He is a livewire. Ready to burst at the slightest provocation, Virat Kohli is famous for his aggression on the field as he is for his excellent batsmanship qualities. The 24-year-old has all but been declared the captain of Team India – he is heir apparent to reigning captain, Mahi (Mahendra Singh Dhoni). His coming-to-age knock in test cricket was against Australia in Adelaide, last year. Next, he stamped his mark all over one-day cricket with a stunning century against Sri Lanka on the same tour. At the same time, he did not shy of popping the proverbial middle finger to an Aussie audience on the tour when it had snide comments in store for him. He was penalized as a result and had to forfeit half his match fee. Not that it fazed him in his penchant for being vocal about his emotions.
My rendezvous with Kohli was at the time that he had just won the Under-19 World Cup in 2008. It was a special homecoming for the youth. His house in West Delhi was beset by camera crews. On such a day I turned up for a chat as was decided after a phone conversation with him.
But, the man himself was out with his friends.
After a long wait, the photographer and I were rewarded by the sight of the young player halting his SUV to a dashing stop, leaving in its wake a dust of storm. He had a friend in tow and looked the part of the young champion. A smart visage, albeit with a spiky hairdo — a pet trend with the hip and the young — and a day’s stubble in place, Kohli had about him an air of arrogance. All those years ago, I was not charmed. The redeeming bit was a quiet air of confidence that came through when we got talking.
If coming home is always special, a World Cup trophy as part of your luggage, makes it sweeter. That moment when the captain of the Indian Under-19 cricket team alighted from a chartered aircraft in Bangalore with the cup held high was electric. “Nothing can compare to the intense pride running through me,” affirmed Kohli, with a twinkle in his eye. “If Bangalore was great, Delhi was the best. People came to the airport in droves and dholwallas welcomed me home.”
The stakes were high on Virat Kohli. He had just bagged a place among The Royal Challengers, the Bangalore IPL Team owned by liquor baron Vijay Mallya, for Rs 12 lakh.
Meanwhile the calls on his phone were unceasing and so were requests for live television shows as Kohli took time off in the NDTV cafeteria late into the evening. Yes, I had to follow him all the way to the office of the news channel, where he was on for a live show.
He was a winning captain with a golden trophy to boot and an attitude that refused to get bogged down by just about anything, yet Kohli was grounded enough to know that it was the time to court attention. He handled it all with an unfazed air.
“When we left from Bangalore for the World Cup, I never knew I would be coming back to a shower of interviews and widespread attention,” smiled the 19-year-old who had already earned a reputation as a potential team leader. As the Under-19 coach Dav Whatmore pointed out, “To be able to lead from the front is admirable and this young fellow has proved himself on the field.”
Kohli’s penchant has always been for big scores. In 2005, he single-handedly took Delhi from 70 for 4 to a first-innings lead with 251 off 431 balls against Himachal Pradesh in the Under-17 championships. And soon after his first-class debut for Delhi in the 2006-07 Ranji Trophy, in January this year, he was named captain of the U-19 squad for the World Cup in Malaysia. A World Cup that changed everything for the players. They might have been overseas before and exposed to different climatic and pitch conditions, but recognition was amiss.
“People don’t watch Under-19 cricket. Before the World Cup, not a single match of ours was telecast. So yes, the World Cup has been the biggest thing for us. We showed the world what Under-19 talent in India is all about. That’s why we are here,” said Kohli rather candidly.
The question of what really brought home the cup in the March of 2008 brought forth a smooth reply. “The way we went down in the field made all the difference. Honestly, after the first innings, I was a bit worried. But as soon as we got three wickets off 17 runs and the score came down to 96 in 16 overs, I knew the cup was ours,” noted Kohli.
Aggression while at play sets this young cricketer apart. One remembers him during the final sending off South African cricketer Bradley Barnes to the pavilion with warm words, in reaction to the wicket-keeper batsman’s dismissive comment to a journalist about the Indian team during the break. “I do not believe in being nice on the field. The senior players are an inspiration with their attitude to give back as good as they get,” averred Kohli who transformed into a seasoned player having had two-and-a-half years of experience as part of the Delhi Ranji Trophy team.
“The confidence that he has built on while on tour in Pakistan, England, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Malaysia worked for him and the team that day in Kuala Lumpur when he knew exactly how to put pressure on the South African batsmen and where to place the fielders,” pointed out Atul Wassan.
As a selector, Wassan made sure that the youngster made his debut when he did. He added: “I remembered him as someone special having met him at the West Delhi Cricket Academy. When I was on the selection board for the Delhi Ranji Trophy team and heard some doubts being cast on the inclusion of Virat Kohli, Ishant Sharma and Pradeep Sangwan because they were too young, I put my foot down. I did not want them to lose out on their growing years.”
Dressed casually in a white tee shirt teamed up with blue denims, Kohli revealed himself to be a fun-loving teenager. “I like to hang out with friends and go out shopping and partying,” he said. But slivers of maturity came through as he professed to let nothing compromise with cricket. Partying into the wee hours (read: four in the morning) therefore is not allowed to interfere with his daily morning routine of practicing at the nets and gymming thereafter.
It is about this professional attitude that his childhood coach, Raj Kumar Sharma, vouched for. “He is a hardworking boy who never misses a practice,” he said, recalling the day when he first met a 9-year-old Kohli at his West Delhi Cricket Academy. “The date, May 30 in the year 1997, is distinct in my memory because it was also the day I started the academy.”
As a tiny tot of 2, Kohli kickstarted his passion even though there was no precedence in the family of a willow wielder. His father, Prem Kohli, was an advocate who recognized the budding talent in his son and nurtured it san inhibitions. “His father always accompanied him, till he was old enough, to the academy. He was particularly attached to him,” says mother Saroj Kohli. “The day his father passed away in December, 2006, was a turning point in his life.”
“On that morning, I had to play a Ranji Trophy match against Karnataka at the Ferozeshah Kotla in Delhi,” reminisced the all-rounder who scored some 90-odd runs that day. “He had a dream that I achieve something for my country. That’s why I dedicated my win to my father and since that day onwards every achievement has been for him. Before that, during the first match of the series, I sat beside him on the stretcher when it was being re-telecast and even though I could watch myself play out there, he couldn’t. He had a clot in his brain and his left side was completely paralysed. It was harrowing.”
Sharma remembered getting a call from his protégé at 2 a.m. when he was in Australia. His only advice was for Kohli to go and face the opposition on the field. Said Sharma: “He was in a mess but he went ahead and saved the day for Delhi.”
If Kohli draws on his bank of mental strength to deal with tough situations and throws himself around during fielding with abandon, something that Whatmore approves of, his self-knowledge eggs him on to take care of his Achilles’ heel. “My weak point is my quick temper. I need to calm down a bit as it affects the game. So yes, I am working on anger management,” he laughed.
Next on young Kohli’s diary were plans for a new house with the prize money and enrolling himself into an open school to complete his XII Boards. “I want to take up Arts. Who wants to unnecessarily trouble oneself over Science or Commerce? If I had a bit of doubt as to whether I would like to give my all to cricket, then it would spell trouble. Cricket is my religion. And from now on I have one goal and that is to get the Indian jersey. If I can make it, everything else will follow.”