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Keep a watch: (from left) Kohli, Pathan and Ashwin. Photographs: Themba Hadebe/AP

Keep a watch: (from left) Kohli, Pathan and Ashwin. Photographs: Themba Hadebe/AP

Making a strong pitch

Making a strong pitch

When the Indian team for the World Cup goes into the final stage of preparation at a camp at the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore, coach Gary Kirsten will probably have the most promising squad since the 2003 World Cup. The core of the team revolves around seasoned veterans—Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, M.S. Dhoni, Yuvraj Singh and Harbhajan Singh. But what is perhaps more heartening is the rise of the new crop of talent which has walked into the team with a series of consistent performances. Virat Kohli, Yusuf Pathan and R. Ashwin have raised hopes of a first World Cup victory at home by proving their on-field potential, and finishing 2010 on a high.


Growing in strength

In December 2009, just over a year after Kohli made his debut, he forged a 62-run partnership with Tendulkar in a One Day International (ODI) against Sri Lanka, scoring 54. When he walked back to the dressing room, a strange feeling of elation enveloped him.

“It was a partnership with Sachin Tendulkar!" says the 22-year-old. “I’ve been watching him play ever since I remember. I sat down in the dressing room and felt on top of the world. It was an indescribable high. I sat there for a long time, just soaking in the moment."

Kohli continued on the high note in 2010, and finished the year as India’s top ODI scorer with 995 runs at an average of 47.38. In just his third season in international cricket, Kohli was also the second highest run scorer in ODIs in 2010, behind South Africa’s Hashim Amla.

Keep a watch: (from left) Kohli, Pathan and Ashwin. Photographs: Themba Hadebe/AP

“I did not expect the year to turn out like this," Kohli says. “My biggest improvement this year was learning to be patient at the start of the innings, getting set without being nervous or anxious to start scoring, and believing in my ability to make up for it later on."

Kohli’s brief stint with the Indian team highlights his mature handling of the middle overs, coming in at No. 3 or 4, scoring at almost six runs an over, rotating the strike, and converting his starts to fifties and hundreds. Even more interesting is his ability to play under pressure—in the 23 innings he has played batting second in a match, Kohli averages 60.35, at a strike rate of almost 84.

“I like to feel a bit of pressure when I go in to bat because that helps me concentrate more," Kohli says. In 2009, his 107, coming in after India were down 23 for 2, helped chase a Sri Lankan target of 316. In 2010, he scored 118 to chase down Australia’s 290 in Visakhapatnam. “The most pressure-cooker innings I’ve played so far. It was thrilling."

This ability to operate under pressure reveals a steely side that the young Kohli hides behind a flippant smile. In 2006, Kohli was battling for Delhi in the Ranji Trophy against Karnataka. At the end of the day’s play, he was unbeaten on 40. Early next morning, his father Prem Kohli died of a heart attack.

Despite the personal blow, Kohli turned up for the match. “My father would have always wanted me to play," Kohli says. “My brother told me that morning that if I wanted to play, then I should, and return to attend the funeral afterwards. Cricket comes above everything."

Kohli scored 90 before getting out at around noon. At 3.30pm, he attended his father’s cremation.

It was Kohli’s father who helped him take his first step in organized cricket, bringing him a form to enrol at the West Delhi Cricket Academy when Kohli was eight years old. “I was overjoyed that day. I loved every minute I spent in the nets when I joined the academy," he remembers.

Kohli returned to his roots when he faced his biggest crisis, soon after a poor first campaign with Indian Premier League (IPL) team Bangalore Royal Challengers in 2008, and an average debut for India.

Kohli’s off-field persona was perceived as brash and disrespectful, and his love for partying was seen in poor light for an upcoming cricketer. An on-field dressing down from Bangalore teammate Kevin Pietersen followed a mix-up that resulted in a run-out in 2009. An ugly spat with photographers the same year during an ODI in India only reinforced that belief. “Yes, I made mistakes," Kohli admits. “But I am happy that I was not scared to admit it. I was left in a situation where I had to choose—either keep ignoring people, and go on behaving the way I did, or improve myself."

Kohli went back to his childhood coach Raj Kumar Sharma at the West Delhi Cricket Academy, and got a serious dressing down.

“What helped me was my coach, family and teammates believed in my ability," Kohli says, “and they told me not to let that go. I started changing my attitude, and spending a lot more time on the field and in the nets. I haven’t been to a party in almost two years now."


The plundering Pathan

Pathan began and ended 2010 with two displays of equal savagery and cunning. The first was a 37-ball century for his IPL team Rajasthan Royals against the Mumbai Indians in April, and the other his maiden ODI century, against New Zealand in Bangalore in December.

While the IPL knock was eye-popping for its frenzied violence, the ODI 100 was perfectly timed—when his place in the team was under scrutiny, and his batting skills against fast bowling and short balls, suspect.

He had been dropped after a string of unimpressive scores batting at No. 7, and had spent much of 2010 playing domestic cricket. His inclusion against New Zealand was a final chance for Pathan to stake his claim to India’s World Cup squad.

He made it count. Pathan’s unbeaten 123 (96 balls) was as measured and patient against the yorkers and short balls as it was brutal and dismissive with the loose balls.

