Virat Kohli’s learning pitch
Ahead of the ICC Champions Trophy, his first test overseas as captain across all formats, Virat Kohli speaks about learning, aggression, failure, feminism, and just playing cricket
There’s really only one thing to do with Virat Kohli. Enjoy him. He has the balls of an extreme skydiver, improbable skills, and the determination of a cat in heat.
Rid yourself of avuncular judgements, jealousy, or the kind of moralizing that confidently asserts that “in Indian culture, we don’t swear". F**k that.
Enjoy him. Enjoy the tattoos and the woodsman beard he is keeping even though teammates who once wore beards like they were part of the Team India uniform, are getting rid of theirs.
Celebrate his malice towards his opponents and his commitment to rage. When was the last time you had an Indian cricketer who wore his heart on his sleeve? Someone who was this undiplomatic and open in speech? Or who could send opponents over the edge with such calculated hostility? And no, S. Sreesanth doesn’t really count.
When it comes to cricket, of course, he is peerless in the true sense of the word. Strike away the elegiac note that cricket is not what it used to be because Kohli, to paraphrase the wonderful Australian cricket writer Gideon Haigh, has brought the cricket into Twenty20 (T20). Like Rahul Dravid, he seems absurdly attached to only playing shots where the elbow is held high; so he brings Test batting into T20, and T20 batting into Tests, and the breathless thrill of a heavyweight boxing match from an era now lost into all formats of the game.
In 2016, he became the only player in the history of the game to hold an average of more than 50 in all formats simultaneously. It seemed only natural. He has continued this monstrous rampage with the bat for the better part of this year, in which he became India’s One Day International (ODI) and T20I (T20 Internationals) captain, in addition to being the Test captain. The extra responsibility did not make him falter one bit—Australia were beaten at home in the Test series.
Yet from our heroes we want more. We demand guidance and instruction. A moral lesson perhaps. Kohli has one to offer.
The 28-year-old walks into a room overlooking the dusty pitch at the Mumbai Cricket Association Club in the Bandra-Kurla Complex with a lupine gait. He has just finished a long session with the bat—he went into the nets straight after a flight from Delhi—and is yet to have lunch. He leans back into a long sofa, the first breather he’s got all day.
“I like to learn," he says, when I ask him a question about his batting exploits. “I like listening and observing and learning. I like reading and I like reading body language, and I learn. You need to have the courage to change yourself."
Over the interview, he repeated, quite earnestly, this theme of “learning and changing" a number of times, in a number of different contexts. I found this refrain, while researching, in many other interviews and comments he has made over the last four-five years.
Kohli is the great learner. It may sound trite, but simple truths often do: Our ability or inability to learn and adapt is what defines us.
“You learn and change and evolve as a human being, and that is the only way forward," says Kohli. It’s the human ideal. It’s the ability that SpaceX founder Elon Musk can only dream his Artificial Intelligence will have one day. And Kohli the learner will face his most severe scrutiny yet: Beginning with the ongoing ICC (International Cricket Council) Champions Trophy, his Team India will spend most of this year and the next on tour—playing away from home has never been India’s strong point.
It is simple enough to see that Kohli has not always been indestructible; his beginnings in international cricket—whether it was in ODIs or Tests—were not extraordinary. Unlike Sachin Tendulkar, with whom Kohli is often compared, he did not walk into the Indian side at 16 and blast off with such prodigious talent that there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that here was someone who came along once in a lifetime.
What Tendulkar’s learning curve was like and just how important it was to him is not something that can be speculated on, but with Kohli, as with everything else about him, it’s out in the open. Kohli learns, Kohli adapts, Kohli gets better. Every step of the way, he acknowledges his teachers: his parents, his first coach, his current coach, his partner—actor Anushka Sharma, and that defining generation of Indian cricketers with whom he has shared the dressing room: Tendulkar, Dravid, V.V.S. Laxman, M.S. Dhoni; the list is long and varied, deep and broad.
Kohli says his consistency in batting—in 2016, he averaged over 75 in Tests, 92.37 in ODIs, and 106.83 in T20s, before failing to score in the Border-Gavaskar Trophy earlier this year—may be a result of the “small changes" he has made over the years to his technique, his fitness and his mental approach to the game.
