Virat Kohli: The face of new India

That Virat Kohli’s imprint on Indian cricket is immense is signalled by the fact that he has ushered in a cultural change. The change has broadly come about in two aspects, his first coach, Rajkumar Sharma, points out — fitness and self-belief.

Whatever be the journey of the Indian team at the World Cup, Virat Kohli’s image as an icon is set in stone.   -  PTI

Throwing the ball with full strength to the wicketkeeper when fielding may be standard among aspiring cricketers, but the young, enthusiastic Virat Kohli would ensure he did it every time at the West Delhi Cricket Academy, his cricketing alma mater in New Delhi’s Paschim Vihar, regardless of whether anyone was backing up.

Kohli liked doing it. It gave him a kick to be involved and to make an impact. It didn’t matter whether the throw was needed or not. It was a statement of intent.

“Till today, if you watch any of his matches, if he picks up the ball, [he will throw it hard]. He [would] field mainly at point or cover. He was and is a brilliant fielder. A lot of energy he [had]; he [would] dive about 10 feet to get to where the ball was going; he [would] never let it go. Once he fields it, he will throw it hard, and when he was a youngster, nobody used to take those throws and nobody [would be] backing up. So I [would] have to shout from the boundary line: ‘Virat, mat maarna. Throw mat maario (Don’t throw the ball).’ But he will,” Rajkumar Sharma, his coach at the institution, said.

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It is a habit he continues till this day. “Abhi bhi (even now) at times I tell him not to waste his energy. When it is not required, if he is standing at long-on, a single has been taken, still, he will throw it at the wicketkeeper’s end, with full [enthusiasm]. I always ask him, ‘Why do you do it?’ At this age also I have to tell him not to waste your energy; aisa hi hai woh, shuru se aisa hi tha (he was like this from the beginning),” Rajkumar adds.

According to Mithun Manhas, Kohli’s senior and captain in the Delhi Ranji Trophy team for a number of years, “He is aggressive and passionate [and] enjoys every moment. It’s a trait which has helped him reach this level.”

Manhas, recalling Kohli’s early days in the Delhi team, says, “He had the game. He was a good timer of the ball and was technically sound. He had the confidence and the game. He would relish any challenge thrown at him on the field.”

According to Raman Gujral, a close friend and a fellow trainee at the academy, Kohli would arrive for training two hours early. “When he was young, he always wanted to train alongside the seniors. For the evening practice session that began at 3.30 p.m., he would arrive at the ground by 1.30 to bat in the nets or to work on his fitness. He worked really hard and made sure his day’s practice was worthwhile,” Gujral, now a businessman and fitness consultant, says.

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During matches, when his team batted, he would pad up with the openers. He would want to win every game he participated in – regardless of whether it was a warm-up game or a friendly round of volleyball or football. The passion and the hunger were noticeable. According to Gujral, Kohli was a very good “absorber of pressure.”

Virat Kohli, then captain of the India under-19 team, with his mother Saroj during a visit to his school in New Delhi.   -  Getty Images

 

In-built aggression

His thirst for success was unquenchable. “Sometimes, he would come up to me and say, ‘Raman, yaar nahi ho pa raha hai’ (I am unable to do it), and then he would go on and score 150,” Raman says.

And therefore, his success in the international arena seems to be the other end of a straightforward equation: his efforts paid dividends. By 2006, he was already an up-and-coming star. Raman says, “Kohli always performed best in crucial matches and big leagues. He hit two double centuries at the under-17 level for Delhi.”

And since the Under-19 World Cup victory in 2008, he has been a well-known figure among followers of Indian cricket.

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Just like his name Virat — meaning ‘huge’ — he is a giant of contemporary cricket. He has a batting average of more than 50 in all three formats in international cricket, and with 41 centuries in One-Day Internationals, he is just eight short of the world record currently held by his childhood idol, Sachin Tendulkar.

According to Raman Gujral, a close friend and a fellow trainee at the West Delhi Cricket Academy, Virat Kohli was a “foodie” who liked to eat chole bhature, butter chicken and tandoori chicken.   -  Special Arrangement

Moreover, Kohli has been successful as captain, too. Under him, India has held its status as the No. 1 Test team for more than two years. The team finished as the runner-up in the ICC Champions Trophy in 2017, and in the 2018-19 season it marched to its first-ever Test series win in Australia.

But that’s only half the story. That’s because Virat Kohli represents not just success; today he is the face of Indian cricket. In today’s era of close-up cameras broadcasting players’ every expression, Kohli’s trademark aggressive disposition is familiar to millions of fans — in India as well as abroad; he is a torch-bearer for those who wear their heart on their sleeve. His endless energy and enthusiasm remain undimmed despite tremendous pressure. Rather, he seems to revel in it. In a country that likes to obsess over its heroes, Kohli’s is today one of the most recognised faces.

