If you were starting a podcast on Indian cricket and wanted to choose a subject that alienates as many people as it attracts, you would be hard-pressed to beat Virat Kohli at the moment. To some, he is the bonafide legend of modern-day cricket who is just going through a rough patch; to others, he is a master of the craft who is now past his prime.
But the belligerently competitive Kohli is starting to find second wind with scores of 35, 59 not out and 60 in the Asia Cup. His innings against Pakistan on Sunday, though in a losing cause, was quintessentially Kohli. There were the trademark flicks to midwicket, the sumptuous drives, and to top it all, the running between the wickets.
The Dubai crowd also got behind him, shouting, “Kohli! Kohli! Kohli!” But according to the man himself, sometimes, amidst this din of trumpets, chanting and screaming, “you get lost in your identity and lose affection for the sport - the joy disappears.”
In Sunday’s post-match media interaction, Kohli’s general tone was one of frankness and honesty as he opened up about his struggles with mental health and how he has coped with life outside cricket and his game since giving up India captaincy. “I can tell you one thing... when I left Test captaincy, I got a message from only one person, with whom I have played previously - MS Dhoni,” Kohli said with a smile. “Many people have my number. On TV, lots of people give suggestions, but whoever had my number, no one texted. When you have a genuine connection with someone, it shows because you’re never insecure about each other. When I’ve to say something to someone, I reach out to the person individually, even if it’s to help them. If you say it in front of the entire world, that has no value to me. If it’s for my improvement, you can talk to me one-on-one. I live my life with honesty, so these things matter to me. As long as I am worthy of playing for the country, that’s how I will play.”
Kohli was picked for the Asia Cup after a break of more than a month following the end of the England tour on July 17. Before this Asia Cup, Kohli had played only four T20Is since the T20 World Cup in November last year, scoring a meagre 81 runs at an average of 20. He also had an average season with Royal Challengers Bangalore in IPL 2022, where he scored 341 runs at an average of 22.73. But according to Kohli, after a point, the break “became necessary”.
“More mentally than physically,” he said. “I never thought I wouldn’t touch the bat for a month. And then, when you bat again after a month, you realise why you started playing; that feeling gets lost somewhere. Finding that [joy] was very important for me. Because when I am in my space, I know what I can do for the team. If I am in a bad space, it doesn’t help me or the team. No one should run away from it. There is nothing wrong with taking a break. Hope, people draw strength and address their feelings. We are all humans, so recognizing and caring are very important. If you keep ignoring them, you’ll get more frustrated. Now I am enjoying my cricket, which is the most important thing for me.”
Kohli also credited the captain and the team management for fostering an environment that does not let a player feel isolated after a disappointing performance. Kohli was responding to a question on Arshdeep Singh’s dropped catch of Asif Ali in the 18th over of the run chase. “Anyone can make mistakes under pressure. It was a big game, and that was a tense situation,” Kohli said. “I still remember my Champions Trophy match against Pakistan [Centurion, September 26, 2009, ICC Champions Trophy]. I played a loose shot against Shahid Afridi and got out. I couldn’t sleep till 5 am; I was staring at the wall (smiles). I thought I’ll never get a chance again. So, it is natural to feel that way. But the seniors rally around you. When the environment is nice in the dressing room, you learn from these things, and when next time such an opportunity arises, you want the catch to come to you.”
On his innings, which comprised four fours and a six, Kohli said: “I made a conscious effort to strike at a higher pace. When we lost wickets, there was communication, and our plans changed, and I had to bat till the 18th over. If a couple of batters were left, I would’ve carried on with a similar tempo and tried to hit more boundaries. However, I ended up being in a situation where I had to go deep. Haris Rauf bowled a great last over. He nailed those slower balls and yorkers, and at that pace [upwards of 145kph], when you execute well, it is difficult to put it away. Batting first, I will continue to bat the way I did today (Sunday), try and take the game on and stay ahead of the asking rate, and bat freely. As long as I am confident about my game, I know I can bat in many ways.”