“See, everyone thinks about it in terms of performance and we base all our judgement on results," Kohli says. “But it’s about the mindset. That has to be consistent whether you are doing well or not. So I am feeling very composed and very calm about my sport, about captaincy. About where I stand right now and where I need to go with my game.
“2016 was the breakthrough phase for me when I felt that I was really in control of everything I was doing on the field, that I could do what I wanted to do on it, that all my technique and the little changes that I made were working for me. In fact, it was a revelation for me as well, but I know I’m still in that zone."
One of the most important things he has learnt, and one that helps him stay in that “zone", is to let go of superstitions.
“I used to have very set ways, lots of superstitions—a particular wristband, or a particular pair of gloves, or a particular bat that I always needed to have," Kohli says. “Now I have none of those. There is no routine any more. I do what I feel like doing on the day (of a match). If I feel like reading a book, I will read a book. If I feel like taking a nap, I will take a nap on the way to the game. Or I will listen to a song I want to listen to at that time. Whatever makes me feel good on game day, I do it. I don’t think, ‘Oh I was feeling good that day by doing this and scored a century, and that is what I must do now and feel good about it.’ You just end up feeling frustrated."
Australian cricket teams have been excellent and long-standing tutors for him.
During the six weeks of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy earlier this year, tempers flew like never before. It was a six-week-long boxing match, and Kohli was always swinging away. He looked like he would burst multiple blood vessels each time he walked out on the field. Every chance he got, he was in Australian captain Steve Smith’s face—his shoulders pulled back, mouth a grim line, chest out, his whole face glowering inches away from Smith’s. In one match, the stump mic picked up Kohli telling Smith: “You’ve got an issue with everyone. Stay in your shoes, I can sort you out." David Warner, of all people, had to step in to separate the two. Every match brought with it controversy, a new fight, yet another press conference where the brawling continued. In one, Kohli was asked: “Do you respect the Australians?"
“I respect quite a few of them, but someone who doesn’t respect me, I’ve got no reason to respect him."
We’ve seen this before of course. Remember 2008 and India’s tour of Australia? Harbhajan Singh and Andrew Symonds? Kohli had made his debut for the Indian ODI side that year. Earlier that year, he was part of the team that had won the Under-19 World Cup. He was watching the Australian style of combat closely. His teenage years had been spent watching the Australians dominating world cricket, striding the field like giants, and fighting like cocks. In 2003, when Australia were invincible, and when they blew India away in the World Cup final, Kohli was just taking his first steps in serious cricket, playing Under-15 for Delhi.
In 2006, when Kohli made his Ranji debut, Australia were still the No.1 side in the world in both Tests and ODIs. For the teenage Kohli, this was the team to beat.
“My aggression comes from my competitiveness definitely," Kohli says, rubbing a fresh bruise on his left forearm. His body language is composed and relaxed, miles away from the street-fighter swagger he acquires on the field.
“I feel you have to be competitive no matter what. If you are not competitive in your body language and energy, there’s no point playing the sport and representing your country."
Back when India first learnt to stand up to Australian sledging, when captain Sourav Ganguly worked with coach John Wright, there was a motto given to the team: “Never take a backward step." The Indian team was told that during tournaments, the great teams stay in a “f**k you" mode. Almost two decades later, Kohli has made those lessons his own. At a press conference, he says, “This team does not take a backward step away from anyone."
With Ganguly and his soldiers, we learnt to let the sledging bounce off the skin, to play sophisticated, passive-aggressive—you may even call it “gentlemanly"—mind games like making the Australian captain wait by turning up late for the toss. But with Kohli, a switch has been flipped. He has not only seen through the hypocrisy of Australian sledging—it’s all very good when they are dishing it out, but when they are the targets, they get nasty and furious—but also realized that he and his team have it in them to stay calm and focused on the game even as they exchange verbal barbs.
“This team, regardless of whether we are on top or not, we speak," Kohli says. “We take it very well and we give it back even better."
