Thursday, May 26, 2011

'I realised I was on the wrong track' : Virat Kohli

Virat Kohli has learnt a lot about himself and his batting over the last year. Bigger challenges than the World Cup lie ahead, but there's little doubt he's ready for them all

In the season racing past, cricket, to Virat Kohli, must have felt like a washing machine. Through his 12 months with India, Delhi and the Royal Challengers Bangalore, Kohli found himself in all manner of cycles - high-speed tumble, delicate, spin, rinse, permanent press.

Just over a month ago, the groundswell of India's World Cup victory just beginning to die down, Kohli was lining up against players he had wept with at the Wankhede. One day it was his captain, MS Dhoni, but he wasn't his captain anymore. The next day Yuvraj Singh had to be stopped from scorching turf, Harbhajan Singh had be stepped out to, and a way had to be found to make Gautam Gambhir step over the line. Kohli had played the IPL before, had understood what it was all about, but this year getting right into it took slightly longer.

Kohli describes his first week in the IPL as "confusing". The World Cup winners, he said, for a week "weren't up to that mental level, to be honest". The IPL's first week "was really tough to motivate ourselves, to actually be at our best". 

With only two games left in the tournament's fourth season, Kohli is second behind Chris Gayle in the run-scoring list, (Sachin Tendulkar is within six runs of both men) and has been among the best fielders in the competition. He has even led Bangalore in Daniel Vettori's absence, and on Tuesday he did everything to help Bangalore inch closer to the final: an unbeaten 70 not off 44 balls, followed by a gymnastics-floor exercise special in defence of 175 - attacking the ball, diving, somersaulting and giving the ultra slow-motion cameras plenty to drool over.

Yet at the end of it all, Bangalore and Kohli tumbled to defeat. Once again on Friday, Kohli will be inside the IPL's playoffs machine - and the second qualifying final - versus Mumbai Indians. He'll be asking himself: Again? More?

When viewed from a distance, the game often does not make sense, how it pans out over the course of a season. To Kohli, though, the past year has brought with it clarity about his batting in the limited-overs game. His is a special ability: to retain what he believes is essential, pure even, about his cricket and yet fit into the whirl of Twenty20, with its insane strike rates and volcanic ash cloud of boundaries that blur perspective and logic.

Whether in 50 overs or 20, when Kohli and his A game take the crease, the rest of him - his image, the tattoos, the emphatic eyebrows, the fin hairdo, the adverts featuring Bollywood starlets and love bites - evaporates. All that remains is the man and his bat.

Off the field, though, Kohli's engagement with the world is mostly through his image as seller of "youth" brands. When old fogeys get him to sit still for a few minutes, however, he morphs from punk rocker to cricket philosopher; an open, thoughtful speaker. A short conversation is peppered with words like "self-realisation" and "channelised", and he describes India's performances in the World Cup knockout stages, much like someone from the Tiger Pataudi generation would: "It was probably the best display of team effort I've seen from the Indian team in a long, long time."

In less than four years Kohli has put himself up and ahead of his other contemporaries for a place in what may well turn out to be the new-look Indian middle order in a few seasons. His first step into prominence was as India's Under-19 World Cup winning captain, whose invective-spewing celebration rang a few alarm bells about India's new generation. That was followed by the IPL hellraiser, then the supporting role in a once-in-28-years World Cup victory.

In between all those monumental events, Kohli has survived the unseen: every young cricketer's meaningless wander through the jungles of celebrityhood. About a year ago a switch was thrown in his mind about what he really wanted to achieve.

"Actually, I switched off." he says. That's where all the talk about self-realisation comes from. The junior World Cup victory brought with it mutterings about his bad-boy ways, much like it had for dozens of other teenage sporting success stories. Everyone in Indian cricket is familiar with the tale of how the teenage Kohli resumed his Ranji Trophy innings against Karnataka a few hours after losing his father. What happened afterwards is not so well known. Neither is his lingering personal grief nor the roiling success of the junior World Cup victory.

