Not since Sachin Tendulkar has there been an Indian batsman who has fired the imagination of this cricket crazy nation like Virat Kohli. At 25, he has already achieved more than what Tendulkar did at this stage of his career, and if the youngster maintains his good run for another decade or so he can measure up to Tendulkar’s legacy.
But there are differences as well. Where Tendulkar symbolised everything that cricket stands for, Kohli’s behaviour often comes under intense scrutiny. Unlike his illustrious countryman, Kohli doesn’t believe in controlling emotions -- either on the field or off it. Tendulkar wasn’t given to dramatics. Whether he scored a hundred or was given out wrongly, there was a touch of equanimity to his reaction. Kohli on the other hand is expressive and often with expletives, leaving the purists cringing.
Over the last one year or so Kohli has toned down considerably, but every now and then his wild streak surfaces. At the same time his batting resembles the maturity of a statesman giving a political discourse. He is a bundle of contractions and hence sharply divides opinions. Even his staunchest critics, however, can’t deny his meteoric rise as the best Indian batsman across all formats.
As volatile a character as he comes across, he brings a sense of assurance among the Indian team’s supporters and has a calming influence in the dressing room when he is at the crease. From being enfant terrible to one of the finest batsmen in the world, Kohli’s transformation has been remarkable.
“Virat is somebody who is very different if you compare him to someone like a Rohit Sharma or a Yuvraj Singh or a Suresh Raina,” said Indian skipper MS Dhoni, talking about the role of his deputy in the team. “That’s how the character of the side builds. He has done fantastically well in the last few years.
I feel he has been someone who has grabbed the opportunity to the best potential he had because more often than not, you will see individuals, if they get five games, they will talk about ‘if I get two more games, I would have done something.’ But if you see Virat, the very first game he gets an opportunity, he grabs it with both hands. That’s something that has been of great help to him,” he explained.
This change-about in his attitude hasn’t been an easy process though. From someone who was seemingly on a self-destructive path, it has taken a great amount of self-realisation to become what he has today. We have seen in the past how off-field distractions have affected cricketers’ performances but Kohli, who is always in the news for his alleged link-ups, has successfully managed to compartmentalise his personal and professional life.
“Whatever I have seen (of him), he is somebody who wants to improve in each and every game,” pointed out Dhoni. “We try to give him an opportunity at the top of the batting order and I am talking about the initial years and there were 3-4 games where he got out after a good start -- scored close to 60, 65, 70... He got runs and got out. He was really disappointed with himself and wanted to improve on that. Because of all those reasons, today you see him as a consistent performer, somebody who doesn’t throw his wicket away. He scores at a pace which is very difficult to match by some of the other individuals, yet he plays very authentic cricketing shots.”
Kohli took 14 ODIs to score his first international hundred but after that he has hit a ton for every seven matches he has played. His 19 ODI centuries put him at eighth, along with Brian Lara, in the list of batsmen with most ODI hundreds and he has taken 55 innings less than Chris Gayle who was the fastest to 19 tons.
Impressively, 13 of those three-figures have come while chasing targets and, incredibly, 12 of them in winning causes. The Delhi batsman is one of those rare Indian breeds who thrive under pressure. In fact, four of his half-centuries, including the warm-up tie against England, in the recent World T20 came while chasing and on three of those occasions, he remained unbeaten to see India home.
“I think anyone in the world does the same things,” Kohli said when asked about his high rate of success while chasing compared to some other batsmen. “Cricket is played more between your ears than your technique. If you can mentally be strong then you can tell yourself to stay on the wicket. It’s about staying patient and staying calm and not thinking about how many runs or balls are remaining.
“It is important to back yourself which I think everybody does with time. Once you start scoring runs, you start believing in yourself more. That’s something I try to do and try to keep myself in that zone. There is no secret. Everyone wants to do well, everyone wants to score,” he offered.
Modest as he may sound, Kohli, in his heart of hearts, knows that he has left his contemporaries in the team way behind in the pecking order. Everyone will have talent but if it’s not backed by fortitude, it will not see the desired results. Kohli’s clarity of thought even when it comes to his practice sessions, shows why he has been so successful.
“Sometimes I have committed the mistake of just being casual in a net session when I am playing well, when I am hitting the ball well (in matches),” the right-hander said while explaining as to why he restricts his training to just to a few throwdowns on occasion. “I believe with me the case is one bad net session can really disturb me mentally, so I rather just play 10 balls, hit the middle of the bat and just feel good at a practice session. There is no point going hard at the ball, playing 60-70 balls and middling 10 balls.
“I believe you have 10 throwdowns and middle the ball because I know how to play cricketing shots. If I am in a good mental space, I can execute my strokes in the game, I know when to hit sixes, I know when to hit boundaries. There is no point trying to slog everything in the nets which certainly happens with me when I am playing well and I just go into the net session without planning anything,” he reasoned.
The best part about Kohli, though, is his immense desire to succeed in cricket’s traditional and most gruelling format -- Test -- and in alien conditions. From Australia to South Africa to New Zealand, Kohli has tons against his name, proving that he just doesn’t talk but walks the talk.