In 2014, after scoring 169 in a Test during India’s tour of Australia, Kohli had made it clear that “I like playing against Australia because it’s very hard for them to stay calm.
“I don’t mind an argument on the field and it really excites me and brings the best out of me and they don’t seem to be learning the lesson..."
In the final press conference of this year’s Border-Gavaskar Trophy series, Kohli dropped the bomb. He said he was no longer friends with the Australian cricketers and never would be. Who in international cricket says things like that? It’s a bit like the boy in gully cricket who would have the better bat everyone wanted to play with, and would threaten to take it home with him when he got out if the decision weren’t reversed.
But is it unwarranted? The Australian sledging motto has always been, “What is said on the field, stays on the field." But has it ever really worked that way? Can it?
Kohli’s aggression can sometimes look like pantomime insolence. The Australians say he “crosses the line". Australia’s Daily Telegraph wrote, “Virat Kohli has become the Donald Trump of world sport". But what is this line they keep talking about? One press conference during the Border-Gavaskar Trophy was instructive. David Warner, the Australian opener, was on the dais. Someone threw the inevitable question on Kohli’s aggression. Warner first offered a ridiculous denial of history—“We do play our cricket in an aggressive style, but we’re not gonna be in your face like that"—before pulling out the line about “the line".
Things got really interesting when a journalist asked him what “the line" meant. Warner got defensive: “One that you can draw there and not step over, simple as that."
It was embarrassing. He had no clue. And then he admitted it: “It’s just a figure of speech, isn’t it? We always say that. But I think it comes down to the umpires and the ICC fining people." So, only punitive action determines what is acceptable and what is not.
As Indian spectators, we are unused to our own team staring and glaring, sledging and mouthing off and getting into confrontations. Well, get used to it. On the field, that’s just how Kohli is. He will set the charge and watch stuff explode. Entire stadiums will know just how pissed off he is. He is going to get nasty, and his game will either soar or sink with it.
From Anushka Sharma, Kohli learns kindness.
“You obviously have to learn from your partner, right?" he says.
For the last two years, every Diwali and Holi, Kohli has been making public proclamations on his social media handles about caring for street animals, and not hurting or harassing dogs with fireworks or colour. He would rather you didn’t burst crackers at all.
“I have always been fond of animals, but I never had the compassion and love that I feel now," Kohli says, “and that’s mainly because of Anushka. She has changed the way I see these things, and the way I think about animals; now I’ve genuinely started feeling this deep love for them..."
The love is in evidence in the regular photographs and videos he posts of his life with his dog Bruno, but why the public messages on kindness to animals?
“I strongly feel that if something needs to be addressed, I will go out and say it," Kohli says. “I’m doing a particular thing in my life with my profession and suddenly I find myself in a place where people are listening to what I have to say. And I feel once you have the chance to even influence five people, you should voice your opinion for the things that need to be addressed. You need to be brave about the things you want to take up."
These things too, he concludes, he has learnt from Sharma. There is another, equally important, realization that she has fostered in Kohli.
“People are very chauvinistic in this country," he says. “I certainly wasn’t aware of that growing up, to be honest. But I have started to see myself as a feminist. "
His feminism doesn’t come from books, neither does he use it as some kind of catchy buzzword. It is not a result of vigorous debate, but an awareness that in his world view, where the idea of “fairness" holds such importance, gender inequality has no place.
“The intolerance I see...many people don’t even know that they are intolerant, and many of them don’t want to change," he says. “At some point it becomes a personal choice, and I would definitely want to think about life from the side of the woman. Everyone should be a feminist."
Was this sense of fairness instilled in him in childhood? Was there something that triggered it?
“If I feel strongly about something, I like to pursue it, this has always come naturally to me," says Kohli. “Was it instilled in me? I don’t know. But I certainly picked it up from my father—this stubbornness, this pursuit—because he was a totally self-made man. He pursued knowledge and he started from scratch and got himself somewhere. He studied under the streetlights. You have to be very, very stubborn to make your way up all by yourself."