"I had seen a very tough time, when I was about 17, and it was very hard for me to recover from that for the next two years. Not many people have taken that into consideration before giving me that tag and just thinking of me like that. I agree, I made a lot of mistakes at that point in time... those were the kind of things I would have done in a normal life but not a stage like the IPL, where a lot of people were watching you." It is as if, in his mind, he is still sorting through the debris. "I couldn't handle what happened after we won the World Cup. People looking up at you and thinking that you were someone who could play for India and just giving you tags like 'blue-eyed boy' and stuff like that. I couldn't take it, honestly. I made a lot of mistakes." In a world where "brands" really matter, tags can be terribly destructive things. Kohli tried to shake off a few with some simple questions and answers. "I realised I'm going on the wrong track. It just came from within. I said, what am I doing? There's no way I'm going to play for India like that. And that is one thing I wanted to do as a child."

He returned to cricket and the monotony of practice and nets and the ground, trying to erase 18 months of mistakes. "I used to stay on the field as long as possible and come back home and stay at home. I totally cut off from everything else that I was doing for one and a half years. It started to pay off in my cricket." This shift in his frame of reference has kept Kohli's game at its simplest, treating Twenty20 as a ladder to a better percentage game in 50 overs. He says the Twenty20 format and the six-week IPL makes you learn a lot. "You improvise more, and that can help you in the one-day format, say whenever you need to attack in a difficult situation."

He lets field hockey keep its scoops and reverses and just fine-tunes what he already possesses. "I know my strengths and weaknesses and I can't play a shot that I'm not used to. I haven't tried to play special shots. I still play the normal shots in Twenty20. But you need to execute them a bit more [thoroughly] than you do in one-dayers just to get results." Like the delicious six over extra cover - off Albie Morkel - which gave Bangalore the kick in its last few overs on Tuesday night. Twenty20's short attention span meant that effort was obliterated by Suresh Raina's match-winning innings that followed. "It's different to develop a shot over a period of time, but I don't like to try new shots in every match. I just try to stick to my game plan and score runs sticking to the game plan I have."

That game plan has been mostly about seeking gaps to overturn the field, hard running, and turning over strike before picking the moment to move up a gear. At no stage in his international career has Kohli looked uncertain. Five centuries in 57 ODIs for India, three scored chasing (along with nine of his 13 fifties) - what once used to be considered an Indian impossibility. When India field first, Kohli averages over 55, 10 points higher than his career score. It led ESPNcricinfo blogger Andy Zaltzman to predict that Kohli was so good in the chase, "a post-cricket career as a Hollywood stunt car beckons".

Even if completely devoid of a multi-coloured, full-stereo off-field life, Kohli's career won't be dull. For a start, he is aware of where he stands. The two cup victories, he says, make him feel "a bit lucky" but they are not his path to entitlement. "I feel very good when I think about it - you have played in your first World Cup and you end up on the winning side - but I feel a bit lucky as well. But I don't want to treat this as if I have achieved something special. Okay, these milestones have come along but I still have a lot of goals I want to achieve. I want to elongate my cricketing career as a consistent player. I have personal goals I would like to achieve someday."

Test cricket, he has often said, is one of those goals, and Kohli is just behind Cheteshwar Pujara in the middle-order queue. After the IPL he will set out on the first leg of India's six-month travels in what will be unfamiliar terrains. Only 15 of his 57 international games have been played outside Asia. But everywhere India go now, they go as world champions. Kohli says the World Cup win has doubled his confidence in international cricket, "but given all of us a sense of added responsibility as well. If you go on top, you need to remain on top. It takes a lot of character."

He has had one round of dealing with that character-defining stuff. It helped him seal a spot in the World Cup XI, a title victory and a place among the most promising young cricketers in the international game. There's no time to celebrate though; on Friday, in the IPL's second qualifying final, Virat Kohli must go through yet another spin cycle.


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