Virat Kohli is probably the most fiercely driven man in modern cricket. After captaining India to a second consecutive ICC test mace and grabbing back-to-back Wisden Cricketer of the Year awards, he’s also the most significant entity in Indian cricket. The biggest test of his captaincy now awaits on the other side of the IPL, with series’ in England and then in Australia. Will his decision to play county cricket pay off? Will Team India’s Dark Knight conquer the final frontiers?
Will Virat Kohli become the greatest cricketer of his generation?
You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain – Harvey Dent, in The Dark Knight
It was a bright afternoon at Famous Studios in Worli, Mumbai, as I waited for Virat Kohli to finish having lunch ahead of our interaction. Interestingly, also in the waiting area was senior sports writer, Wright Thompson of ESPN The Magazine. “I’ve flown straight from an emotionally-charged funeral of a footballer (David Astori) in Italy,” said the Mississippi native, “to follow this guy, and feature him on an upcoming special issue cover, alongside Leo Messi.”
“So,” I enquired, “is cricket becoming as big as soccer in America?” He did describe the increasing popularity of The Gentleman’s Game in his part of the world, but emphasised that Kohli has emerged as one of the game’s leading icons, cutting across both geographic and sporting boundaries. After all, the Indian skipper ranked seventh in Forbes’ global list of the most valuable brands among sportspersons, two places ahead of the Barcelona and Argentina talisman Lionel Messi.
Thompson had first encountered Kohli during the 2011 World Cup and still remembers the batsman as an aggressive customer, hot-headed and occasionally rash. With his recent run of form, though, the Delhi man has proved anything but. A second consecutive Wisden Cricketer of the Year accolade landed in his kitty last month; it’s the first time Virender Sehwag’s 2008- 09 feat has been emulated. It came as the icing on a mammoth cake of 2,818 runs (700-plus better than Joe Root at No. 2 and more than 1,000 clear of Steve Smith) that he had baked in 46 internationals last year. That’s in addition to the multiple captaincy records he’s set and broken, including the most consecutive series wins in international cricket.
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I’m inside the vanity van now (the ambassador for Tissot, he’s getting ready to show up at the launch of brand’s new showroom in Lower Parel), and the aircon is full blast as Kohli greets me with an iPhone in his hand, furiously texting at every little opportunity. I can clearly sense a chilly air of restraint. There can be no questions about his personal life — he’s just married Anushka Sharma, and even the talk on cricket has to be limited because of ‘BCCI mandates,’ as instructed by his manager.
“It was a great tour for us,” he reflects on the South African expedition earlier this year, “We played great cricket and that’s something that really gave all of us a lot of satisfaction. Overall, it was a tour that made the team move ahead in many aspects — something that we’re really proud of.”
In the first overseas series of 2018, Team India recovered from the 2-1 Test series loss (the scoreline could have so easily been the reverse) to thrash the Proteas 5-1 in the ODIs, and then 2-1 in the T20Is. Personally, Kohli picked up right from where he had left off last year. Three hundreds in the ODI series returned an incredible average of 186, while an impressive tally of 286 in three low-scoring Tests also included a gritty 153 at Centurion.
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Marking his 10th anniversary in senior international cricket this year, Kohli is the only batsman to average above 50 in all three formats of the game. With his biggest Test rival, Steve Smith banned for a year, and other contemporaries — Hashim Amla, Joe Root and Kane Williamson — performing inconsistently across different formats, the stage might well be set for the Indian captain to establish himself as the greatest batsman of his generation (if he isn’t already).
Madness, as you know, is like gravity – all it takes is a little push – Joker, in The Dark Knight
So, is this the best that he has felt about his game? “I can’t analyse, to be honest. I’ve had different phases where I’ve felt really good, and some other times that have been tough. For me, it’s just about one game at a time. I don’t really put much thought into how I was playing earlier and how I’m playing now. I don’t think like that.”
The mental fortitude of this version of Virat Kohli is a country mile away from the one I remember sliding on the Kuala Lumpur outfield, hurling expletives in all directions after defeating South Africa in the final of the 2008 Under-19 World Cup. As Siddhartha Vaidyanathan pointed out, in The Hindu, the anger that smouldered has given way to a sustained rage, directed less at others and more inwards.
This attention to a better command over body and mind can be traced back to an overhaul he kickstarted after the 2012 IPL. “I was hitting the ball really well and wanted to bat aggressively,” he told The Cricket Monthly in June 2015, “but that did not happen. So that really messed me up mentally. My eating habits, my training habits, they became very bad. I looked at myself in the mirror after the IPL and… I told myself: ‘You cannot look like this if you are an international cricketer’.”
Shortly, he would go on to lose “about 11 kg in eight months.” The words ‘military discipline’ have often been associated with the diet behind this transformation. Kohli also revealed during his recent appearance on Gaurav Kapur’s talk show, Breakfast With Champions, that he hasn’t had his favourite Punjabi butter chicken in four years.
During the episode, he also shares how he spends at least four hours in the gym daily during the off-season. He also loves a big breakfast. It usually comprises an omelette — three whites and one whole — with spinach, black pepper and cheese; and of course, some grilled bacon or smoked salmon on the side. This is washed down with a big pot of lemon-flavoured green tea, before a fruit bowl that is usually filled by papaya, dragonfruit and watermelon. Apparently, there’s also a monitoring of the specific mineral water brand he consumes, and a tracking of his sleep routines. “Out went all the junk food. In came a hundred squats a day and a lower-body workout regimen that would enable him to hare between wickets,” wrote Vaidyanathan.