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Kohli’s family came to Delhi as refugees. He does not know much about his grandparents—he never met them—but he knows that they arrived in Delhi during Partition, and like most displaced people, had nothing to call their own. They managed to open a small grocery store. Later, their elder son—Virat’s uncle—opened a small metalworks shop of his own, and Prem Nath Kohli, Virat’s father, joined him. But Prem was the restless sort who, says Kohli, landed a job serving the police in Oman. Then he decided that he wanted to be a lawyer.
“To get a law degree is not something you did in my family," Kohli says. “He started again from scratch, with no facilities and no backing, and he ended up practising at the (Delhi) high court."
The other, very well-known thing that his father did was to push young Virat into cricket.
“My father, my brother, my mom...they took me to every single game, every single practice," he says. “They would come and watch me play everywhere, in all kinds of places. At one time, I used to practise seven days a week, and my father or my brother would always be there at every session, and they did this till I was grown up enough to go alone."
There were plenty of lessons to absorb also from the combative and fractious Delhi cricket scene, where unfair practices abounded.
“I didn’t come from a famous academy, and all the famous clubs obviously had the advantage that their players would always be recognized at the trials," Kohli says. “So the only option I had was to play better than the other guys. Somehow it got lodged in my head that I have to be better at cricket, not at anything else, to get ahead and get my chance, and probably that was the right thing."
Should that not be the only criteria?
“Yes, but unfortunately there were always other factors, people using ‘influence’. I could see it happening all the time, but I was never a part of it, and maybe that was good for me. You saw that happening at every stage, and even at such small levels that you won’t even notice. But you can always tell as a player in the circuit who was selected for their game and who wasn’t. Luckily, that just made me think that I need to play better than anyone else in the scene and I think that has really helped me even now to create that mental template of how I want to play my game."
That Kohli drive that is now pushing him towards lofty batting records began then. And then a series of well-documented events added layers and layers to that inner compulsion.
His father died when he, an 18-year-old, was playing for Delhi in a Ranji match. Kohli refers to it as “the incident". He was not out on 40 at the end of the day’s play on 18 December 2006. In the early hours of the 19th, Prem succumbed to a heart attack. Kohli doesn’t know why, but he could not abandon the game. He went back to continue his innings and scored a 90.
“You know it’s quite bizarre…I mean that incident," Kohli says. “Yes, I did make up my mind then that I have to make a career out of cricket, which means I have to play for my country, my father had such a massive role to play in me being a cricketer, so it became a sort of madness for me.
“When you lose a parent you do think, ‘What am I going to fall back on?’ I wasn’t conscious of it then. Then, for me it was just about playing cricket. But now I do think there was that aspect of not having a choice. I never thought of a second option, never thought about ‘what if this doesn’t work out?’"
There is a photograph of Kohli and his father that evokes a very beautiful scene. Prem Kohli is sitting at the dining table in his cramped west Delhi home, sporting a goofy smile, still wearing his blue scooter helmet, and Virat is holding on to him, almost climbing on top of him, with an impish smile; a child so happy to see his father returning from work that he can’t wait for the helmet to come off.
There is a memory that often returns to Kohli when he is on his own. It was 14 August. He was 12. His father and he were going to the market to buy kites for Independence Day, sitting on the same Kinetic Honda scooter on which he used to be taken for cricket coaching. Halfway to the market, Prem realized that his son was not wearing a helmet. He was concerned and nervous, both for his boy’s safety as well as the prospect of being stopped by the police. They finished buying kites, Virat wanted a watermelon. So Prem bought him one and Virat took the two bags—one with kites and the other with the watermelon—and attached them to the little hook just under the handles. As he was making his way to the bike, Prem saw two traffic policemen heading his way, and thinking that Virat had already mounted, he zoomed off.
“Except I had not got on the scooter at all," Kohli says, throwing his head back, laughing. “And so I’m standing there all alone, thinking any time now he will realize his mistake and come back for me, and 5 minutes pass, and then 10, and then 15."
Prem only figured out that the boy was not on the bike when he reached home. In utter panic, he rushed back. By this time, Virat had gotten on to a rickshaw, fuming with anger, and was making his way back home.
