VK_TVS-1113-25314-A--ftpDiscretion ought not to be a weakness of youth. If you’ve got it, flaunt it. Attitude, talent, Bollywood girlfriend, fan following, passion, intensity, looks, aggression, self-belief, team-belief and test captaincy — Virat Kohli has ’em all, and he flaunts ’em. There was a time when his career teetered on the verge of disappointment. The media played moral police, looking down upon his partying ways, his anti-establishment stance, his quick temper, and they delivered their judgement: this talent lacked the proper gravitas to attain fulfilment. Kohli was a badass, and not in a good way.

Discretion ought not to be a weakness of youth. If you’ve got it, flaunt it. Attitude, talent, Bollywood girlfriend, fan following, passion, intensity, looks, aggression, self-belief, team-belief and test captaincy — Virat Kohli has ’em all, and he flaunts ’em. There was a time when his career teetered on the verge of disappointment. The media played moral police, looking down upon his partying ways, his anti-establishment stance, his quick temper, and they delivered their judgement: this talent lacked the proper gravitas to attain fulfilment. Kohli was a badass, and not in a good way.

It was an image the advertising world loved, however, and perhaps encouraged. For a quarter of a century, the poster boy of Indian cricket had been Sachin Tendulkar — modest, uncontroversial, the boy to bring home to your grandmother. But, times had changed. India had changed. The country was gaining in self-confidence, it had a voice, it wouldn’t allow itself to be bossed around. True or not, it was an appealing self-image, assiduously cultivated, and the middle-class bought into it. No one portrayed the new image better than Kohli. Being a badass was an advantage. In an earlier generation, it got you kicked out of cricket teams and shunned by the public. Now, marketing men with fat cheques queued up outside your door. Anti-establishment was the new establishment.

Critics in the media, who had rushed to judgment, ignored the fact that Kohli had been in his late teens and early twenties when they pinned the label on him. Journalists and players alike forgot what it had been like at that stage in their own lives. The Tendulkar-Dravid hangover prevailed, and someone outside that disposition did not fit in. It was unfair and unfeeling criticism, and it took Kohli time to shake off the image. Or, at least tone it down in the minds of those who had no room for the unusual in their scheme of things. Why did he mouth such filth when he got to a century, senior players wanted to know? What did he have against the world? The four-letter word (or its cousins in Indian languages) is extremely versatile, equally apt whether expressing joy or sorrow, anger or frustration, or indeed relief. Kohli didn’t have anything against the world, though — he considers it his oyster. A century and a 96 in the same Test at Johannesburg in December 2013 suggested that aggression was allied to skill. Already, by then, Kohli had made rapid progress in the one-day game, with centuries in winning causes.

By the time Kohli made two centuries in the Adelaide Test in Australia, and inspired his team to play above themselves, nearly pulling off an improbable win, there was no longer any loose talk about gravitas or grandmothers. It had taken Kohli a bit longer than some of his predecessors to assert himself where it mattered — on the field. But, the journey was no less fascinating for that. It all came together in Adelaide: the centuries, the captaincy, the Man of the Match. Not since Tiger Pataudi had an Indian captain been willing to risk defeat in pursuit of victory, and India had caved in without a fight in 13 of 17 Tests abroad before the current Australian tour.

460395606They lost the 14th in Adelaide, where Kohli led for the first time, and managed to draw the next test in Melbourne, where he reeled off yet another century and a fifty, but the texture of the defeat was different. The Anna Karenina principle applied. “All happy families are alike,” wrote Tolstoy in his novel. “Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Similarly, all victories are alike, but defeats are wildly different. India went down in a blaze of glory, attempting to make 364 runs in a day and coming startlingly close. Playing for a draw was never an option, said Kohli, perhaps aware that India had the batting to win the Test but not to draw it. Still, there was promise of a change in the standard narrative. Optimism is infectious, and it is easy to catch it off a captain who is full of it. Watching Kohli make his second century in Adelaide, batting seemingly on a different planet from his teammates, it was difficult not to recall the early 1990s, when Tendulkar gave the same impression. The batsman seemed to shine a light on his inner self, throwing into sharp focus his discipline, his temperament and the meditative quality he brought to his stroke-making. Kohli had retained the aggression without losing his game. Self-awareness had replaced self-indulgence. It had been a difficult journey, but once Kohli got a grip on himself and his environment, there was an inevitability to what followed. Responsibility was clearly a catalyst. In Tendulkar’s final innings, after the Master was dismissed, Kohli, the new batsman, drove the next delivery to the fence. It was a nice mix of the symbolic and the realistic: the successor had announced his first day in office. Tendulkar’s replacement had been found; the future of Indian cricket was in safe hands.

