Test supremacy.

The rivalry dates back to 2008 when both the youngsters were a part of their Under-19 Word Cup campaigns. Kohli, the 19-year-old Indian captain, came home with the trophy while Smith merely a leg-spinning all-rounder had an average campaign and returned home empty-handed.

It begins in Pune…

The conditions for the first Test at Maharashtra Cricket Association Stadium at Pune was tailor-made for the Indian spinners. We thought so. Australian spinners ransacked India and while Smith set the tone for the series with a fine hundred in the second innings, Kohli managed 0 and 13. Australia won their first Test in India after almost 13 years. Three days it took the visitors to stage an upset.

Kohli’s bat remained silent throughout the series but not his tongue. He was subject to severe criticism from the Australian media. He went as far as almost calling Smith‘a cheat’ after India levelled the series in Bengaluru. Smith’s brain-fade became the new word in cricket dictionary. Majority of India read it as the synonym for ‘cheating’.

Smith had no reservations for his tongue as well but he was far better with the bat. While Kohli failed to register a total of 50 runs and double-digit average in the series, Smith topped the charts with 499 runs at 71.28.

From the DRS-gate to mocking of Kohli’s shoulder injury, the series witnessed some heated moments and was perhaps the most controversial ones played in recent times. From a ‘spoilt brat’ to a ‘beast difficult to contain’ to ‘Donald Trump’ to rewarding him ‘Vettel of the week’, Kohli found his way to Australian press because of his press conference jibes and on-field sledging.

It went a bit too far when a respectable figure like Brad Hodge implied that Kohli missed the fourth Test to remain fit for IPL. He had to later take back his comments and apologise.

Smith was no saint either. He chose to answer back Kohli every time he said something. He was conveniently labelled a ‘cheat’. A series that took off peacefully at Pune with the two skippers exchanging smiles gyrated into a battle. At the end, Smith apologised for all his wrongdoings while Kohli declared he has lost a few Australian buddies.

With the series pocketed 2-1 at Dharamsala, Kohli was the last man laughing with the trophy and ICC Test Mace in the cupboard. This section of the world hailed him for being aggressive despite his off form. Smith had not only escalated his repute as a batsman but also was hailed by his countrymen for inspiring an underdog Australian side to the brink of a series win.

The contest between two contemporaries stood even-steven.

Off to IPL…

The Test hangover was still strong and the glitzy glamorous lucrative league took over. Smith and MS Dhoni play for the same franchise, Rising Pune Supergiant (RPS). Despite that you would not be a very popular man in India if you replace Dhoni as the captain. Mind you, Dhoni was stripped from captaincy and the Pune owners did not hesitate to make it clear why Smith was a better choice.

Meanwhile, Kohli was still nursing his sore shoulder and missed the first few games for his superstar-studded Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB).

Kohli and Smith have been the best batsmen from their respective sides this IPL season. Smith has amassed 320 runs at 53.33, and they have come at a strike rate of 136.17; Kohli has 219 runs from 6 innings at 36.50 and his strike rate is tad above 123.

Unlike Smith, the other superstars in the RCB line-up have failed miserably as the team lies low at seventh spot with the worst Net Run-Rate. Smith’s captaincy has been questionable but he has been lucky with resources and RPS, now at fourth spot, have a decent chance of qualifying for the playoffs.

On Saturday, RPS met RCB or let us say Smith met Kohli where it all started, in Pune. Unlike Kohli in Tests, this time around it was Smith who was home captain. Smith has a bond with the city. The now defunct Pune Warriors India (PWI) was Smith’s first IPL side. Playing under Sourav Ganguly, Smith had impressed in the 2012 edition with 362 runs at over 40, and an impressive strike rate of 135.58. The added bit was his spectacular fielding and he also led in Ganguly’s absence. He was only 22 then.

RPS vs RCB was not just another IPL contest. It was Smith vs Kohli, another round. Even if you skipped this part in the excitement of the tournament, the commentators ensured the rivalry remained fresh in the minds.

Smith top scored for RPS with a 32-ball 45 to help them to 157 on a slow surface. In return Kohli top scored for his side with a 48-ball 55 but none of his teammates could reach the double-figure mark. 96 was all RCB managed. It was a better show from what they achieved two games back when they were dismantled for a record-low 49.

Pune redemption for Smith

This is the last time this season we saw Smith and Kohli square off in the cricket pitch. It started with a win for Smith at Pune and ended with another at the same venue. Smith ensured Kohli’s RCB virtually stood no chance of qualifying to the playoffs.

A circle turns full for Smith, who had a sweet-bitter India tour. But he did manage the last laugh.