Riding on a surge of self-assurance

Virat Kohli has established himself in the Indian team in all formats of the game.-V. GANESAN

Virat Kohli’s is, in many ways, a coming of age story and one for which Indian cricket ought to be thankful. His elevation to the vice-captaincy in March and the subsequent appointment of Gautam Gambhir, while unnecessary, is not worth fretting over. For one thing still seems fairly certain: whenever it is that Kohli might sit on that throne, he won’t be a bad ruler, writes Shreedutta Chidananda.

Speaking in The Art of Monarchy, a BBC radio series, the British historian Sir David Cannadine earlier this year theorised that the best way to ensure the success of monarchs was to not raise them to be monarchs. “Look at Queen Victoria, King George V, George VI, and the present Queen,” Sir Cannadine pointed out. “None of them was brought up expecting to be monarchs.

But the least successful ones — in terms of unhappy or short reigns — George IV, Edward VII and VIII, were all brought up expecting to be monarchs. So the best way to ensure that you have a good, happy and successful monarch is not to bring them up to be that.”

It is not too hard to extrapolate that idea to leadership in sport, for there are some striking parallels. Yet, looking at Virat Kohli — for long privately and publicly hailed as India’s next cricket captain — it is impossible to believe that his will be anything other than one of the (notable) cases that do not conform to the theory. Observing him bat or field or do anything, it is often staggering how convinced he is of his own abilities, how sure he is for someone that young. Failure, it seems with him, is simply not an option.

When Kohli captained Royal Challengers Bangalore in the IPL earlier this year, to the coach Ray Jennings it was simply a natural step up. He had foreseen it a long time ago, he said. The South African stated that in his mind that Kohli was “definitely the future captain of India.” Daniel Vettori, RCB’s regular (notionally) captain, too had complete faith in his deputy. “When your players see that you care so much, you try so hard, it sets an example,” he said. “That’s what Virat does — not only with his batting, but also with the standard that he sets in the field.”

If all that seemed exaggerated at the time, now it appears only logical. In the last one year, Kohli has emphatically assured himself of a place in the Indian XI across formats. It is the first step.

Since September of 2011, Kohli has scored more ODI runs than any other batsman in the world, averaging over 66 an innings. He has managed eight hundreds (the next best effort is three), including two of the finest the game has recently seen, and turned into India’s lifeguard in the run chase.

M.S. Dhoni and Kohli... the ruler and the heir apparent.-PTI

His initiation into Test cricket was difficult, but his exclusion after the West Indies tour now seems from a different era. Rahul Dravid and V. V. S. Laxman have retired, Cheteshwar Pujara is returning from a lay-off, Suresh Raina is yet to convince, the openers do not deliver the sort of swashbuckling starts they used to, and all of a sudden Kohli is now India’s most valuable asset. In the victory over New Zealand at Bangalore in the second Test, the 23-year-old allied his skill with a responsibility absent in his peers. His 103 and 51, both top scores, were instructive in how to build Test match innings.

He started slowly and took few risks to begin with (in the second innings, he hadn’t scored a run off his first 15 balls), but when he got going, it was an assault New Zealand had no answer to.

Things weren’t always this sanguine. In the first couple of years after his under-19 World Cup success as captain in 2008, he was — admittedly — not always on his best behaviour off the field. Not that his cricket suffered: after a poor IPL, he made runs in the Emerging Players’ tournament in Australia, and broke into the senior team. Yet there lingered uncomfortable questions over his ‘attitude’ (a euphemism if there ever was one). “His talent was never questioned but he had some issues regarding mental discipline,” Dravid said recently. “I have been following his career since his under-19 days. As he was a part of the RCB setup, I have seen him closely.”

His admission to having erred in his ways, and his subsequent transformation to this mature middle-order run phenomenon have been extraordinary. When Jennings said he saw a captain in Kohli way back in 2009, he wasn’t just jumping on the bandwagon of his under-19 triumph. As coach of the South Africa under-19s at the World Cup, and as a cricketer, he would have seen enough instances of junior success not necessarily translating into that at the senior level. In Kohli, he knew what he saw.

Underpinning Kohli’s progress is an unquenchable desire to improve himself, evident in every single training session. Watching Kohli during a fielding drill at the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium in 2011, a couple of days ahead of the IPL, it was impossible to believe this was a player that had returned from a lengthy World Cup campaign only a couple of days ago. He hared after the ball each time, picked it up and fired it right on top of the stumps, with angry intensity. His evolution into the player he is today is simply a product of that desire. At press conferences (an awful lot of which he seems to address), his replies, while sometimes banal, are remarkably mature. “A month and a half back, I was probably going through a rough phase — as written by everyone,” he observed wryly after guiding RCB into the final of the Champions League T20 last October. “I have seen what happens when you’re not scoring runs,” he said, “I just want to stay humble and keep going as long as I can.”

Kohli’s is, in many ways, a coming of age story and one for which Indian cricket ought to be thankful.

His elevation to the vice-captaincy in March and the subsequent appointment of Gautam Gambhir, while unnecessary, is not worth fretting over. For one thing still seems fairly certain: whenever it is that Kohli might sit on that throne, he won’t be a bad ruler.