At the time of my interview, he is on a break from international cricket. It is a part of his long-term fitness management, but also the first break after his wedding in Tuscany. He gets slightly defensive upon being enquired about it. “It’s quite normal,” he says, as if to fend off any likely link with Anushka.
“I asked for a break; I needed it,” It’s important to take breaks. It isn’t something that people don’t do.” The break produced an unlikely hero in Dinesh Karthik, who hit that winning six off the last ball in the final of the Nidahas Trophy in Sri Lanka, and a bunch of promising newcomers, led by Washington Sundar.
“The youngsters are all obviously very, very talented,” the captain says. “We all believe in their talent and skill levels, and that’s why they’ve been given chances. We believe they have the character to continue to hold Indian cricket in a great space on the global level. We want to give them ample opportunities, so that they feel confident moving ahead in their careers.”
It’s not about what I want, it’s about what’s fair – Harvey Dent, in The Dark Knight
The Royal Challengers Bangalore have started their 2018 Indian Premier League campaign with three losses and a win in their first four games, as this article is being written. It looks like it’s going to be another challenging season for RCB, three-time IPL runners-up and still chasing their first T20 title. Captain Kohli has thus far scored 109 runs, including a fifty. Clouds of doubt still hover over the franchise’s fortunes this season, but it would take something extraordinarily calamitous for the skipper to not finish among at least the tournament’s top five run-getters this year.
“Not many people understand the kind of things I have seen in life at a very young age,” he had told Cricket Monthly soon after assuming national captaincy, “Maybe that is why I believe in myself a lot. I think if I did not have belief, I would not be able to build my career all these years.”
This belief will take Kohli to county cricket for the first time, almost immediately after the conclusion of the breathless two-month long IPL. He will reportedly play for Essex or Surrey in the buildup to the five-Test away series that awaits in June. For many critics, English soil is Kohli’s last frontier as a batsman — he averaged 13 during his last tour, a whole 40 lower than his career figure. It’s the second of India’s three big away tours in 2018 — the Men in Blue play four Tests in Australia later this year — that could define Kohli’s reign as Team India’s leader. For more perspective, India has won just once in England since 1986.
“The away series (in Australia and England) are part of the schedule,” he says, downplaying it. “It’s something you have to take into stride as an international cricketer. It’s something that we’re looking forward to, of course. It (the schedule) is full of exciting times for the team. The team is growing together and we see it as a great opportunity to do great things together.”
Why so serious? – the Joker, in The Dark Knight
“I don’t like predictions for my life,” he says, dismissing a cricket astrologer’s prophecy about breaking Sachin Tendulkar’s records. “I’m just happy living one day at a time; I’m happy in this moment. Whatever God gives me, I’ll accept it.” As much as Kohli would like to dodge comparisons with the obvious benchmark, they are simply inevitable. From Sunil Gavaskar, Virender Sehwag and Kapil Dev to Shane Warne, Imran Khan, Mike Hussey and Brett Lee, experts and former cricketers have all had their say in the matter.
“Tendulkar gave you hope,” wrote Pranay Sanklecha, an assistant professor of philosophy (at which university?), for ESPNcricinfo. “As long as he was there, the match wasn’t done. But Kohli gives you certainty. When he comes in, the match is done.” In fact, even on paper, Kohli looks set to break some of his records, at least in ODIs. But (and that’s a big but), his career has to last as long as the Master Blaster’s did.
Here, it’s worth pointing out that the county stint would mean Kohli’s nonparticipation in the landmark one-off Test against Afghanistan in Bengaluru (and possibly two T20s against Ireland), much like the Nidahas Trophy. That sets an interesting precedent for Kohli’s 30s, as he moves onto the other side in November this year.
Tendulkar’s busiest time in ODIs was his career’s ninth calendar year, 1997, where he played 39 games at the age of 24. His second-busiest calendar years (34 matches) came at age 25 (1998, also his most successful year in terms of runs) and then 27 (2000). In the postSharjah era, and troubled by a tennis elbow, Tendulkar’s ODI participation dwindled, with the exception of 2007, when he played 33 games at the age of 34.
On the other hand, Kohli’s most successful year run-wise was 2017 (aged 28). More importantly, though, he played a maximum of 34 ODIs in 2013, aged 25, but that figure has also plunged ever since. With Team India scheduled to play a whopping 63 international matches in the 2018/19 season, expect the captain to continue adopting this selective approach throughout.
Sachin Tendulkar v Virat Kohli After 200 ODI Innings
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So evidently, the race to hunt down Tendulkar’s records will be fought between the dawning years and Kohli’s fitness. “These things (records) are just a by-product of hard work,” he tells me. “[I’m] being grateful to God for what I’m getting, working hard on an everyday basis. I don’t think [about] how I’m feeling right now, or not. Whatever is coming my way, I’m reacting to that.”
It was not even 12 months ago that Kohli’s one-time mentor Anil Kumble was the national coach. Shortly though, he was replaced by Kohli-loyalist Ravi Shastri, at the captain’s behest. With the BCCI in a state of flux following Supreme Court rulings, as pointed out by Suresh Menon for Wisden India, the power in Indian cricket has been taken from the hands of a few and placed in the hands of even fewer – and it doesn’t take a genius to deduce that Kohli is currently the monarch of Indian cricket. With 9,000-plus ODI runs and a light year in Tests still separating him from Tendulkar, there might not be enough time for him to beat the legend’s mind-boggling numbers. There might, however, just be enough for him to leave behind his own legacy – certainly a more ruthless one.
Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now – James Gordon, in The Dark Knight
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