By Navneet Mundhra
Virat Kohli has seen it all in the last six months - abyss of despair to exhilarating highs. He was savagely excoriated by the media and fans alike when he failed to perform in the first two Tests on India’s recent tour of Australia. To exacerbate matters, his ‘middle finger show’ during the second Test at Sydney against Australia came under fire from all quarters. Patchy form, tough opponents, alien batting conditions and censure for unbecoming demeanour… the odds were stacked against him. Everyone seemed to be calling for his head. Kohli’s talent was never a subject of conjecture, but questions were raised about his temperament and application.
In the third Test at WACA, Perth, he gained form and confidence by cracking 44 & 75. He was the top scorer for India in both innings. In the next Test at Adelaide, he brought home the bacon by blasting his maiden Test hundred, the only century by an Indian in the series. He also topped the Indian averages and aggregate for the series - 300 runs at an average of 37.50. Kohli was the only bright spot for India in an otherwise forgettable series which India lost 0-4.
Questions about his temperament and application were completely allayed when he unleashed an astonishing century against Sri Lanka at Hobart in the triangular Commonwealth Series which followed the Test series against Australia. In their last league match, India needed to chase down 320 runs in 40 overs against Sri Lanka to remain in the hunt to qualify for the finals. It seemed highly unlikely, but Kohli blazed his way to glory as he thumped unbeaten 133 runs in 86 balls. He put Lasith Malinga – the Lankan warhead conceded 96 runs in 7.4 overs - and other bowlers to sword as India overhauled the target in 36.4 overs.
In a matter of one month, from being the whipping boy of Indian cricket, Kohli became the most celebrated Indian player. He was rewarded for his resplendent performance as he was promoted as the vice-captain of the Indian team. The decision to reward him was vindicated as he smashed another sabre-rattling century against Pakistan in the Asia Cup while India successful chased down another mammoth target (331 runs).
Kohli is hailed as the torch-bearer of Indian batting for the next decade. The responsibility, along with success and fame, has made him discreet and mellowed. He weathers a volley of questions with the same disarming flair and panache with which he takes on the best of bowlers on the field.
He took time out recently to play Lala Raghubir Singh Hot Weather tournament, one of Delhi’s oldest and premier cricket tournaments. Playing in sweltering heat, he represented Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) and won the match for his side.
Excerpts from an interview:
CricketCountry (CC): You’ve been playing cricket relentlessly from last six months – Australian tour, Asia Cup and IPL. How come you decided to play Lala Raghubir Singh Hot Weather tournament, that too in the midst of scorching hot summer of Delhi? You could have whiled away your time taking rest, enjoying yourself and spending time with family & friends.
Virat Kohli (VK): I’m a Delhi boy and accustomed to play cricket during the baking hot summers of Delhi right from the childhood. Lala Raghubir Singh is one of the most sought after cricket tournaments of Delhi and almost all the big cricketers of India have played in this tournament. I have fond memories of playing cricket here.
It has been more than two weeks since the IPL is over. I’ve had my share of rest. I took a short vacation with friends as well so playing in this tournament was a good way of keeping in touch with cricket. Besides, it is always nice catching up with old friends, team-mates and other people with whom I’ve grown up playing cricket.
CC: Rahul Dravid is retired and other senior batsmen are in the twilight of their careers. Do you think that the younger generation of Indian batsmen have it in them to get into the big shoes of the maestros?
VK: India has a good crop of talented young batsmen like Rohit Sharma, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane, who have done well and shown enormous promise in their brief international careers. Rohit is probably the most talented among all of us. Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman are the legends of the game and it will take some doing on our part to measure up to the exalted standards they’ve set. I’m proud of their legacy; it inspires us to push ourselves beyond the established boundaries and push the envelope. If we remain focused and do our bit with utmost conviction and sincerity, I see no reason why we can’t hold the fort.
CC: Your performance in the IPL 5 was no great shakes.
