What next, Virat?

Virat Kohli played cricket as if the world were his oyster, and now it genuinely is. Leading batsman in three formats, soon to be captain in all three. It is a good place to be in your 20s. The pupil to teacher phase is over. We await the master.

Virat Kohli... the only batsman to have a 50 plus average after 171 ODIs!   -  GETTY IMAGES

Kohli has settled in as a Test captain really well.   -  PTI

It is only a matter of time before the mantle of captaincy of the Men in Blue passes from Mahendra Singh Dhoni to Virat Kohli.   -  GETTY IMAGES

There are few public figures who actually evolve in public. Politicians usually arrive as miniature versions of their future selves, actors have their personae air-brushed by PR people. Even sportsmen rarely wear their hearts on their sleeve despite the passion for what they do. The growing up takes place off-stage.

But Virat Kohli has gone from brash youngster to mature man of the world before our eyes, sharing with us every twist and turn on the journey. In his teens, a nation rejoiced in the triumph of the captain who led India to an Under-19 world title; in his early 20s he became the bad boy of Indian cricket, and a nation either shared his frustration as performance fell short of promise or turned moral police pointing to his rebellious manner. While you could bring home to your grandmother the preceding generation of the Tendulkars, Dravids, Kumbles and Laxmans, you needed to protect your grandmother from this young communicator who cursed like a sailor.

Then came the centuries in Australia and South Africa, Test captaincy, the ease with which he wore the mantle as the side’s best batsman and all was forgiven. From someone who embarrassed a generation with over-the-top aggression to one who makes the whole nation proud, Kohli has travelled well, taking us along on his route, confiding in us, assuring us that he is that rare creature: a fabulous performer who cares for his sport.

At 27, he is in the middle phase of a career that in some respects promises to be more glittering, more impactful, certainly more talked about than those of his great predecessors of the Sachin Tendulkar era. After Tendulkar had been caught at slip in his last Test innings in his 200th Test, Kohli drove the next delivery from Narsingh Deonarine to the boundary. The symbolism was almost Bollywoodean in its obviousness: the king is dead, long live the king.

The middle phase of a sportsman’s career is often the most interesting. The early struggles give way to a settled self-assurance, and the future is still full of possibilities. By the age of 27, Sunil Gavaskar had played 24 Tests, made eight centuries and hit upon his career average of around 51; Rahul Dravid had played 37 for six centuries at an average of 47, Virender Sehwag 40 with 11 centuries and an average of 56. Tendulkar alone had played more than Kohli’s 41, his 76 and 22 centuries at an average of 55 being quite imposing.

Yet, in each case, statistically the best was yet to come. Both Gavaskar and Dravid played more than 100 Tests after the age of 27, and Tendulkar hadn’t yet reached the halfway mark. Kohli’s average of 44 and 11 centuries might suggest that he is one step behind the others. It is an anomaly he will correct before the years run out, but in the shorter format he is ahead of everybody, even Tendulkar, and the only one to have a 50-plus average after 171 ODIs. He has 25 centuries, with Tendulkar reaching the same number — on way to 49 hundreds — in 249 matches.

 

His Test figures are, for a man of his talent, modest. In one-day cricket, he is easily one of the top two or three in the world. He is not yet playing to full potential, which must be a frightening thought for bowlers around the world.

Yet like the batsmen named above, Kohli too is greater than the sum of his figures. In his formative years, as he grew in the shadow of India’s greatest batting line-up, he picked up elements of the craft unique to the best. From Sehwag he absorbed the ability to put the best deliveries away to the boundary, from 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.

It took Kohli some time to eliminate an initial obvious weakness: the uncertainty against the short-pitched delivery. He worked at it, saw the sense in overcoming his ego and letting the bowler know that even as he avoided the ball, he was in control.

It was an important step towards creating the complete batsman. Then came the tour of England and James Anderson’s persistent enquiries outside the off stump.

Kohli played away, he jabbed, he tried to take his bat away, he tried to hit himself out of trouble, but ended up edging to be caught. With centuries in South Africa and Australia, he has shown that pace holds no terror, but the moving ball might. Overcoming that will involve getting the trigger movement right, playing closer to the body and developing the instinct to leave the ball outside the off stump.

 

But batsmanship is only one aspect of what makes Kohli. He has infused the Indian team with a self-confidence that, like its new-found aggression, is an extension of his own persona. The preceding generation had been more subtle, less obviously aggressive. Kohli speaks his mind; he is not particularly discreet. He enjoys what he is doing and communicates that enjoyment.

Early last year, Martin Crowe, the New Zealand batsman and a 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.”

Sportsmen are said to arrive at their peak around the age of 28. At that stage, the rashness of youth is tempered with the sagacity that comes with experience; dreary habit hasn’t eroded enthusiasm and the instinct remains to take the fight into the enemy’s camp. Physically it doesn’t get any better, and mentally the thought of what can go wrong hasn’t replaced how it can go right.

Kohli’s next assignment is a crucial one. The World T20. It is a tournament India won nine years ago and that changed the face of cricket. The last time India won a World Cup at home, in 2011, Kohli carried his hero Tendulkar on his shoulders after the victory. The wheel has turned. Kohli is not the new Tendulkar, he is the original Kohli. He is entitled to be carried this time if India win, given that to get there, his contribution would have been crucial.

In a game with three distinct formats, there are few batsmen who are top of the line in all three. His generation will be judged by the ability to rule in all formats, and Kohli has a head start.

In his last 11 T20 internationals, Kohli averages 85 at a strike rate of 145. He has been rested for the home series against Sri Lanka, but will look to carry that form into the World Cup. He played cricket as if the world were his oyster, and now it genuinely is. Leading batsman in three formats, soon to be captain in all three. It is a good place to be in your 20s. The pupil to teacher phase is over. We await the master.

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