The mirror, they say, seldom lies if you are willing to see what it reflects. Virat Kohli’s mirror told him exactly what he needed to hear nine and a half years back. Fortunately for Indian cricket, Kohli heeded those words, embarking on a journey of physical transformation that was the first step towards him becoming the premier batsman of his generation.
“I came back home after IPL 2012, I saw myself, I was disgusted and I wanted to change myself. I was eating like a mad person because that phase happened when I got success and everything happened well and I got into IPL saying I am going to dominate,” Kohli told his India teammate Mayank Agarwal in a chat show. “Things did not turn out that way, so I didn’t process that well. I went back home and reaiised that I need to change everything about the way I am preparing. Changed it from the next day onwards and from then on, my whole outlook on how I want to prepare has changed.”
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That fateful IPL Kohli is talking about netted him 364 runs from 12 games. Some might have seen it as a passable season, but Kohli isn’t about passable. He is about excellence, and he wasn’t going to settle for anything less.
As India prepare for life without Kohli at the helm of any side following his shock resignation from the Test captaincy on Saturday evening, it is impossible not to reflect on the events that have taken the national side to dizzying heights. From the self-realisation that he wasn’t the best version, he could be stemmed a sea transformation that spread rapidly through his teammates like an infection. If India are the No. 1 Test team in the world today, it’s largely because of the cultural change in terms of fitness that Kohli first embraced, then advocated and eventually demanded of everyone around him.
The accent on fitness and the distinct slant towards fast bowling are developments Indian cricket should forever be grateful to Kohli for. True, a lot of other things fell in place and Kohli had the benefit of a benevolent set of officials as well as the sounding board cum guiding hand of former head coach Ravi Shastri, but India’s dominance of world cricket definitely has an authoritative Kohli stamp to it.
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As skipper, Kohli wasn’t on a mission to win friends and charm people. His goal was a victory, and he would do anything within acceptable limits to reach that target. If that meant constant chopping and changing to the detriment of security and stability within the set-up, so be it. If that meant occasional setbacks in the form of defeats, never mind. If that drove critics, of whom there were many given his abrasive style, to sharpen the knives, so what? Kohli’s strength of character allowed him to shut out the white noise and plunge himself to making the Indian team a feared all-weather combination, as much at home in their own backyard as in the far challenging, less familiar climes of Australia and England, New Zealand and South Africa.
Kohli bore no resemblance to his predecessors as India’s Test captain. Indeed, the contrast with the man he succeeded, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, couldn’t have been starker. Where Dhoni was a picture of composure, his face no index to whatever was going on in his mind, Kohli was emotional and unfettered, wearing his heart on his sleeve, taking no prisoners and certainly not taking a backward step on the field. He earnestly believed neither he nor his side was second to anyone, and that for his team to become a world-beating unit, it wasn’t enough just to execute their skills better than their opponents but also take them on in the battle of verbals, in the game of one-upmanship that has become such an integral part of modern professional sport.
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Many of Kohli’s decisions defied logic and boggled the mind, yet he courted success despite being unconventional and unpredictable. He was willing to lose the odd match in trusting his instincts and his vision, which revolved around taking the game forward, about taking one’s own game forward. To him, being static was akin to taking a backward step, and for someone with a naturally aggressive mindset, that was a strict no-no.
That he would be his own man was obvious as early as in his first Test in charge, even if only in a stand-in capacity, against Australia at the Adelaide Oval in December 2014. Contrary to popular opinion, he benched R Ashwin and plumped for leggie Karn Sharma, who had ‘been bowling well in the nets’. The move backfired spectacularly; Karn went for plenty while Aussie office Nathan Lyon picked up 12 wickets, showing up the folly of leaving his Indian counterpart out on the sidelines. Kohli was unapologetic, as he was about India hurtling to defeat and refusing to pull the shutters down when their quest for 347 in the fourth innings ran into troubled waters. Like the mythical great gambler, he wasn’t chary of risking defeat when the tantalising prospect of a sweet victory was dangled temptingly in front of him.
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India were a lowly No. 7 on the Test charts when Kohli took over from Dhoni. In a year and a half, they had climbed to the top of the podium; since October 2016, India have been there and thereabouts consistently, a tribute to the spirit and drive within the unit despite the insecurities that lack of consistency in selection is bound to instill.
Kohli’s responsibilities didn’t end with handpicking personnel and going for the toss. He led the Indian batting with ruthless authority, stacking up one impressive edifice after another and therefore leading from the front in every sense of the term. His commitment to fitness rubbed off on his colleagues; the mountain of runs from his broad willow inspired them to dig deep and make their own contributions to the best of their abilities. Despite the team not necessarily a team in the strictest sense of the word, there was something – or many things – that Kohli and Shastri were doing right. How else can one explain 40 wins in 68 Tests under Kohli, successive series wins in Australia, a 2-1 lead in England last summer?
Oh wait, how about a fearsome pace attack by way of explanation? When Shastri returned to the coaching landscape in 2017, he and Kohli figured out that the only way India would not be blown away in South Africa, England and Australia the following year was if they could fight fire with fire. Thus took shape the pace battery that is the envy of the cricket world now. The land of spin underwent a sea change, with the likes of Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav and later Mohammed Siraj, Navdeep Saini and Shardul Thakur grabbing centrestage. In bowling coach Bharat Arun, Kohli and Shastri found the perfect nurturing hand as India started giving as good as they got.
The adherence to stringent and uncompromising fitness standards meant the pacers were as incisive and speedy in the final hour of a long, unsuccessful day as at the start, and that all players were better placed to make smart decisions under pressure. These decisions included a conscious choice to no longer be overawed by playing in alien conditions or complaining about pitches and the toss. Kohli himself set the tone again. In Cape Town, for instance, on the 2018 tour, he insisted on having a full batting stint on a decidedly underprepared strip at nets, his reasoning being that if he did the hard yards at practice, things would be infinitely easier during the match. How can you not get inspired with such an exemplar as a leader?
Kohli will be the first to admit that he is no saint. He might not have broken many rules, but he bent them as much as he could, almost daring the authorities to haul him up. More often than not, they didn’t, further encouraging him to snarl and growl and seek crucial edges in the battle of the mind, winning which would take his side closer to victory on the park.
As he slips into the next chapter of his cricketing journey, Kohli can look back on his stint as Indian captain across formats with satisfaction, if not unalloyed delight. There was no global silverware for all his efforts but given where the team was when he took over and where it is now as he bids adieu to a designated leadership role for reasons best known to him, Kohli can allow himself a gentle pat on the back. And knuckle down to rediscovering the batting fire within him.
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