Virat Kohli is ready to conquer the final frontier
India’s captain Virat Kohli was scarred by his last England tour but four years later he is a much improved batsman and leader
“This is what happens when you prance around with an actor-girlfriend.”
A veteran Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) official had no qualms about putting an audaciously sexist spin on Virat Kohli’s most high-profile failure. He said to me a few years ago, on condition of anonymity, that it was Anushka Sharma’s fault that Kohli could only cobble together 134 runs from 10 innings in England in September 2014.
By the same logic, the BCCI contended that the presence of players’ wives on the tour had “distracted” the Indian team, which, after winning the Lord’s Test, lost three matches on the trot to complete a disappointing overseas sojourn. The Indian board, in fact, took it seriously enough to restrict the duration of the wives’ stay, and imposed a blanket ban on the presence of girlfriends (the team manager on tour even thought that it went against “India’s culture”).
This wouldn’t be the first time Kohli would encounter—and rebuff—such crassness. But he had to slay the on-field demon first. This manifested itself in James Anderson’s seductive away-swingers, which accounted for Kohli four times in five Tests. It was also evident each time he was either trapped on the crease, beaten by the movement or seen poking at the ball. For the most part, though, Kohli’s need to feel ball on bat regularly had contributed to his undoing.
He acknowledged that badly wanting to succeed had contributed to his failure. Action would follow swiftly. Kohli might not have said it in as many words, but he was determined to become a more rounded batsman and return to conquer.
Leading the bearded brotherhood
In 2018, Brand Kohli is rocking the charts. In the past four years, he has unlocked several little magic boxes. Shortly after the calamitous England tour, he was handed Test captaincy and transitioned from the angst-ridden crown prince to a fist-pumping, vein-bulging, ruthless leader of men.
Kohli was part of the side that made the semi-finals of the International Cricket Council (ICC) World Cup in 2015, but it was in the following year that his batting truly hit an euphoric note as he scored 2,595 runs in 37 games across formats, including seven hundreds and 13 fifties—allow a moment to take in the enormity of these numbers—at an average of 86.5.
As if to add a luxuriant icing, he finished with an unprecedented 973 runs in 16 games in the Indian Premier League 2016.
With M.S. Dhoni relinquishing limited-overs captaincy at the start of 2017, Kohli was handed the reins of the India side in toto. This was now his team, and Kohli’s imprint was unmistakable. His healthy diet and manic fitness regimen were the markers for the rest even as his hipster beard became the unspoken fashion code for cricketers across the country.
As always, though, Kohli’s sense of style lay in substance, and the team won at home against England, Australia and Sri Lanka, while achieving series victories in the West Indies and Sri Lanka in 2016-17. Despite going down 1-2 in the Test series in South Africa in January, India won the One Day International (ODI) series 5-1 and the Twenty20 International (T20I) series 2-1.
Kohli was the prime enforcer, finishing as the highest scorer (286 at an average of 47.66) on either side in the three-Test series. He then went on to top the ODI charts too, scoring three hundreds to amass 558 runs at an average of 186.
Kohli’s evolution into one of the world’s best batsmen was not a matter of chance. The catalyst for urgent self-introspection was the sudden downturn in form during the 2014 tour.
In an interview with former England captain Nasser Hussain on Sky Sports last year, Kohli allowed a rare peek into his methods and mindset. He admitted that the “desperation” to do well in England had got the better of him.
While the mental side of things needed to be sorted, there were a few technical flaws, too, that required mending. “I kept looking for the inswinger and I was in no position to counter the outswing,” he told Hussain of his predicament in England.
“Firstly, my stance was pretty closed. And then, after my initial movement, I figured out my (right) toe wasn’t going towards point, it was towards cover point. So, anyway, my hip was opening up initially and then to get the feel of the ball, I had to open up my hip because I was too side-on.
“Anyway, I have a strong bottom-hand grip; I didn’t have too much room for my shoulder to adjust to the line of the ball, so it was too late for me to react to anything that swung in front of my eyes.”
So, Kohli manufactured drills where he would draw a couple of parallel lines behind the crease and make sure his right toe was facing point during his initial movement. Three hours of rigorous practice every day meant he had forearm cramps by the end of the week. Nevertheless, he persisted with this “precise practice”, and it paid off.
