THe young Virat Kohli showed every sign of burning himself out with his anger and passion. He was a brat — angry, foul-mouthed, ready to barge into an opponent on the field, celebrating wickets with a manic glint in his eyes. Kohli is now compared with Sachin Tendulkar, some say he’s the greater batsman of the two — when Tendulkar retired from cricket 10 years ago, no one would have thought this possible because Kohli seemed to have too much fire, too much anger to last long.
Kohli bows down to Tendulkar, but he’s his own man — he eschews the tranquillity and the stillness of mind of his idol.
Kohli is angry, he’s feisty, he’s a bundle of energy. He’s been through the grind for well over two decades, but he still has the teenager’s zest, though he’s into his 36th year. That makes him one with Tendulkar, who remained childlike for the joy he derived from playing cricket even in his 24th year in international cricket.
The stars seemed to align for Tendulkar at the World Cup, with the mind of Mahendra Singh Dhoni adroitly taking India to victory in Mumbai, at Tendulkar’s home ground. Tendulkar had to wait until his final World Cup to fulfil the dream he had in 1983, when he watched Kapil Dev’s India beat West Indies in the final at Lord’s; Kohli was a World Cup winner at his first attempt, at age 22, as if sucked into the slipstream of victory created by Dhoni, Tendulkar, et al. Kohli broke Tendulkar’s record for most centuries in ODIs in the semifinal match against New Zealand in Mumbai — if he does something similar in Sunday’s final against Australia in Ahmedabad, it would be possible for his adoring fans to claim that he’s the greatest ODI batsman of all time.
Ten years of evolution — of his mind and his game — have made a lifetime’s difference for Kohli, though there always existed signs that under the veneer of mad aggression, there was substance. When he captained India for the first time, standing in for Dhoni in Australia in 2014, he promised aggression — he said things would not be the same as before. “I don’t mind a fight,” he said. “I don’t mind a chat on the field, a bit of banter. It probably makes me more determined.”
During that Test in Australia, the first ball he faced, Kohli was hit on the helmet by a bouncer from Mitchell Johnson, the most fearsome of the Aussie fast bowlers; there was a hush, and even the Australian fielders gathered around him in solicitation — for the match was being played under a cloud following the death of Phil Hughes after he was stuck on the back of the head during a domestic match a few days previously.
Kohli removed the helmet, inspected it calmly and carried on — first ball of Johnson’s next over, Kohli drove through the covers for a four. He got to his century, celebrated with animation, pointed to the emblem that had been dented by the bouncer. He scored another century in the second innings and though India lost, he had earned the respect of the world’s most tough cricketers, the most difficult crowds to play before.
At the 2015 World Cup, Kohli got involved in an unsavoury controversy when he hurled abuses at a journalist; he apologised through an intermediary, but not for the abuses — he was sorry because it was a case of mistaken identity, he actually wanted to shout abuses at another journalist! Kohli was promptly reprimanded. After a fine performance through the early games, Kohli didn’t cover himself with glory in the first knockout match, the semifinal against Australia — he had to endure a tough over from Johnson, who allowed him only a single. Kohli’s ego wanted to assert itself — next over from Johnson, the first ball he faced, he went for a huge hit, for a six, and the ball went straight up and came down right into the hands of the wicketkeeper. A seven-ball 1, and India’s hopes of chasing down Australia’s 328 faded quickly, and the four-year reign as world champions ended in gloom.
In the 2019 World Cup, it was a different Kohli. He was the captain, and a calmer man. He was a changed man. In 2017, he was India’s leader in a bitterly-fought Test series against Australia at home. Before the start of the series, he had said he was “really good friends” with some of the Aussies. But the spiteful words spoken on the field hurt him so deeply that he declared that he would not be friends with Australian players in future. “It has changed. I thought that was the case, but it has changed for sure. As I said, in the heat of the battle, you want to be competitive but I’ve been proven wrong, The thing I said before the first Test, that has certainly changed and you won’t hear me say that ever again.”
But no, Kohli did not remain angry. Something changed that year. He got married and seemed to find bliss at home, and cricket was put in the correct perspective. He had been showing an interest in spiritualism, and once posted a photograph of himself holding a copy of ‘The Autobiography of a Yogi’. His words seemed to be more weighed, he was speaking about the environment, about women’s rights and safety in public places. And it didn’t seem like he was speaking for a commercial — it seemed to come from the heart. Clearly, Kohli was evolving.
At the 2019 World Cup, captaining the team, Kohli was a picture of fairplay and sportsmanship in the match against Australia — as the Indian supporters barracked former captain Steve Smith for his role in the previous year’s ball-tampering controversy, Kohli jumped as a shield before Smith. “I just didn’t want them to set a bad example,” said Kohli about the Indian fans. “Because he didn’t do anything to be booed, in my opinion…”
The transition was remarkable, for the man who had been a bad example just four years ago was now exhorting India’s fans to set a good example. India didn’t progress beyond the semifinals in 2019, too, their top order blown away by the New Zealand pacemen in Manchester.
Kohli is no longer the captain, Rohit Sharma is — the man who, ironically, missed the World Cup in 2011 because his form and attitude slipped, with tales of partying and ignoring the game doing his reputation a great deal of harm.
Rohit, perhaps more talented than Kohli but less intense, has given the licence to Kohli to play a waiting game, and Kohli has flourished like never before in a World Cup.
Kohli admits that he’s a changed man. “The last two-and-a-half years have taught me a lot,” he said before the World Cup. “Those angry celebrations are a thing of the past. I have had many suggestions, lots of advice has come my way; people were telling me I was doing this wrong, that wrong.”
It’s incredible, again, that the man who just a few years previously bristled at the very idea that someone might try to point him to the straight and narrow road was listening to people telling him that he was “doing this wrong” — and was willing to change himself, a sign of great wisdom.
Kohli has been remarkably free of conflict, of the mind, of technique, or method during the last few weeks. There’s been some criticism of his “slow” batting, and he’s been forced to aver, repeatedly, that he’s just playing the role that’s been assigned to him: hold one end, last through the innings, and let the blasters at the other end do the hard hitting.
His 711 runs before the final had been scored at a rate of 90.68 every 100 balls — decidedly slowish by current standards. But Rohit too said Kohli is playing the role he’s been given; the assurance Kohli provides with his solidity lets Rohit blast away from Ball 1. On Indian tracks, that has been a failproof strategy, especially with men such as Shreyas Iyer, KL Rahul, Shubman Gill being in great form and scoring big. Rohit himself has 550 runs at a T20-like scoring rate of 124.15. He has scored just one century, but he’s decided that he’d go for the kill in the Powerplay, not bother about his record.
“Very unselfish,” say Rohit’s fans, with the implication that Kohli has been chasing records; this charge found some basis when he was assisted as he neared his century against Bangladesh in Pune, with KL Rahul refusing singles so that Kohli could remain on strike, and Ravindra Jadeja blocking balls so that Kohli could do most of the scoring to reach his 100. He did just that with the last strike of the match, a six that won India the game and took him to 103.
All eyes are on Kohli — Dharamsala sighed when he fell for 93; Lucknow mourned when he got a 0; Mumbai was forlorn when he was dismissed for 88. But Kohli is in a zone of his own, immune in a bubble that’s impenetrable — he got 101, 51 and 117 in the next three innings to reach the mark of 50 ODI centuries. But greater than — or even just equal to — Tendulkar? Sunday will provide a clue.
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