Virat Kohli’s evolution from a show pony into a master batsman is among the more riveting stories in modern cricket.
Till a couple of years ago, fans were more interested in reading his lips to see what profanities were being hurled at opponents; now, they are transfixed at watching his bat as it describes wonderful arcs, resulting in a wondrous range of strokes and match-winning innings.
Kohli’s aggression was never affected. Some of it is perhaps intrinsic to the North Indian psyche, a great deal more was acquired as a kid when he started playing in Delhi. According to his coach Raj Kumar Sharma, Kohli behaved like a man even when he was a boy.
“He was a difficult child to handle, always up to pranks and mischief, a bit of a confrontationist,’’ says the coach. “He took up most of my time and attention and, sometimes, this meant getting a bit rough to bring him to heel. But when it came to cricket, he showed extraordinary ability, learnt rapidly, never tired. He was a joy to teach.’’
What can be deduced from this brief insight is that Kohli is a naturally forceful character, an alpha male, who likes to be at the centre of things and dominate the proceedings. Alongside that, he is also deeply passionate about the sport, has considerable ability and craves success.
This much was evident early enough, when he led India to victory in the under-19 World Cup in 2008. He was the team’s main batsman and bowled frequently, apart from captaining the side quite demonstratively for someone so young.
From there, a quick hop, step and jump took Kohli into the national team. India’s batting superstars Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, V.V.S. Laxman and his childhood idol, Sachin Tendulkar, were approaching the end of their illustrious careers. The team was seeking young blood and Kohli’s hormones were raging to be in the thick of the action.
His debut in one-day internationals (ODIs) came on the heels of the under-19 World Cup triumph in 2008, but despite instant success in this format, Kohli had to wait till after the 2011 World Cup triumph to make his Test debut against the West Indies later the same year.
His prowess as a batsman found instant expression in limited-overs cricket, but the five-day format proved to be a bit of a struggle. On the tour of Australia in 2011-12, Kohli was on the verge of being dropped after the second Test.
Given a lifeline by the team management, he came up with a fine half-century in the third, and his maiden Test century in the fourth to vindicate his calibre even in the longest format. The passage since has been remarkable for how quickly Kohli has climbed the ladder to become a major domo in contemporary cricket. His batting is defined by technical efficiency, high productivity, consistency and a match-winning ability that few possess, especially in the limited-overs formats.
While the innate aggression remains, it has been sublimated into pursuing excellence rather than throwing tantrums on the field. He has realized that while histrionics will get him attention, they will not get him runs.
The desire to become the best has replaced the desire to be the most conspicuous, “in the news” or popular. He has worked out sensibly that if he achieves the first, the second will follow automatically.
Kohli will still not back off from an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation, or exchanging a word or two with opponents.
But he does this now from an understanding of the psychological advantage to be gained, to get into a position of strength rather than squander energy, play to the gallery and/or into the hands of opponents.
While he has made runs consistently, and attractively, in all formats since the tour of Australia in 2012, in my opinion, Kohli’s batting and cricketing persona has moved to another higher level after the tour of England.
In the Test series in England, he struggled for runs. He returned a chastened man, realizing that excellence is not merely a function of natural ability, but a sustained and strong work ethic and mental toughness.
There has been a gradual but discernible change in him since that tour. He has shed every excess kilo, worked out a diet that supplements his training and keeps his body fit and agile, put in hours and hours in the nets working on enhancing his strengths and even longer on ironing out the weaknesses.
“He works harder on his fitness and training now than ever,’’ says coach Sharma. “Even during his off days, he is conscious that he must not lapse into self-indulgence, which will affect his game.’’
The demanding standards he has set for himself within show Kohli’s commitment to excel. “He wants to be the best,’’ says Sharma. The big occasion and taking centre-stage, which can unnerve many performer, brings out the best in him.
“He loves a challenge and had mentally started planning for the World Cup months earlier knowing how important this tournament is for the team and himself,’’ adds Sharma.
This preparation and ambition that drives his quest for excellence has been in rich evidence in the past few months as Kohli has come up with some sterling knocks, some from a back-to-the-wall situation to lead his team to victory.
Three of these have come in the past month itself, two of them against Pakistan and—perhaps most memorably—the unbeaten 82 not out against Australia at Mohali last Sunday which took India into the semi-finals of the World T20.
While Pakistan are not quite the force they were, when the arch-rivals meet it becomes a pressure-cooker situation for players on both sides as their jingoistic supporters will settle for nothing less than victory.
In both the Asia Cup and the World Cup, with his team in strife and under threat of defeat, Virat came up with innings of resolve, flair and derring-do to stymie the Pakistan team in low-scoring contests.
Yet, the best of the three was undoubtedly the knock against Australia. India were up against a better side, chasing a daunting total and had once again lost early wickets. The pressure was excruciating, the tension immense.
In the circumstances, Kohli played what can only be called a tour de force. He repaired the innings in the company of Yuvraj Singh and then, with captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni for company, took his team to victory in rousing fashion with a flurry of boundaries and sixes after the asking run rate had mounted to an intimidating 13 per over.
In many ways, this was a defining moment in Kohli’s career: much like what the “Desert Storm” ODI innings against Australia at Sharjah in 1998 did for his childhood hero Sachin Tendulkar.
Against heavy odds, Kohli showed great composure and resourcefulness to go with his flamboyant strokeplay. The Aussies were tamed and sent packing off. India, who had made a stuttering start to the tournament by losing to New Zealand, were now in the semi-finals.
It was a virtuoso performance by a player whose ambition and talent were clearly manifest. It had the entire cricket world rising to hail Kohli as the new standard-bearer for batsmanship in contemporary cricket.
A master in the real sense of the word.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.