Cricket is a team game and it takes contributions from all 11 for the unit to be successful over a period of time. However, there come individuals who make a telling difference in collective fortunes. In case of the current Indian lot, it’s easy to see that Virat Kohli and Ravichandran Ashwin are breaking barriers and inspiring the team to new heights. Venkata Krishna B and Atreyo Mukhopadhyay find out what makes them click and why they are expected to lead India’s quest for sustained excellence.
Brash and cocky to begin with, Virat Kohli after becoming captain has remodelled himself to suit the demands of the international game. The adjustment has happened in the mind, which makes him an interesting character other than champion batsman and able leader of a group of ambitious men.
Criticised for trying too many things in the first few years of his international career, Ravichandran Ashwin has become a different bowler after he started relying more on his stock delivery. Records tumbling in almost every outing, the off-spinner looks destined to achieve what not many have. It is an embarrassment of riches for India when the two step on the field. The way records are being created, it seems the two are competing against each other. Let’s see how they have become invaluable to India’s success.
Kohli: Making of a leader
Ravenshaw College ground. Cuttack. March 2009. Deodhar Trophy: Walking off the turf after leading North Zone’s chase of a 250-odd target against Central, the batsman is asked to pause for a photograph. Bat rested on shoulder and beads of sweat evidence of the effort put in, the face wears a stern look. It looks grim, showing no signs of satisfaction that a successful chase brings out of a 20-year-old. It is after Central’s Murali Kartik quips while passing that a smile could be spared for the job well done, does he flash a grin.
That was Virat Kohli, unrelenting and committed to cause. He had just been dropped from the Indian ODI team and that unbeaten 79 came on the back of four centuries in that format of the domestic competition. Seniors praising, opponents patting his back and methods producing success—he had no time for all that. Nothing was going to make him smile before he had achieved the goals he had set himself. This attitude often made him confrontational and during the same tournament, he was fined by the match referee for a scuffle with an opponent.
The testy image stayed for some time, even after Kohli established himself as India’s top batsman of the new generation. Infrequent in front of the media before becoming captain, he made no attempt to hide displeasure while answering questions he found inappropriate. There were moments when he shot back and the worst came in Perth during World Cup 2015, when he openly vented anger at a scribe, for writing about him and Anushka Sharma during a series in England six months ago, which forced the BCCI to slap a warning.
While the intensity and hunger for success has increased, the captain in all formats has become calmer. It appears to have dawned on him that to stay in the limelight, one has to take the rough with the smooth. He is still quite serious, but the angry young man seemingly incapable of smiling has mellowed. He listens carefully and thinks before replying. Even cracks a joke at times. The result is a supremely confident 28-year-old commanding respect from peers and inspiring teammates to challenge newer heights.
“Contemporary cricket demands aggression and it’s important to show your superiority. That’s what we see in Virat. He’s clear about what he wants, willing to work hard and ready to take strong decisions to get it. This is good for the team, because seeing the captain lead by example brings the best out of others. Although Virat’s journey as captain has just begun, he’s instilling these traits in his players. Tactically also, he’s improving,” notes Ajit Wadekar.
One of India’s shrewdest cricket brains who tasted success as captain and coach, the 75-year-old has also noticed a change in Kohli’s temperament after he settled down as captain. “After becoming captain, you can’t get away with talking rubbish. Interactions with board officials, press and people from other walks of life increase. It teaches you to be tactful. You realise how to conduct yourself in different situations. These lessons impact your on-field persona. In his case, they’ve calmed him down, which makes him more balanced as a person.”
This transformation is evident in performance. Master of big hits in limited-overs, he has consciously eliminated playing in the air in Tests. There were just two sixes off the 2,257 deliveries he faced in the last four series and the result was four double-centuries. Unlike batsmen of previous eras, who viewed hitting sixes as risky business, going over the top is one of Kohli’s strengths. He still chose to discard it because he felt his ability as a Test batsman was being questioned. “It was said that I’m good only for ODI cricket. So I made it a point to make starts count. There are times when I feel like going after spinners. But I understand that I have to spend that extra hour or two at the wicket,” he had said after the third double-century, against England, last December.
