Steel still to be Honed!

K.R. DEEPAK

Virat Kohli, the heir apparent, can do nearly anything he sets his mind on. Rather like the incumbent, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

You mightn’t realise, but it’s hard being an heir apparent. There’s the waiting, which is pure cruelty for the ambitious of bent. There’s the constant scrutiny, the need to watch every little thing you say or do lest they be construed as you didn’t intend them construed (or perhaps you did but didn’t want them to know just yet). And for those who make their peace and manage tolerably, there’s the frequent, often unflattering, comparison with the incumbent. It’s enough to turn a cool cat dull.

But whatever you think of Virat Kohli, dullness isn’t a charge you can lay at his well-shod feet. He’s India’s next captain and every bit as interesting as the current one. Where M. S. Dhoni’s appeal lies in his unnerving, expressionless calm, a seething competitive spirit that isn’t betrayed on the surface, Kohli’s lies in the fact that in his being reside both grand petulance and great responsibility. Dhoni appears above it all, he does his thing and doesn’t fuss about the result; Kohli is forever in the thick of it.

Petulance and responsibility seem strange siblings but they spring from the same womb, from the burning desire to win. Kohli might carry on like a jerk, but he seldom loses his head. If anything, the anger focuses him. In this he is rare, for many athletes go to pieces when their equanimity is disturbed.

They can pretend all they want and continue wearing poker-faced masks, but mentally they are done. Kohli, on the other hand, lets it out, but remarkably the cold fury brings an annealing calm.

While vice-captain Kohli wears his heart on his sleeve, captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni is always calm, cool and collected.-K.R. DEEPAK

As Ray Jennings, who has worked closely with Kohli during their time at Royal Challengers Bangalore, said in an interview, “A lot of people underestimate him. How can he score so heavily if he is not calm? As a person, he is aggressive. Being aggressive is not wrong. It’s got to be a mix. Being too calm is also a problem.”

Jennings and Anil Kumble played a big part in helping Kohli find a balance that works, but it wouldn’t have happened if Kohli hadn’t realised it was needed.

His success proves he has it figured — for the most part. Except for tournament finals, in which his record is middling, his numbers (see Statistics) indicate that he is exceptional under pressure. Early last year, Kohli made an outrageous 133 off 86 balls to help India chase 321 in 36.4 overs against Sri Lanka. In his last Test innings of 2012, against England, Kohli ground out 103 from 295 balls.

But two incidents this year, both as captain, have raised questions about his ability to lead India. The first was the ugly spat with Gautam Gambhir in the IPL, when both men walked threateningly towards each other, letting loose cuss words that made up in violent intent what they lacked in imagination. The second was in the recent ODI series against Zimbabwe, when Kohli threw a hissy fit and argued with the umpire after he thought he hadn’t been caught cleanly.

Petulant outbursts can be seen less censoriously when it’s an individual cricketer. An apology is made, the lesson is learnt. But from a captain, expected to be a statesman not a ring-leader, it’s not merely unbecoming, it’s a serious deficiency in character.

There is of course a hypocrisy to it all — Kohli’s generation grew up with ruthless Australia as the exemplar; India in contrast was thought to lack “killer instinct”. And since nothing succeeds like success, Australia was fetishised, both its cricket and its conduct. Kohli and his team’s celebrations when they won the under-19 World Cup in 2008 made some cringe, but others saw it as a sign of an assertive new India. To encourage such behaviour, even unwittingly, and then question it isn’t fully fair.

But Kohli can’t escape the fact that these are the standards international captains are held to. Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting were both guilty in their time as captains of crossing the line and permitting their team-mates to do it as well.

For all their attempts to redraw the line conveniently, they were called out. That they ended their careers as beloved elders owes itself in part to their improving over time and in part to nostalgia’s gentle gaze, which lends a benevolence to even the most hardened ruffian.

There is no doubt Kohli can take over from Dhoni, seven years his senior, when the time comes. He wants to lead and for the moment the team reacts well to him. Although it’s too early too tell, he seems a little more attack-minded and that’s never bad. But he’ll need to do something about the temper.

He has found a method that works as a player, he needs to evolve it as captain. It’s tricky, for there’s the risk of suppressing instinct — and as Viv Richards said, “He is an individual who doesn’t back off from confrontation, someone who can stand his ground under pressure. You can’t teach these instinctive aspects.” Why would you neuter something that works? Captains have enough to do without constantly having to second-guess their actions; besides, the best moves come from the gut.

Perhaps all it needs is for Kohli to view it as an obstruction to winning. His anger helps him, but does it the team? If he sees his team unsettled and his opponent encouraged because he has, in a fit of rage, revealed too much, he’ll find a way. Much as he did at Perth (see Statistics), where he resurrected a Test career that appeared over after Melbourne and Sydney. This after all is a man who can do nearly anything he sets his mind on. Rather like the incumbent.