In your face

Neither is Kohli fazed by sledging by the opposition, nor does he keep quiet himself. “He is more [similar to] Ganguly’s style of captaincy because he is aggressive. He wants to look into the eyes of the others and wants to reply with his bat or ball. He doesn’t want to go down to anybody’s sledging or anything. He wants to give it back and give that confidence to his team. He takes care of youngsters also — ‘Someone wants to sledge my youngster, I have a duty to reply.’ So, he takes that courage and responsibility, to do that. That is a good thing about him, that he takes care of his team,” feels Rajkumar.

Virat Kohli has been a well-known figure among followers of Indian cricket right since the Under-19 World Cup victory in 2008.   -  AFP

 

His unshakeable confidence and combative spirit are also embodied by his walk to the wicket when he comes out to bat. “The best thing about him is his walk towards the wicket. That is the thing I feel proud [about]. I feel very happy about it, [that] he’s not scared of anybody. Wicket itna seam kar raha hai, ya itna akhara ho gaya hai, turn kar raha hai, aadmi sochta hua ja raha hai (the wicket may be seaming, or a minefield, or full of turn — a person may be walking thoughtfully). [But] He’s least bothered, he has that self-belief. I used to like the way Viv Richards used to [walk] — that feel I get from [how he walks],” says Rajkumar. Kohli, therefore, symbolises a new Indian team, a team that is not afraid to take bold steps and look the opposition in the eye. A team that dictates proceedings rather than follow. A team that is unyielding in any circumstance. A team that goes for a win rather than a draw.

At times, though, Kohli’s aggression can appear to be a bit outrageous. “He was aggressive from the beginning, but sometimes he used to cross that line, too. With time and age, he has matured. But still, aggression is his strength and I have never asked him to mellow down or to change that attitude of his,” Rajkumar said.

Change for the better

Rajat Bhatia, his former Delhi teammate, clarified that Kohli didn’t appear to be an aggressive character from his early days in first-class cricket. “I remember his debut. I never knew him as aggressive, [but] now he has changed completely. It’s a formula that brings the best out of Kohli. You sometimes see him crossing the limit, [but] as long as he stays in limits, it’s fine,” Rajat says.

Manhas, on the other hand, has seen him always stay within limits. “I don’t think [he has ever crossed the line]. I’ve never seen that,” he says.

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That his imprint on Indian cricket is immense is signalled by the fact that he has ushered in a cultural change. The change has broadly come about in two aspects, his coach pointed out — fitness and self-belief.

“Now, all our players look very fit. There’s nobody whom we have to hide; [earlier], we [would] have two [or] three players we used to hide, either in slips or short third-man or short fine-leg. Now, anybody can field anywhere and it’s the culture that everybody wants to work hard [and be fit]. That is the best thing. The day he took over the captaincy, he said in his [press conference] that ‘I’ll change the culture of Indian cricket.’ [By that] he meant fitness [and] self-belief, that ‘yes, we can beat any team in their home.’ [Earlier], we were not a very good overseas travelling team. But he changed the culture; now India has beaten Australia in Australia and all other teams (sic) in their country. So, that is the best thing he has put [into] Indian cricket and I’m really proud of him because of this,” Rajkumar says. Noting Kohli’s own transformation on the fitness front, Manhas says, “He was 17-18 when he came [into first-class cricket]. Somewhere he realised if one is physically fit, then one is mentally fit. He is eager and hungry for that one [extra] run now. He has helped raise the bar for the Indian team. It’s wonderful.” He adds: “It will help him score more runs [because] it’s a part of it — ability, talent and fitness. He is more complete now.” Bhatia recalls, “When he was young, he was chubby. He never looked like a fit cricketer.”

Virat Kohli with mother Saroj and coach Rajkumar Sharma at a function in New Delhi to felicitate him by the West Delhi Cricket Academy.   -  Special Arrangement

 

Kohli was a “foodie,” according to friend Raman, who liked to eat chole bhature, butter chicken and tandoori chicken. Today, he has put his diet in control and passionately works on his fitness. States Raman, “I’m very happy that Virat has changed himself [on the fitness front]. He knew that ‘I have to work hard’ on it or be left behind.”

The 2019 Cricket World Cup will be his first World Cup as captain. It is an event that he desperately wishes to do well in. “The sort of guy he is, he’s looking forward to [the World Cup]. And he’s very keen to be there and do it for India. It is anybody’s dream and his also to win a World Cup for the country, and it’ll be a big honour if he wins it. He’s working hard, he’s planning, he’s always thinking of the World Cup. For the past two years, he has been thinking [only about the] World Cup. Though series have been coming and going, inside his mind it is World Cup,” Rajkumar reveals.

But whatever be the journey of the Indian team at the World Cup, Kohli’s image as an icon is set in stone.

“He always wants to be the best, exceptional. He wants to be the No. 1. I feel he has to listen to those guys who have achieved a lot in sports or in any other field, such as Sachin Tendulkar. He’s still learning,” Rajat observed.