Such mental adjustments characterise Kohli. After he has chosen the direction he wants to go, there is no deviating him. He goes for it with single-minded devotion and the intensity shows in his expressions. It leaves no doubt over what he wants or how badly he wants it. After demonstrating it in one-day cricket where he has redefined chasing targets, he has turned his attention towards the longer format. The unheard-of achievement of four double-centuries in 13 Tests is testimony to that.
“Virat’s success is mostly about mental toughness. He’s determined to get something. If it requires an enormous amount of physical fitness, he’ll put in the hard yards to get there. This ability and eagerness to change in order to secure what he wants sets him apart. One has to be skilled to do this, but with him, it’s more about mind than ability. He doesn’t need opponents to set targets. He sets them himself,” says former India wicketkeeper Vijay Dahiya, who has seen Kohli from close as Delhi coach.
Seddon Park. Hamilton, New Zealand. March 2015: The Indian team is about to finish a rigorous training session a day before the World Cup match against Ireland. Players have done fielding drills other than batting and bowling. As they prepare to leave, Kohli reappears on the ground and starts fielding practice with a member of the support staff. For about half an hour, it’s catching, running to pick up the ball and throwing stumps down. This is after the rest of the team is done for the day.
The world doesn’t know this side of Kohli. He doesn’t think there is a limit to how much he can do. After a blinder of a knock, he produces another in the next innings. To do this day in and day out requires strict discipline, as Shankar Basu, the Indian team’s former physical trainer, explains. “I’d worked with him in the IPL and when I joined the Indian team in 2015, Kohli was a transformed cricketer. He wanted to be an athlete and that’s not something many cricketers say. You need extraordinary drive to translate words into practice.”
In cricket, it is difficult to accurately assess improvement in fitness since there are no ready yardsticks to measure, like in track and field events. Most go by the intensity and energy levels a cricketer maintains through the day. Going by that, the India captain stands tall above most of his teammates. “Unlike other cricketers, Indians play throughout the year and maintaining that level of fitness is never easy.
The thing with Kohli is, he’s a very good student and if you convince him that this is going to fetch results, he’ll do it without any excuse. Everyone talks about the runs he made in IPL (2016). But let’s not forget the intensity he maintained throughout the tournament in peak summer. It takes a lot out of your mind and body to do that,” says Basu.
This also means one has to eat carefully, other than making sure that the body gets adequate rest. Those close to Kohli say he has got late-nights out of his system and prefers hitting the bed as early as possible, even on non-match days. “Sometimes, he pushes himself a lot. I used to stop him from overdoing because the body runs the risk of getting worn out. Now, he understands his body, maintains a strict diet (eggs, salad for breakfast and beef/grilled chicken or fish for lunch, dinner) and takes prescribed limits of water,” Basu reveals.
There is another side of the young man, who hangs out with a Bollywood actress and often ends up paying for providing paparazzi the opportunity to catch two celebs in one frame. For a long time, the batsman’s affair with Anushka kept making headlines for the wrong reasons. Other aspects apart, it demonstrates how impossible it is for an Indian cricket icon to find his own space. Faulted if one shot doesn’t reach the desired destination, girlfriend held responsible for failure and expected to be superhuman next day—it’s a crazy combination not prescribed for success.
It is an experience only he can describe. In an interview to former England captain Nasser Hussain, Kohli shed light on this. “Luckily, I don’t have too many people I’m close to in life. If you have too many, you speak to everyone and get distracted, and time management becomes impossible. Sometime down the line I realised that as cricketers, we limit ourselves to how much we do without realising how much we can actually do. And I don’t put a limit on that, as I always try to explore and understand what my maximum ability is, as far as intensity on field and managing time is concerned. The day I get burned out is the day I start cutting down on things. I don’t have any limitations on what I’ve to do in life and it is all about balancing it. I’m able to get the balance now.”