When he went to Australia, he stood a foot outside the crease with a wider stance and the forward-press helped him get towards the ball. This, he said, was Sachin Tendulkar’s idea.
“He made me realize the importance of approaching the fast bowler the way you approach the spinner. You got to get towards the ball and you have to give lesser chance for the ball to move around and trouble you,” Kohli said.
Even as he ironed out technical creases, it was his mental strength that helped him acquire a reputation for going after tall chases with astounding regularity in limited-overs cricket. On scoring big hundreds in chases, Kohli has often remarked that the pursuit of a team goal helped take the focus away from individual landmarks, and hence push the boundaries of excellence.
During the course of an interview in 2015 with ESPNcricinfo’s The Cricket Monthly, Kohli spelt out his vision for the team. “I strongly want to see the Indian team dominate for at least five-six years. What I want to see happening is all our Test careers growing together. You want to be the team which enjoys playing anywhere in the world, which enjoys success together, sticks around in failures together. I am really certain that will happen.”
Kohli married Sharma in December. She continues to accompany him on tours, and there aren’t any BCCI-enforced embargoes any more. It would be fair to suggest Kohli is among the most powerful men in Indian cricket today.
County cricket and the full circle
In the aftermath of the unsuccessful Test series in South Africa, Kohli and India team director Ravi Shastri got flak for going into the games unprepared. While India were playing Sri Lanka at home, they had the option of sending Test specialists like Cheteshwar Pujara and Murali Vijay to South Africa earlier, but chose not to. Shastri admitted 10 days later that better preparation would have helped in South Africa.
The team management was keen to avoid a repeat of this situation ahead of the tours to England and Australia later this year, and Kohli took the lead in this matter.
In signing up with Surrey to play county cricket, Kohli gave himself the best chance to succeed in the five-Test series. During his stint in June, Kohli was to play two 50-over matches before competing in three championship fixtures where he would have got a taste of red-ball cricket with the Dukes ball. The BCCI, too, allowed him to miss Afghanistan’s inaugural Test versus India in Bengaluru this month.
A neck injury sustained during Royal Challengers Bangalore’s penultimate game against Sunrisers Hyderabad in the IPL put paid to Kohli’s county plans. But he is back in the squad for the T20I series against Ireland before the team travels to Manchester and is looking to start the summer with a bang.
Though the county stint did not materialize, former India batsman and commentator Aakash Chopra feels that Kohli is still primed to succeed in English conditions. “I have no doubt even if he hadn’t gone to play county cricket, he would still succeed purely because he’s a much better batsman, and when you look at the opposition also, they aren’t the best in the world any more. (James) Anderson is on a decline, Stuart Broad is still okay, but is he the same bowler? England’s batting also isn’t the strongest. Previously, if you were playing in England, you would end up fielding for about 120 overs, but now there is a possibility that you would be fielding only for about 80-90 overs.”
Kohli, says Chopra, is a markedly different player from the one who first toured England in 2011. “When you go to any country for the first time, you don’t know what to expect, at times you over-psyche yourself,” he says. “That’s what we saw with a lot of people—Rahul Dravid’s first tour to Australia or Kohli’s first tour to England. Since then, he has become perhaps the best player on the planet across all formats and across all continents. Only England remains to be conquered and which will also happen because, since then, he has also played a Champions Trophy in 2017 and more cricket also elsewhere.”
India’s fielding coach, R. Sridhar, concurs. “Over four years, life has changed so much for him in every respect,” he says. “Technically, he has become much sounder, and his maturity level, his intellect and ability to read the game, are much better. He’s in a better emotional space. He has ticked all the boxes.”
India fast bowler Varun Aaron, who has played under Kohli at Royal Challengers Bangalore and is currently playing county cricket at Leicestershire, says captaincy could drive him to bigger deeds with the bat. “Virat is a fierce competitor, and, when he is captain, he has to take care of the entire team and the team’s performance also reflects on him,” he says. “That further pushes him into doing whatever he can to make the team win. That’s a quality which is great to have. All great captains possess that killer instinct.”
Conditions in England are expected to be a lot more batting-friendly in August—this would again tip the scales in Kohli’s favour. “It’s already become warm in England. As it gets warmer, the pitches start getting a lot better,” Chopra says.
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