“I’ve grabbed whatever chances came my way, and also everyone in the Indian team believed in my ability to play against good bowling," says Pathan. “That faith meant a lot to me, it gave me the freedom to play my game without worrying." He believes it validated his self-confidence.

Pathan continued in that vein during India’s tour to South Africa in January, against one of the world’s best fast bowling attacks on bouncy pitches. He scored a match-winning 59 in the third ODI in Cape Town, and then in the fifth in Centurion, he walked in with India at 60 for 5 chasing South Africa’s 250. Though India lost the game, Pathan scored 105 off 70 balls.

“I’ve never doubted my own abilities to play against the best bowling," Pathan says. “When I walk in to bat, I always believe I can win a match from any situation."

It was this confidence that paved the way for his return to the Indian team after he was dropped in June following a poor show in India’s tour of Zimbabwe.

Pathan went back to the domestic circuit, scoring 295 runs and picking up 14 wickets in three Ranji Trophy matches before playing a devastating 190-ball 210 in the Duleep Trophy final for West Zone, to overhaul South Zone’s 535, the biggest successful run chase in all First Class cricket.

“It was a dream innings for me," Pathan says. “A turning point of sorts. It finally changed the perception that I was just a pinch hitter or a T20 player. Though at no point was I thinking of making it back to the Indian team, or feeling bad about being dropped. These things happen in any sport. I was just enjoying batting in domestic cricket as much as I enjoy batting for India."

Pathan, who grew up playing cricket with his younger half-brother Irfan outside the mosque in Vadodara where their father is an imam, had to go through a long grind in the domestic circuit before finding a regular place in the Baroda squad in 2004. By then, Irfan was already playing for India. By 2008, Irfan was out of favour, and the older Pathan was making his debut.

Pathan got his first taste of fame with Shane Warne’s Rajasthan Royals in their victorious IPL campaign of 2008. “I was lucky to have been in that team with Warne," he says. “He created a great fun place to be in, and till the last ball is bowled, no matter how bad the situation, he would be trying to pull something off. I learnt to be focused like that from him, to never give up."


Waiting for his turn

On 18 September, IPL team Chennai Super Kings (CSK) was tied with Australian side Victoria Bushrangers in a Champions League T20 match. CSK captain Dhoni handed the ball to rookie spinner Ashwin for the single over that was to decide the outcome of the match—the super over.

Dhoni’s confidence in Ashwin, backfired. The tall off-spinner was carted for 23 runs in that over, handing the match to Victoria. At the end of the over, Ashwin was on his knees, head bowed, as his teammates walked past him offering consolatory pats on the back.

Surprising then that Ashwin picks this incident as the best moment of his just-over-a-year-old international career.

“It is the biggest lesson I learnt from one over," says Ashwin. “It taught me to put up my hand and volunteer for the hardest thing without thinking of the consequences. I realized that I was prepared to get hit, and to take a fall. I was prepared to lose some to win many."

It was a lesson well learnt. Ashwin finished as the best bowler of the tournament, with 13 wickets from six matches to spearhead CSK’s victorious campaign.

Four months earlier, Ashwin was making his first consistent run with CSK since he joined the team in its inaugural year in 2008.

In a team boasting of the Sri Lankan off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan, the highest wicket-taker in both Tests and ODIs, Ashwin was not only picking up more wickets, but was also proving to be the more economical bowler of the two. Bowling with a bare run-up and a high arm action, Ashwin kept his focus on cramping batsmen with tight control. When the batsmen got impatient, he would rip off-breaks across at varying pace and turn, sneak in the “carrom ball" (a delivery using the thumb and the middle finger to flick the ball, and used only by Sri Lankan Ajantha Mendis and Ashwin in international cricket), and manipulate the batsman to play a rash shot. He was the go-to man for Dhoni, taking up the challenge of opening the bowling, and operating in the power plays and slog overs.

“Like any other spinner, I like the old ball," Ashwin says, “because it just sits in your hand better, and you can get more revolutions. But the truth is that I’m up for any challenge—new ball, slog over, power play..."

“This IPL exercise and the T20 format has done a lot for me as a cricketer, and made me more mature," the engineer from Chennai says. “I got the chance to work with Muralitharan, to see how excited he was preparing for every game. He was like a child at practice. He never thought twice about his success, but was always harsh about his failures. I absorbed all these mental aspects."

Ashwin’s breakthrough year was fuelled by his long wait on the sidelines for CSK, where he spent most of the first two seasons.

“I don’t enjoy sitting and clapping for other people if I’m not on the field. So I was constantly trying to pinch for a place in the side, constantly pushing myself harder at practice."

Ashwin’s IPL exploits inevitably led to a call to the national side, where he picked up 11 wickets at an average of 21.9 in a five-match ODI series at home against New Zealand in November and December.

Unlike Kohli and Pathan, Ashwin’s place in the playing eleven for the World Cup is far from assured, since Harbhajan Singh will be the first choice spinner for India.

“Of course, it’s my dream to win a World Cup. But I’m not even sure of a place in the team," Ashwin says. “But if someone told me I have to compete against the world’s best and come up with a fantastic performance, I’ll probably back myself. Whether I can actually pull it off or not is another issue, but I have the confidence to try. Maybe it’s a bit of madness, but that’s how I am.

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