“So he sees me from the other side of the road, and he starts waving at me, but I turned my head away," Kohli says. “Then he went ahead and made a U-turn and now he is right beside the rickshaw and pleading with me to stop, but I’m telling the rickshaw guy, ‘Don’t stop, take me where I’ve told you.’ That went on for like 5 minutes before I broke. But I was so pissed with him I don’t think I spoke to him for two days!"
Kohli laughs when he finishes the story, and then goes silent.
“It’s crazy, if you think about it, that sometimes something like that (‘the incident’) has to happen in your life for you to get the vision…," he says. “Now when you look back at it, everything that happened in your life and where you stand today, you feel that all those things had to happen for your journey to reach where it has. And everything from now on will also happen the way it has to happen…."
In 2012, six years after his father’s death, and four years after he made his debut for the Indian team, there was another lesson to be learnt. For those six years, Kohli had dealt with “the incident" all by himself, on tour with the team and away from his family. He was barely out of his teens. He had already made a reputation for himself as someone who was brash, ill-tempered, disrespectful, and given to partying and the fast life. He had, in rebellion, decided that he did not really care about such opinions. And then he realized that there was some truth in it.
“I was making a wreck of myself," Kohli says. “And realizing that I’m really messing it up and then turning it around, I think it has to come from within, and I am very grateful that it came to me, because a lot of people never realize it."
So he made those now famous changes—to his physical training, his mental approach, his diet and his discipline—taking everything in his life and channelling it into this one narrow, sharp focus.
“Change is hard because it’s a daily process," Kohli says. “It’s not like you have the realization and you have an adrenalin rush and you go and make some changes. You have to think, can I do it on a daily basis? You have to have a love for it, and I had that love. "
This is Kohli: Someone who sees and recognizes the unreconstructed man he once was, the things he has had to do to shape himself into what he is, and what more he needs to do to become what he wants to become.
This is why failures are so important to him in cricket. There are two that are always on his mind: the England tour in 2014, when he was out six times in five Tests for a score below 10, on almost each occasion to a good-length ball swinging outside his off-stump; and the defeat against Sri Lanka in Galle in 2015, when, from a winning position, the Indian batting collapsed in the second innings. The memories don’t rankle, but he does remember them as someone would a vexing math problem. They formed the basis of some of the most significant changes in his batting and his mental approach.
The first thing he reassessed was the role of desperation. He used to think it was a good thing to be desperate to succeed, and then he realized that being calm is better. Now when he goes in to bat, he forgets the last innings he played. Whether he scored a double hundred or a duck in the last one is all the same to him.
“You have to understand that failures are meant to happen," he says. “This is a team sport, you are playing with 10 other people, and against 11 guys, so there is no good reason that you will be the only one performing in every game. Every player needs to be on good terms with that. Cricket is a sport of failures; if you look at even the most successful players, they succeed once in every four or five innings, and that’s a really good career."
At the same time, he approaches each game with positivity, greedy for runs, but ice-cold in his head. He is looking for just one thing: scoring as many runs as are needed for the team to win.
“The ultimate goal, that is winning the Test match or finishing an ODI, is paramount for me. I just decided to treat milestones in Test cricket as a very normal thing and not something that I would get excited about. If I get out after scoring only 100, the team doesn’t benefit as much as it would when I score 150 or 200."
He combined this with “relentless" (a word he uses all the time) practice sessions to iron out the flaws in his batting and develop new shots. He made minor adjustments that he then hard-wired into his game: the toes of the back foot pointing to the point region instead of covers; moving up the stance more towards the middle stump; widening the stance; building the confidence to take a big stride when playing on the front foot; adjusting his grip by an inch to subtly alter the pressure between his bottom and top hand, which gives him access to a never-ending library of shots to choose from.
In 2016, he went past 150 in a Test for the first time, playing against the West Indies in Antigua, and converted that into his first double century. The innings was marked by how straightforward it looked. Kohli didn’t even have to breathe hard. He followed it up with four double hundreds in four successive Test series, becoming the first-ever batsman to do that (Donald Bradman and Rahul Dravid each have three double hundreds in three successive series).
The longest of those innings was a hard-fought 235 against England in Mumbai on a difficult pitch where England collapsed soon after Kohli’s mighty masterclass. He batted for almost eight-and-a-half hours, without once looking like he would get out. It’s the kind of stuff daydreams are made of.