It’s not for nothing that they say batting is all about balance!
Teammates who saw him grow
Head Proposes, Kohli Disposes
I remember a young Virat Kohli who, back in the day, used to be part of the Delhi side. Even at that stage, he came across as a mentally strong character. I was having a chat with him on technique and he sounded very confident of managing it at the top level. And that is what he has done so far. Mental toughness has put him in the league of extraordinary athletes. Kohli is at a stage where he reminds me of Tiger Woods of the prime and Novak Djokovic during his undisputed No 1 phase. Kohli’s skill is at another level—he has an answer to whatever is thrown at him. If you talk about skill, it can only take you to a certain level. After that, it is all about mental strength and maintaining consistency. Skill and technique are important, but that is not the beginning and end of everything. Skill is governed by the mind. If the mind is in right space, the same skills will give you good returns.
Take batting, for example. We often come across players in the middle of a purple patch suddenly struggle for runs. Ideally, this shouldn’t happen, because when you are in form, you keep going. But if the mindset changes and you become over-confident and try something new because you are in good form, everything can change. It is easy for a batsman to relax when everything you touch turns into gold. In the kind of form Kohli is in, he can walk in, play a reverse-sweep first ball and nobody will say anything. But if you take that form for granted, you will fall. So, it is necessary to be in the right frame of mind.
If you deviate slightly from your game plan, everything changes very quickly. But with Kohli, he doesn’t give himself space to do such things. He follows his routine with incredible discipline. That is what makes him a special player. You cannot be vigilant all the time, because as a batsman, you tend to relax at times and get carried away. This is another area where Kohli has remained cautious. He knows nothing comes easy and also, the importance of having the right frame of mind to have control over what he is doing.
And speaking of the mind, there’s a strong possibility of the ego coming in where you think you can pull off everything and forget the very purpose of it. But when you have a strong personality like Kohli, it is always ‘mind over matter’.
It was December 2006. I was part of the Test team to South Africa. December 18, Johannesburg Test was on. Delhi Ranji team was struggling at 103 for 5 chasing Karnataka’s first innings total of 446. The 18-year-old Virat was unbeaten on 40. While I was rejoicing India’s first ever Test win over South Africa, Kohli had a mountain to climb. Next day was an off day for us. Most of my teammates were making shopping plans while I chose to be at the business centre of the hotel following Delhi-Karnataka Ranji game on the internet.
By the end of Day Three, Delhi had scored 308 with Kohli scoring a fighting 90. I was a pleased man that my team was hanging in there especially after the young man had lost his father that morning and still came to bat for his team. It was unbelievable for me. I called Virat too and commended him for his commitment. I think he was mature beyond years. He was strong even at that age.
To the outside world, Kohli was a young, aggressive upstart who could engage in on-field skirmish at the drop of a hat. His aggression of a street-fighter had detractors and supporters in equal numbers. But he didn’t care.
I also recall how Yuvraj Singh and Kohli have mutual fondness and respect for each other. Both loved life outside cricket, fast cars, flashy clothes, watches and Punjabi food and music. These were Yuvraj’s pre-cancer days. He had taken Kohli in his wings and was always on his case. He’d famously say, “Cheeku, jo galtiyaan mainey kee hai wo tu mat karna.”
Yuvraj was not the only one telling this to Virat. Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Laxman and Harbhajan Singh offered him similar advice. Kohli absorbed them all. He also understood that if he had to be successful in international cricket, then he had to be at the top of his fitness. I think thus started the transformation—from a chubby cheeked Delhi boy, Kohli reshaped himself to a chiselled young man. I think it is the change in attitude that has done the trick for Virat. From Cheeku to Virat has taken a giant leap and I feel that his best is yet to come.