From the time he was a young boy, a fire had raged within Virat Kohli. A red-hot flame that burnt at the surface and occasionally even shot through in a violent burst on the field. When words of his talent spread, even the words of his temper spread. In our judgemental nation, we have a word for it. In fact, a couple. Attitude and Ego. Cricket fans, including many retired cricketers believed that it was a destructive flame, which would burn him into ashes one day.
There is still a fire within Virat Kohli. But it is a fire that drives him forward and fuels his unlimited aspirations. You can see it in his eyes, narrowed and looking determined, you can see it in his roar after every century. Don’t worry if you have missed noticing all this, as he keeps on getting those majestic hundreds and will continue to do so.
So what has changed in this last couple of years for Virat Kohli and his fire?
What was slightly concealed from public in initial years was his strong determination to succeed, extremely hard-working nature and a fighter for the cause of the team. He was lucky enough to start his career when Indian Cricket Team still had few stalwarts in the side. Virat never missed an opportunity to learn from senior players like Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble, VVS Laxman etc.
Being the leader of U19 team, he was automatically looked to as a potential captain of the future. He began to learn the ropes of captaincy by observing MS Dhoni closely. Who better to learn captaincy than the most successful captain India has ever had!
Virat learnt to channelize his inner aggression and focus on his performances. This was perhaps the most crucial lesson he has or will ever learn in his cricketing career. He took his time but once he learnt to focus his aggression positively on his game, he became the obvious choice to lead the team after MS Dhoni.
The opportunity came soon knocking last year when Dhoni relinquished captaincy in the Tests during the Australian Tour Down Under. Virat led the team admirably by personifying patience when Aussie batsmen forged partnerships and being a dynamite when it came to reviving the sagging team spirit.
This mature approach left no doubts for the Indian cricket fans that Kohli was the man for the job. His leadership was different from MS Dhoni but one fine day, everyone had to accept that the team will not belong to Dhoni forever. Virat Kohli was a leader who believed in a ruthless but pragmatic approach to each and every game. He believed in having high expectations from every player of the team and leading the team from the front. Luckily, He always had his own performances to back his high expectations from other players.
Virat Kohli is a Song of Ice and Fire. Such a cliché that it may sound like a tagline of a TV Show or a cocky advertisement for a liquor brand. But it definitely defines Virat Kohli today.
The Ice is a relatively recent acquisition. It wasn’t there when he was a young U19 team captain. And even as late as that dramatic series in Australia where he pulled off four centuries and played some breath-taking shots, he sometimes, and only sometimes, let the fire loose. Every ball became a war to be won and the Aussies realised they could pin him down and get him to play a rash shot. But to his credit, he broke out of that zone quickly. On that tour, in the second innings at Adelaide, with India needing 364 to win on a last-day track where even a 250 looked tough, he played the innings I will always remember him for. He made 141, and if there were any doubts about his temperament, they were dispelled forever. The smile on his face during the after match presentations after losing the IPL Finals 2016 the other day proves how far Kohli has come in last couple of years.
The tour to Australia Down Under was also proof that he relishes tough situations. He loves and thrives in challenging times. It is often the sign of a champion. It is also pretty rare. There are many glass batsmen around, pretty and stylish but who crack at the first sign of pressure. Kohli seems to have become twice the player and ready to walk into any battle without a blink of an eye. The recent IPL has been a glorious example of Kohli blooming into a great batsman and captain. Royal Challengers Bangalore were having quite a forgettable campaign in the first phase of the IPL and couldn’t afford to lose more than one match in the remaining second half. Kohli took the responsibility and made sure that the team regrouped to thrive under pressure. Kohli’s century against Kings XI Punjab with a split webbing in his left hand goes on to show his dedication for the game and the team. No doubt, Sunrisers Hyderabad were a deserving champion team but Kohli made sure that they finished the campaign as not anything less than champions.