VK: In the first half of this year’s IPL, I thought that having done exceptionally well recently, people have lofty expectations from me and I took unnecessary pressure upon myself in a bid to live up to those expectations. That affected my performance. Later, I decided to keep things simple and play my natural game without any burden of expectations. That worked for me and my performance improved as the tournament progressed. In hindsight, constantly thinking about the weight of expectation of million people is not the cleverest thing to do. It creates unnecessary pressure in the mind which bogs you down. The best thing is to stay committed to your craft and make an endeavour to perform to the best of your abilities.
CC: Let’s talk about Australian tour where you passed with flying colours the baptism by fire. You didn’t do well in the first two Test matches and critics were baying for your blood. Your temperament and on-field conduct came under the fire. What adjustments did you make to turn the tide in your favour?
VK: I stopped reading the newspapers (chuckles). I understand that media would criticise when you don’t do well but at that point of time, it was important for me to shut out all the extraneous factors which were affecting me as a lot of negative stuff was being written about me. There were some low moments after the failure in first two Test matches. But after a point, I stopped dwelling too much on what had happened. I reminded myself that I had scored eight ODI hundreds which cannot be a fluke. It means that I belong to the international level and I’m here to stay. I talk with my coach Mr. Rajkumar Sharma daily. He also gave me a lot of confidence and chipped in with a couple of vital suggestions. All these things aided me to regain the self-belief and rest, as they say, is the history.
CC: Among all your international hundreds, which is your favourite innings to date?
VK: My maiden Test century at Adelaide is the one which is closest to my heart. As a kid, I always dreamt of scoring a Test hundred for India and when I attained the feat, my joy knew no bounds. It was a very, very satisfying moment for me, something which will always remain close to my heart.
CC: In your cricketing career, which bowlers have you found toughest to face?
VK: Saeed Ajmal is an eminently crafty bowler. Sunil Narine is also wily and at times, hard to pick. Among the fast bowlers, Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus are the toughest to encounter. They both pitch the ball consistently on the good length and move it both ways.
CC: Has the responsibility of being the vice-captain of the team made Virat a mellowed and calm man?
VK: I have been talking a lot with MS Dhoni of late about how to remain unruffled and composed under all circumstances. I look upto him as he always keeps his emotions in check, no matter what the situation. He’s an amazingly balanced human being and his tips are coming in handy. I have learned how to control my aggression. I have understood the fine line between being spirited and being abrasive.
In the past, I reacted in the manner I shouldn’t have. But I would like to say that it wasn’t my natural or innate conduct. People only saw how I reacted; no one knew the build-up to the situation. Being the vice-captain of the team is an honour and in the future, I shall conduct myself in a manner which is becoming for a vice-captain.
CC: India is slated to play 10 Test matches at home soil before going to South Africa next year. Do you think it’ll be an ideal preparation for the team before the next overseas tour?
VK: Playing at home is definitely an advantage but you cannot take any Test lightly whether playing at home or away. All the Test teams have a bunch of talented cricketers who are match-winners on their day. No team can be underestimated. Having said that, our record at home has always been spectacular and these 10 Test matches will give an opportunity to many youngsters to show their class and cement their place in the team.
Having runs or wickets under the belt before going to an overseas tour does a lot of good to a player’s confidence. I’m hopeful that we’ll come good in the upcoming Test series at home and will take the confidence and momentum going into the South Africa tour next year.
CC: You’re christened as the cornerstone of Indian batting for the next decade. Do you think the tag is justified?
VK: It is not appropriate to put someone on the pedestal after just one good season. Success and fame can be quite ephemeral in sports. I would like to see myself doing well consistently for a few years in international cricket before being tagged with high-falutin epithets. Surely, it feels nice when your performance is acknowledged and appreciated but I’m not distracted by all these ornate appellations constructed by the media. I’m objective and rationale enough to analyse myself and figure out where I stand. I am striving to improve my game and win more matches for India. That’s my job and also the sole aim.
(Navneet Mundhra is a dreamer who has no delusion of grandeur about himself. He is an eternal learner brimming with passion and compassion, a maverick who swears by perfection and integrity and an avid reader, devout philharmonic, die hard movie buff and a passionate writer)