“A good cricketer needs to have a good head to succeed in any form of the game. You may get the chance (to play for the country) any time, but you have to be mentally prepared for it,” says Virat Kohli in this interview with G. Viswanath.
Virat Kohli is one of the brightest batting talents in Indian cricket. Rising to fame as the captain of the India under-19 team that won the ICC World Cup in Kuala Lumpur in 2008, Kohli is of the view that experience in first-class cricket is obligatory for any young cricketer.
“There is a huge gap between under-19 and first-class cricket in India. It’s worth playing first-class cricket for a few years before turning out for India,” said Kohli during the Duleep Trophy semifinal in Rajkot.
The Emerging Players tournaments in Australia in 2008 and 2009 were crucial to his career. Given the big break by the former chairman of the National selection committee, Dilip Vengsarkar, the Delhi batsman has proved that he belongs to the big league.Excerpts from an interview:
Question: You are 21 now. Did you imagine that you would play for India at a young age?
Answer: Honestly, I did not think or believe that I would be playing for India so soon. When the under-19 World Cup came (Kuala Lumpur, 2008) I thought I had the platform to do something special. That’s probably because youngsters were being encouraged and promoted by the National selectors. The under-19 World Cup gave some of us in the team plenty of confidence. The frontline batsmen and bowlers knew that once they performed they could be in the reckoning for the Indian team.
There’s pressure when you are playing the under-19 matches that are shown live. I was with the under-19 team for two years; I toured most of the countries and felt no pressure except when teams in England and New Zealand would attack with their fast bowling. If the matches are not shown live one could just go out and express himself.
Would you say that excelling for India under-19 is an advantage? Or is it essential for a cricketer to go through the grind of first-class cricket?
I would not say that under-19 is the only way to make it to the Indian team. But the aim was to be noticed by people and perform consistently in two or three domestic seasons in the hope of playing for India. You get a chance to play for India only if you do consistently well in domestic cricket. First-class cricket in India is far higher than the international under-19 level. When you do consistently well against good first-class teams that’s more satisfying to me; when you score a century against a full Mumbai team that’s more satisfying.
I am playing my fourth season in domestic cricket. Domestic cricket is very essential because after playing the under-19 World Cup, when I went into the IPL, I experienced a big difference playing against international cricketers. Since there were many first-class cricketers in the IPL, it helped. There’s a massive difference between the under-19 international level and the senior international level. The Emerging Players tournament in Australia in 2008 was very competitive.
I found a big gap between under-19 and first-class cricket in India. There are cricketers who have been playing domestic tournaments for seven or eight years. They are not rookies, they are pros. One has to be more focused while playing first-class cricket — here one has to think about his game and build his innings.
But in the case of fast bowlers, they tend to catch the attention of the people quickly, and they may get a chance to play for the country in their first first-class season. When you climb to that level, you realise that you need to sort out your line and length. A fast bowler may have a dream debut, a great start, but when batsmen at the international level start handling him well, problems occur. Probably one needs to work more on his skills in first-class cricket. I think it’s better for a young fast bowler to get an early break and stay with the team for a longer time. You learn a lot with the Indian team.
Sehwag, Harbhajan, Yuvraj and Kaif — all of them got a boost because of their success at the under-19 level. Then there’s history, right from the days of Gavaskar and Viswanath, and Tendulkar and Kambli thereafter. They all got the big break when they were very young…
When you are playing under-19, people tend to see you as someone who is gifted. It’s important, individually, to have the thought that you could actually make it to the Indian team if you do well in junior cricket. If you do well, then you get the chance to represent the state in the senior domestic tournaments. So obviously, there’s scope for young players to break into the National team, but it all depends on their performance in the Ranji Trophy, Duleep Trophy, Irani Trophy and even in the one-day tournaments. A youngster should also realise that there are probably 50 other players of his age competing with him and that they are all as talented as he is.
One has to make the most of the opportunity he gets. He needs to take care of his performances, make sure that he does well as the selectors have shown faith in him, and also justify his talent.
Is there any strain to perform at the under-19 level itself?
There’s a bit of strain when you are under-19 or thereabouts. It can get very stressful sometimes because one tour may go well and another may not. You don’t have the maturity to deal with fluctuations in form at the under-19 level. So you do wonders on one tour and go into a shell on the next.
You also feel the strain when you begin to think that you have to score more runs than the other guy in the team. It’s not that you don’t want the other guy to do well, but you feel that you should have got as many runs as he did.
There was a lot of healthy competition in my under-19 team. Some of the players like Tanmay Srivastava and Ajinkya Rahane are doing well in first-class cricket now.
Which aspect of your cricket do you think impressed the selectors?
For any cricketer, not just me, it could be the way he bats or bowls; it could be the way he raises the energy levels on the field or his attitude backed by performances. I don’t think the selectors get impressed by one aspect of any cricketer, and there’s no particular aspect that a cricketer works on to impress the selectors.
The Emerging Players tournament (against Australia, South Africa and New Zealand) gave you a major break?
It has been the turning point of my career. I played twice in Australia, in 2008 and 2009, and it was obvious that the other teams too fielded their fringe players, probably their best talent below the Test level. I had the chance to play against Chris Martin, Peter Fulton, James Franklin and also the South African Lonwabo Tsotsobe. Last year, I won the ‘Player of the Tournament’ award. When you see all these players at the presentation ceremony and realise that you have done well against them it gives you a lot of confidence. It gave me the self-belief that I could do well at the international level.
Now, a year and a half after making my debut for India, I can say that the Emerging Players tournament gave me the self-belief to perform well in international cricket. The first few matches of the Emerging Players tournament did not go well for me though, but suddenly I was on a high.