Kohli had always been driven and focussed on cricket — he had, after all, lost his father during a match but batted in mourning to save Delhi — but he seemed to be equally taken up by its many distractions. The adulation, the temptations of the flesh — the bad boy image stuck early and stuck fast.
Even the bad boy of an earlier generation, Yuvraj Singh, sounded words of caution: “I see a lot of youngsters like Virat Kohli who are very talented and flamboyant. I tell them not to make the same mistakes I made. When I began playing, the distractions were beginning. Now the distractions are too much. [But], they don’t listen, especially Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli. They always argue with me.”

Kohli, captain of the Under-19 team that won the World Cup, found strength within to combat the devils. “I couldn’t handle what happened after we won the World Cup,” he confessed. “People looking up at you and thinking that you were someone who could play for India. I couldn’t take it, honestly. I made a lot of mistakes. [But], I realised I was going on the wrong track. I asked, what am I doing? There’s no way I’m going to play for India like that. And, that is one thing I wanted to do as a child. I totally cut off from everything else that I was doing for one and a half years. It started to pay off in my cricket.”

The IPL has a lot to answer for, but in Kohli’s case it actually helped. After initially tasting its many enticements, Kohli settled down. In his corner was the Royal Challengers Bangalore coach Ray Jennings, who told him that the Under-19 triumph would soon be forgotten, and that he would be judged as an adult cricketer. Skipper Anil Kumble helped to channelise and focus all that energy — and he was made captain in anticipation of the bigger job to come.

As a batsman, Kohli quickly went from being the most promising to the most accomplished. His centuries in one-day cricket came at a rate that was quicker than either Tendulkar’s or Kumar Sangakkara’s. After a forgettable tour of the West Indies (76 from five innings), he made his first Test century in Australia during an otherwise miserable series for India. His Test figures are, for a man of his talent, modest. He averages 42 from 31 Tests (at the end of the second Test in Brisbane), with eight centuries. In one-day cricket, he is easily one of the top two or three batsmen in the world, averaging over 50, with a strike rate in the 90s. At 26, therefore, he is not yet playing to full potential, which must be a frightening thought for bowlers around the world.

459856710Early last year, Martin Crowe, the New Zealand batsman and leading thinker on the game, said about Kohli, “In many ways, he follows the essence of life: loving what he does and doing what he loves, and learning all he can, often at a rapid pace. Kohli has gone from pupil to teacher quickly, and his next level is to become a master. That he will achieve. It’s in his eyes.” Watching him succeed in South Africa and Australia might provide a clue as to why he failed in England in 2014, a series India lost 1-3. Kohli made just 134 in 10 innings, edging repeatedly as Jimmy Anderson in particular kept the ball just outside the off stump. Was it a weakness against the moving ball, a handicap that kept feeding on itself? Or, just a bad patch all batsmen go through? At the highest level, bowlers work out a batsman’s weakness and then play on it relentlessly. When Kohli started out, there was uncertainty over the short-pitched delivery. He overcame that quickly enough. The England tour might already be a bad dream, nothing more. The move from very good to great is more difficult than the one from good to very good. Before the England tour, Viv Richards had said, “I love watching Virat Kohli bat. He looks to me like an individual of my own heart. I love his aggression. He has the serious passion that I used to have. He reminds me of myself.”

Without quite articulating it, Kohli is unlikely to be an aspiring Tendulkar 2.0 or Richards Part 2. He is comfortable in his skin as Kohli part 1. Yet, in his formative years, as he grew under the shadow of India’s greatest batting line-up, he picked up elements of the craft unique to the best. From Virender Sehwag, he absorbed the ability to put the best deliveries away to the boundary, from Rahul Dravid the focus to play the long innings, from Tendulkar the ability to carry an entire team’s batting on his shoulders without cracking, from VVS Laxman the ability to flick the wrist and send a ball screaming between fielders on the leg side. He may not do this consistently, nor does it make him a better batsman than all the others, but the influences are apparent. With that kind of heritage, young Indian batsmen do not have to reinvent the wheel, in a manner of speaking.
In one area, Kohli is completely different from his predecessors. He speaks his mind. He is not particularly discreet, and he wears his heart on his sleeve. To watch Kohli on the cricket field is to watch passion personified. There is a set to the jaw and a focus in his eye that brooks no misunderstanding. He is out to show who is boss. The Tendulkars and Dravids were more subtle, less obviously aggressive. Discretion was a big part of their make-up. Kohli is a cricketing Leonardo DiCaprio: forceful, communicating enjoyment of what he does and revelling in his superior skills. Discretion he will learn, but there is no hurry.

Suresh Menon is editor, Wisden India Almanack.