“I felt like I was in a trance," Kohli says. “The vision to win the Test match for India, although we were behind in the game, made me realize what I need to do for us to get there. My mind took over and the body didn’t feel tired. But that match was emotionally draining for me."
In ODIs and T20s, he constructed inconceivable chases. No target was big enough. The bigger the target, the colder and more calculated he would become. Each innings was built with textbook shots, breathtaking bat speed, with disregard for pace or bounce or spin, from yorkers turned into half-volleys, and fielders who seemed redundant except to prove just how well Kohli could place a ball. Each innings had that cold quality of Roger Federer playing tennis at his peak, always a step ahead of his opponent, but betraying no sign that he was extending himself.
While spectators and viewers followed those chases with their heart rates at maximum bpm, burning kilocalories just by breathing, Kohli looked like he had the resting heart rate of a dead man. Nasser Hussain, the former England captain-turned-commentator, declared him the “greatest chaser of all time".
Gavaskar said on a news channel recently that Kohli comes from “an undiscovered planet".
In the T20 World Cup in 2016, Kohli’s unbeaten 82 off 51 balls against Australia in a successful chase, in a match that India had to win to get to the semi-finals, was greeted by both former players and other commentators with rhapsodic hysteria.
Here’s an example. India were at 122/4 in the 17th over, with a stiff 39 required from 18 balls to win. Kohli, who had worked his way up to a steady 50, put the final part of his plan into action, and began the fireworks. The live online commentators at The Guardian shot off a few colourful rockets too: “He is everything!" they wrote. “Step, step, straight bat, six! He leaps and hollers, he is this, he is that, he is the other, it is impossible to quantify the pressure, the brilliance, the sheer ease!"
Kohli continued the assault, scoring 32 off 11 balls, his gift for exceptional violence couched in classical grace, sending the commentator over the edge:
“I AM TYPING STANDING UP!" he wrote. “DRINK IN THE GENIUS! CRAM IT IN YOUR EYES! BURN IT IN YOUR BRAIN! And there go four more, cracked over cover, and this is ridiculous, absurd, outrageous, disgusting, astounding, transcendental....Oh my days!"
Kohli’s teammate R. Ashwin tweeted that the innings was on a par with Tendulkar’s “Desert Storm" at Sharjah. Sourav Ganguly ranked it as better, simply because of the context and the pressure.
When Tendulkar retired from cricket, we all felt a bit older. With the coming of Kohli, we’ve all gotten a little younger, and some of us have grown beards.
No learning is enough for Kohli, and the next year and a half will be full of lessons. For most of 2016-17, India played their cricket at home. For most of 2017-18, they will be tested in pitches fast and bouncy, in swinging conditions and hostile crowds abroad. There will be tours to England, Australia and South Africa.
The plan, Kohli says, is basic. “To try and win series and not just one odd Test here and there. We know it’s going to be tough but we are going to enjoy being uncomfortable and embrace it totally."
Whatever the results, whatever his learning curve, there is one certainty in the way Kohli and his India will play in these future series: at full tilt, and with maximum ruthlessness.
■Toughest bowler you have faced in the nets
■ Toughest playstation competitor
■ Favourite way to relax on tour
Room service and movies—so I can eat in bed while watching a movie.
■ Greatest fear
■ A place no one recognized you:
Barcelona. I walked everywhere. You can roam around peacefully in New Zealand and Australia too; people recognize you and say hello and that’s it. I enjoy going away to play because I like walking around on my own and listening to music a lot, or just sitting in a coffee shop. I don’t really like doing things in a group.
■ Three important lessons for your children if and when you have them:
1. The importance of a routine in life. You need to have some set patterns in your life you can rely on to get yourself out of trouble. If you have things you do on a daily basis, then you don’t really put unnecessary focus on what might happen with your career or whatever you are doing at the moment.
2. The right values, and standing up for what is right.
3. The third thing is quite funny because I’ve always thought about this: If it can be taught, then to teach them not to cry on a flight. I hate it, hate it, hate it, when children cry on flights.