This is the Age of Kohli
It is his vision that shows Team India the way now. Why the Indian captain is more like Xavi than Messi
Year after year over the past decade, the debate has raged—Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. But in 2015, Messi himself called someone who was departing Barcelona the “best player in the history of Spanish football". It wasn’t hyperbole either. Messi and Ronaldo may have shattered goal-scoring records season after season, but it was Xavi Hernández who was at the heart of the greatest club and national sides of the modern era, Barcelona and Spain.
It was Xavi that all his teammates strove to emulate—his work ethic, his method, his vision of how the game should be played, his eye for the pass and last, but not least, the serenity with which he went about his work on the field.
In a column for The Times, London, Michael Atherton, a former England cricket captain, endeavoured to identify the cricketer with Xavi-like standing in the game. “The most influential figure in the game is Virat Kohli, India’s captain and leading contender for the best all-round batsman in the world today," he wrote. The second part of the statement is pretty much a given, especially once you look at the numbers, but the most influential tag is a big one to bestow, more so on someone whose one Test tour of England ended in abject failure.
In 2016, Kohli was head and broad shoulders above his peers. In 41 innings across the three formats, he made 2,595 runs, at an astonishing average of 86.5. England’s Joe Root came within 25 runs of his tally, but needed 14 innings more. In those 41 innings, Kohli crossed 50 on 20 occasions. Seven of them were hundreds. There was also the small matter of 973 runs in a blockbuster Indian Premier League (IPL) season.
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When we talk of Kohli’s influence, though, we don’t just mean the millions of youngsters who watch him with awestruck eyes. The most immediate impact has been on the teammates he leads in Test cricket. After his 199 in the final Test against England in Chennai, K.L. Rahul spoke in some detail about the team ethos. “We are always pushing each other to get better on the field and off the field, helping each other out in the nets or in the gym," he said. “That’s the most important thing. That’s why I think we are the No.1 team in the world. Because all the youngsters and the senior players want to go hand-in-hand and work for each other and be happy about each other’s success. Virat, obviously being the leader, sets a great example."
For decades, Indian cricketers and fitness of the athletic kind had a tenuous relationship. There were exceptions, like Kapil Dev and Mohammad Azharuddin, but for the most part, India’s lack of athleticism on the field was a favourite topic of commentators overseas. Things improved to a great extent in the new millennium, but what we have now, under Kohli, is a team obsessed with fitness.
Those who have watched Kohli’s progress from his Under-19 days will recall a youngster with chubby cheeks and a sturdy frame. Now, you have an athlete with body-fat levels in single digits, someone who measures his fitness against other sporting legends like Novak Djokovic. The Kohli regimen is all about eating healthy and working hard—there are no short cuts. And encouragingly, many of the younger players, like Rahul, have embraced it too.
R. Ashwin, voted the International Cricket Council’s Cricketer of the Year and Test Cricketer of the Year for 2016, was never a natural athlete. As gifted as he was with ball and bat, he tended to be one of those who needed to be hidden on the field. No longer. In Chennai, Ashwin leapt as though part of a ballet production to catch Moeen Ali and send England tumbling to defeat. It was tangible reward for the work that has gone into the last 18 months.
When I interviewed him before the start of the home season, this was one of the things Ashwin emphasized when asked about the reversal of fortune. “The first thing I did was get extremely fit, as fit as I could be as an individual," he said. “That helped me to get my body behind the ball, to mask the speed variations I had at the crease."
“Before, if I had to slow the ball down, it was much more visible to the batsman. Now, when I’m fitter and putting more body into the ball, the difference in speed variation is that much more subtle."
Karun Nair, who made an unbeaten 303 in Chennai—romping from 200 to 300 in just 75 balls—is another player who has embraced the new fitness culture. It was also noticeable that India’s pace bowlers, Umesh Yadav and Mohammed Shami, were quicker than their English counterparts, running in with the same intensity even late afternoon.