I had not done very well in IPL-1 and was low on confidence. I also did not get runs in the Emerging Players tournament in 2008. Against this backdrop, I was asked to open in a particular match of the Emerging Players tournament, 2009, as Rahane was not among runs. We were chasing and I got a hundred-odd runs. I had never opened in my life and here I got a century. I have never feared failure. I was probably conscious that Dilip Vengsarkar was watching the match.
What helped shape your cricket in Delhi? Was it watching players such as Sehwag and Gambhir?
I have always idolised Sachin Tendulkar, right from the time I started playing cricket and began watching matches on television. I was just amazed by the way he played. I have always dreamt of winning a match for India, like the way he (Tendulkar) did in back-to-back matches against Australia (in Sharjah).
There are only a few two- or three-day cricket tournaments in Delhi, yet it has produced cricketers such as Sehwag and Gambhir, and now, you — all equipped to play all formats of the game?
In Mumbai there are many three-day cricket tournaments but Rohit Sharma is adept in all forms of the game. In Delhi, it is one-day cricket and it has given a Sehwag who averages 50-plus in Test cricket. So, it’s all in the mind. Gambhir was once labelled as a player not suitable for the longer version of the game, but now he has been nominated as the Test Cricketer of the Year. I have seen Sehwag and Gambhir, they have tremendous self-belief which is really amazing. They tell me to believe in myself and be mentally strong.
Even your team in the IPL, Royal Challengers Bangalore, has plenty of attacking batsmen. You are in the midst of almost a dozen attacking batsmen. How much does this play on your mind?
It’s important for me to understand my ability. I cannot hit sixes like Pietersen, Dhoni or Virubhai do. I have to craft my game according to my ability. If I can score five fours in an over, I won’t go for three sixes. I will stick to my ability which I understood in the last IPL in South Africa. In the first IPL, I was probably trying to match a few players, but in one year’s time I realised that I need to have confidence in my ability. I don’t want to overdo it just to impress anyone. At every practice session I try to interact with the other players, learn something from them and gain as much as I can. I learnt to play my role a lot from Pietersen, Mark Boucher and Rahul Dravid from IPL-2 onwards. They believed that I could play an important role in the team at No. 5, 6 or 7 and could finish off some games as well.
Twenty one-day matches for India at an average of 54.21. You must be pleased?
I never thought I would ever have an average of 54.21 in the one-dayers. Things have worked out well for me in the past few months. Honestly, I wanted to increase my average in the final of the tri-series in Bangladesh. Probably I paid the penalty for attempting to do that. I know it may not stay there forever. I am trying to understand that, but I will try to live up to that level.
You have scored 574 in 10 innings (average 82) while chasing and 185 in eight innings (26.43) batting first. Probably you are comfortable batting under lights?
People say the ball swings a lot, but I enjoy batting under lights. When you are chasing, the whole game comes to life and boosts me. It gives me tremendous confidence to keep batting and play my shots. I just get the confidence while walking to the crease under lights.
You have played 13 of your 20 ODIs against Sri Lanka. You must be looking forward to scoring against other teams as well? You have a 79 not out against the West Indies in the Champions Trophy in South Africa?
Personally, I would rate my 79 not out against the West Indies in the ICC Champions Trophy as the second best after the 107 against Sri Lanka at Eden Gardens. It was a very important innings for me. We had lost two wickets, I went in at No. 4 and Kemar Roach was bowling really quick. It was a different experience facing real fast bowling and that too on a wicket that afforded bounce.
Your fielding is a real asset to the side. Has it been a very conscientious effort to excel in fielding?
I was a horrible fielder in the under-17 age group. It was when I began playing for India under-19 that I really started to work on my fielding. I enjoyed it. I never felt lazy. I just liked to catch and throw the ball to the wicketkeeper. I enjoy the fielding sessions now.
Are you in a hurry to be capped in Test cricket?
If I get the chance, nothing like it. But it’s really good for me if I play more first-class matches. I have realised the importance of first-class cricket. I would be happy if I am better prepared to play Test cricket. That’s the ultimate dream and certainly I would like to play Test cricket.
Abhimanyu Mithun is a young fast bowler who has been included in the Test squad after an emphatic performance in his first season in the Ranji Trophy. In comparison, do you think a batsman needs to wait longer for his big break?
A good cricketer needs to have a good head to succeed in any form of the game. You may get the chance (to play for the country) any time, but you have to be mentally prepared for it. I opened in Sri Lanka for the first time and I got 50-odd runs. But I was not happy with my game. When I got another chance a year later and started scoring runs, I just had a different feeling, a confidence that I belonged to the highest level.
There’s this debate that the under-19 players should not be allowed to play Twenty20 cricket?
You need experience to play Twenty20. One cannot expect wonders from players coming straight from the under-19 level. This has crossed the minds of the team management and the players as well. It’s like facing an under-19 bowler for sometime and then standing up to Dale Steyn at 150-plus. For me, it was completely different in a span of one month. Experience counts a lot in Twenty20. In IPL-1, with the mindset of an under-19, I had lots of problems facing the international fast bowlers even in the nets.
You have talked a lot about the mental aspect. You decided to bat and scored 90 against Karnataka despite the tragedy of the demise of your father a few years ago?
That always stays with me. I don’t think I made any special effort to go out and play (in spite of the tragedy). I had the passion and the drive for the game and just wanted to play. My family backed my decision. My father wanted me to play good cricket. I did not allow the tragedy to affect me. I was shocked by it, but I was not thinking about it while batting. It all came back though when I got out and was returning home.
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