The enigma of Virat Kohli

Cool: India captain Virat Kohli has become a polarising figure. Some of his ex-teammates have criticised his leadership style, while others praise his meticulous approach to the game. (Michael Dodge, Getty Images)

Cool: India captain Virat Kohli has become a polarising figure. Some of his ex-teammates have criticised his leadership style, while others praise his meticulous approach to the game. (Michael Dodge, Getty Images)

To understand why Virat Kohli is the personification of the cult heavy-metal album, Far Beyond Driven, you only have to look at where he came from.

West Delhi is not the Cape Flats or Soweto but many of those who put down roots there more than half a century ago knew what it was like to lose, to have nothing. Most were refugees who left behind homesteads and prosperous lives in what is now Pakistan to escape the bloodbath that followed the partition of the subcontinent.

Prem Kohli, Virat’s father, was a lawyer who had grown up in an India where nothing came on a platter if you weren’t from the right side of the tracks. Kohli junior discovered that the hard way as a schoolboy.

Delhi’s cricket administration is a byword for corruption and malpractice and, in the early years, he would find himself overlooked in favour of kids without an iota of his ability.
But instead of whining about it, Kohli knuckled down. By the time he was 16, he was making the big hundreds that made it impossible for even the most crooked selectors to look the other way.

Playing for India was as much Prem Kohli’s dream as it was his son’s. He didn’t live to see it though. Virat had just turned 18 when he died soon after suffering a stroke. The son blinked back the tears, journeyed to the Feroz Shah Kotla and made a match-saving 90 in a Ranji Trophy game against Karnataka. He then went back home to help his older brother perform the last rites.

Less than 15 months after his father’s death, Kohli led India to the Under-19 World Cup, beating a South African side coached by Ray Jennings in the final. In an interview with the Times of India soon after, Saroj, his mother, said: “Virat changed a bit after that day. Overnight he became a much more mature person. He took every match seriously. He hated being on the bench. It’s as if his life hinged totally on cricket after that day. Now, he looked like he was chasing his father’s dream, which was his own too.”

Aakash Chopra, who played 10 Tests for India in the early 2000s, was Kohli’s teammate on the Delhi side. “He was very much a kid of that era,” he told me. “He would focus a lot on his hairdo. In fact, he’d focus on other people’s hairdos as well. He enjoyed a laugh and a joke.

“He was dropped from the playing XI but I never saw him sulking or gossiping, or getting into camps. I do remember a game where I told Viru [Virender Sehwag] not to drop him, because he had made runs in the previous one. We had a problem of plenty at the time, and Viru didn’t listen to me. But Virat handled it well. You never saw him throwing a tantrum or anything like that.”

Many of his old teammates are now rent-a-quote experts in the media. Some of them have had harsh things to say about his leadership, especially once India went 2-0 down in the Test series in South Africa last month. Sehwag was one of those who suggested he “should drop himself”. Kohli has never responded. Whatever he actually thinks of former cricketers, he has never been less than respectful in the public domain.

But that lack of reaction is less about respect and more about indifference. In one of those rare candid moments, he responded to a question about the criticism with one of his own: “Do you think I care?”

Greg Chappell, whose emphasis on fitness and rotation — at the heart of Kohli’s leadership philosophy —made him such an unpopular coach in India more than a decade ago, sussed him out pretty well after the World Twenty20 in 2016. “I like what I see with Kohli,” he wrote in a newspaper column. “He has talent, but, more importantly, he has presence. He looks like he belongs and he looks like he wants to make a difference.” What’s more, he wants to make a difference on his terms.

You can call him mulish but Kohli remains utterly convinced by what he’s trying to do to take Indian cricket forward. We could have done with 10 days of preparation, said Ravi Shastri, India’s coach, in the build-up to the Johannesburg Test. There’s a perception that he and Kohli sing from the same sheet, which is why Anil Kumble was dumped and Shastri hired.

But the very next day, Kohli refused to go along with what Shastri had said. He didn’t think preparation had been the issue. If you read between the lines, the message was clear. There would be no hiding behind excuses. Those who had failed, especially the top-order batsmen, had to own up and take responsibility. When they did so, in testing conditions at the Wanderers, India pulled off a 63-run victory. 

Unfazed by history — India had lost all five ODIs in Port Elizabeth prior to their series-clinching win earlier this week — Kohli is nonetheless acutely aware of legacies.

“This tour is right up there with South Africa, Australia and New Zealand,” he said before the start of the series in England in 2014. “It’s a pretty special place to play cricket and I’ll be playing a Test at Lord’s for the first time. I have some goals I want to achieve, and I have been thinking about them.”

He finished the series with 134 runs in 10 innings, with Jimmy Anderson in particular exploiting every minute flaw in his technique. Instead of moping, Kohli went to Mumbai on his return to India, and spent a couple of days in the nets with Sachin Tendulkar, his childhood hero, offering inputs. Since then, he has scored four centuries in a four-Test series in Australia, bullied England at home, and top-scored in South Africa.

More than four years ago, he cut out many of his favourite foods to make himself as fit as he possibly could. No naan, no butter chicken, no chole bhature. While others have been profligate with their talent — Wayne Parnell was his counterpart in the 2008 Under-19 final — Kohli is nothing if not meticulous with his preparation.

And while some of his antics on the field may rub opponents the wrong way, there is genuine affection for him from some unlikely quarters.

When Shahid Afridi retired a year ago, Kohli sent him his ODI jersey, signed by everyone in the team. “To Shahid Bhai [brother], best wishes, always a pleasure playing against you” said the message.

Afridi thanked him on social media, and at the recent cricket-on-ice event in St Moritz, he opened up on Kohli once again: “My relationship with Virat is not dictated by the political situation. Virat is a fantastic human being and an ambassador of cricket for his country, just like I am for my country. He [Kohli] has always shown a lot of respect and has even gone out of his way to present a signed jersey for my foundation [Shahid Afridi Foundation].”

Kohli and India will face immensely tough challenges in England and Australia but, win or lose, the captain’s conviction won’t waver. Having scrapped his way to the top, he has no intention of firing from someone else’s shoulder. He will do things his way.

“I can’t really tell you what he’s like,” Chopra said last year. “We hardly talk now. As a younger man, he was good company. Always happy, chirpy, jovial. Even if he was fielding, he would get into competitions about who could get the most direct hits and so on. But now? I can’t say I know him.”

What we do know is that he’s quite special. And he’s prepared to break more than a few moulds to stay that step ahead.

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