Trevor Bayliss, the England coach who oversaw two successful IPL campaigns with Kolkata Knight Riders (2012 and 2014), was left in no doubt that his wards could learn from the Indian team. “If you’ve got your head screwed on right, you look at the best and see what they do, and if there’s anything you can do the same," he said.
But it’s not just in the gym that the Kohli writ looms large. India no longer seem inhibited by the possibility of defeat. In Mumbai and Chennai, they conceded totals of 400 and 477 in the first innings. They won both matches by an innings. At no stage in either match did it look like they wouldn’t push on for victory.
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Contrast that with the third Test against West Indies in Dominica in July 2011—the match that has come to define, perhaps unfairly, the M.S. Dhoni way as captain. India were set 180 to win in 47 overs. With 15 overs remaining, they were 94 for 3. Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman were at the crease. Kohli, playing his first series, and Dhoni were padded up in the dressing room. But instead of going for the 86 that would have clinched victory, India shook hands on the draw that gave them the series 1-0.
In his very first Test as captain, Kohli made it amply clear that he had no interest in such conservatism. Set 364 to beat Australia in Adelaide, he made a magnificent 141 from 175 balls that put India in the box seat. His wicket tilted the scales though, and the hosts won by 48 runs.
Kohli still doesn’t regret what happened that day. Ravi Shastri, team director at the time, reckons it was the Rubicon crossing that helped shape a team in its captain’s image. “The kind of cricket that we play as a side, we are always playing for results," said Kohli after thumping England 4-0. “That’s something that crowds always want to see. They want to see Test matches getting to a conclusion, not ending in boring draws. Even if it is a draw, it has to be a competitive one.
“That’s the kind of cricket we have played over the past few months. That’s why we see so many people come in and watch the Indian team play. Because they understand what they are going to get. It’s not going to be the kind of cricket that doesn’t take the game anywhere. It’s going to be played with a vision to win. That’s where the connect is made between the crowd and the players."
That connection he speaks of is most evident when he strides to the middle. The strains of “Sachin, Sachin" that we heard for a quarter-century have given way to “Kohli, Kohli", and every dismissal is met with the same sullen, sepulchral silence.
In his 22 matches as Test captain, Kohli and the team management haven’t once played the same XI in consecutive games. Injuries have played a part, but there is also an insistence on the leader’s part that India believe in horses for courses. Such an approach should, in theory, breed insecurity. Instead, this is one of the happier dressing rooms Indian cricket has had.
“If you see, whoever comes into the team knows there is a certain benchmark for fitness," said Kohli recently, when asked about the ease with which fringe players had been slotted in. “Of performance. Of mindset. We want players to be match-ready when they join the Indian team. You shouldn’t be spending a year in international cricket just learning what to do. You lose a lot of time in that. And many players can’t face that pressure.
“It is just evolution. It is sometimes surprising looking at these youngsters, how quickly they pick things up. They are very smart, and it shows on the field in how they play."
They have taken their cue from a captain who averages 64 with the added responsibility, and who has now presided over an unbeaten streak of 18 matches (14 wins). “In Kohli, India have a cricketer for the 21st century: fit, driven, obsessive, social media savvy, living the reality of the collusion of cricket and celebrity (he is dating a Bollywood actress) and at home in three formats," wrote Atherton. “A generation ago, they wanted to be like Tendulkar. Not any more."
Kohli resents such comparisons with his hero, but will have to live with the same weight of expectations. For now, team goals rather than individual ones are what concern him. “This is just the foundation that’s been laid for us to carry on for many years," he said after beating England. “It’s just the beginning. It’s not even a tiny bit of what we want to achieve."
Kohli in 2016
■ First Indian to score three double centuries in a season
■ Highest run-getter across formats in international cricket (2,595 runs)
■ Highest run-scorer in IPL 2016 (973)
■ Masterminded India’s longest unbeaten streak in Test cricket (18 matches)
■ Player of the Tournament at the World Twenty20
Dileep Premachandran is editor-in-chief, Wisden India.