Some years ago Rahul Dravid, who had admitted to raising an eyebrow when the young Kohli walked into the Royal Challengers Bangalore team back in 2008, said what struck him about young Virat Kohli was that every time he met him, he seemed to be a better player than at the previous meeting. Rahul Dravid was right in his assessment, as he often is. Just under two years ago, Kohli faced problems outside his off stump in England. To play or not to play is a simple question that has confused many. If he played, he edged, if he left, it rattled his stumps. Word spread so quickly that even on a flat deck in Bangladesh, they bowled a fifth or sixth stump line to him in anticipation that he would reach out.
But watch him now. The bat stays close to the body, and the feet looks decisive. And his response to the outside-off line bowl is to play one of the most thrilling cover drives the game has ever witnessed. In the last few months, I have lost count of the number of times I have awed at the Kohli’s cover drive. Only a few days ago during an IPL match, they showed his scoring areas on television. I noticed that the weak zone outside the off stump had produced a strong zone through cover!
The flick through mid-wicket is still his favourite shot and it hasn’t had to be replaced with the scoop over fine leg or the upper cut or the switch hit; those modern shots that befuddle bowlers and traditional cricket lovers. In fact, I believe Kohli stays away from those shots in fear that they can become a habit; a go-to shot that may infect his technique. For someone who is much ahead of his counterparts, he is still a fairly old-fashioned, orthodox batsman.
In this IPL, I saw grace and then I saw perfection. I saw class and then I saw beauty. And it was as good as anything I have seen so far from his bat or maybe even in cricket.
Sometimes, when you have seen a player frequently, you tend to believe that you have seen all that they have to offer. Then, suddenly, the champions will do something that generates a smile, a gasp or an awe. It happened to the cricket lovers often in 1990s with Sachin Tendulkar. His trademark walk to the pitch, his typical shuffle, his gaze across the field, adjustment of abdomen guard and I would think, “Right, I am ready for another of his innings.” Then he would stand still and punch through cover, the picturesque backlift, and it would seem the whole world, except the cricket ball he had directed to the covers fence, was static and silent. I have often been a small part of the loud roars and thunderous claps that followed that shot. You could see that a million times but every time was as special as the first.
Over the last couple of years, Kohli has produced so many gems of innings, that you are just tempted to write another cover drive against his name and wait for the next. In that amazing second innings in Adelaide a year and a half ago, I thought he had shown everything he possessed; including a sweep shot which I didn’t believe existed at all in his repertoire! In the Asia Cup, he played an innings against Pakistan that could only have been crafted by the very best of batsmen. Surely he had shown his talent there also.
Then I observed him bat in Bangalore against Kings XI Punjab on 18th May, 2016. He had put together a sequence of scores that evoked awe. He was in such a supreme run of form that I believe he could even score runs in his sleep, he could have even scored runs if he forgot to carry his bat out! Kyle Abbott, around six feet tall charged in and hit the deck back of a length, maybe a few inches further up. Kohli took a couple of strides, met the ball on its way up and pointed the bat towards extra cover. The entire bat these days, certainly with Kohli, is a sweet spot and the ball found it quite easily and used it to lift off over the covers. The ball did as it was ordered and reached boundary in no time. It was sheer audacity and elegance.
This IPL has seen many sixes and fours hit, lots of those breathtakingly good, some others brutal, but this shot took my breath away. It was stylish, it was elegant and it was so, so picture perfect. Sometimes you wish to freeze a moving picture to see perfection in a frame. I dare say, you could freeze any frame of that cover driven four.
He will play it again. We will think we have seen it before. And we will still wonder why our eyes are going big and our mouth is gawking so stupidly.
One may say it’s only T20 cricket, one may say the bats are clubs these days, one may even say that all is in favour of the batsmen. But I would say, it was perfection.
Today, I would urge each one from the young generation to have a role model like Virat Kohli. Whatever may be the field, one can always learn sheer dedication, passion, taking up responsibilities and focused aggression from this gem of the Indian Cricket Team.