Sunday mornings are sleepy in West Delhi. The honking Pajeros are missing, the hawkers selling chhole bhature don’t turn up, and the Punjabi mouthfuls that typify these areas can’t be heard. It’s an after-party lull. It’s the morning of groggy heads trying to make sense of heavy legs. In a place easy to be stereotyped, this is a morning tailored to be type-casted.
As a neutral observer though, one needs to scratch a little harder to understand the ethos of West Delhi; home to migrants at the time of Partition, place where gymnasiums and Gurudwaras share boundaries, people who, by the dint of their acumen and hardwork, gradually made it an affluent neighbourhood without failing to have a good laugh over themselves.
Virat Kohli comes from these areas. Always the street-fighter, forever, the brat (or so the image goes), but essentially, the Dilli ka chhokra who loves his bhature. Not long after he made it big, the housing society in the posh Meera Bagh area of Paschim Vihar where he then lived, came to be known as Virat Vihar. Talk of the great Punjabi show-off.
That Punjabi show-off. That West Delhi badge. It’s an image that got stuck to him. The volley of abuses, the stare, the glare, the flashy studs and the glistening chains, the garish tattoos and the spiked hair, the much-documented love for fast cars, fast bikes, fast women… Image is everything, screamed Cannon in one of their most famous adverts of last century. It consumed a mercurial Andre Agassi. It very nearly consumed King Kohli. Except, Kohli knew for what it was — an image — and chose not to fight it.
Oxford dictionary describes ‘brash’ as “Self-assertive in a rude, noisy, or overbearing way.” It’s a word that became his alter-ego, his image; it became him. View it through the West Delhi lens, and it makes for an easy, conformist inference. Except, people close to Kohli say, the inference is inherently flawed.
“I think it’s unfair to call him brash,” Vijay Lokapally, senior sports journalist at The Hindu and someone who has covered Virat extensively, says.
“To judge someone without knowing him is not fair. He is aggressive, expressive and demonstrative, but never brash. He respects his seniors, always has time for his juniors, and his discipline is as good as Sachin Tendulkar’s, Virender Sehwag’s or Rahul Dravid’s.”
It’s 20 years since a middle-aged Premkumar Kohli brought his two sons — Vikash and Virat — to Raj Kumar Sharma. The boys were among the first batch of students to enlist at West Delhi Cricket Academy, and ten years later, on 18 August, 2008, one of them went on to become the first international cricketer that Sharma produced.
On that bright Monday in Dambulla, Virat Kohli went to work with Gautam Gambhir, and went on to rule the decade. Runs swelled, records fell, wealth soared, but at heart, Sharma and Lokapally insist, Kohli remains the gifted kid who loved to bat.
“He always looked different from others. He was too good for his age. Supremely gifted, and loved to play long innings,” Sharma recalls, before pointing towards a crowd of young boys at his academy. “There are 200 kids playing cricket right here, and as a coach, I can almost pick who is different. Virat was, different.”
Former India and Delhi cricketer Aakash Chopra remembers the buzz in city’s cricketing circles. “People were talking about this boy who hits the ball very hard and gets big runs. Once he came into the senior team, everyone realised that this young, enthusiastic guy is generally very excited to be on the field and gives his 100 percent. He was obviously a work in progress, but we could sense he will reach somewhere. He was certainly talented, but to be able to convert that talent the way he has, I’d be lying if he I had a clue,” he recalls.
The young boy courted stardom early. By the time Under-17 cricket happened, he had scored two double hundreds. By the time he turned 18, he had made his Ranji Trophy debut. Before his 19th birthday, he was a World Cup-winning captain. By 22, he was a double World Cup winner. The boy knew he was meant to rule. And the sheer inevitability of it all is baffling.
“See, he always had this penchant to score big hundreds. It caught everyone’s attention,” Lokapally says.
“He was an over-enthusiastic kid, just wanting attention. His coach always told us to watch out for this special kid. He was making really big scores in junior cricket. When you score big runs, you show two things, one is your temperament, the other is your potential.”
In a world full of attention seekers and in a city that prides in pretensions, Virat found a noble way to grab his share: by scoring truckloads of runs. Davenell Fredereick ‘Dave’ Whatmore was next to be floored.
Whatmore, the coach of the U-19 World Cup-bound team, first saw his captain bat at the National Cricket Academy nets in Bengaluru, where the squad had assembled for a two-week preparatory camp.
“What stood out was a certain toughness in his character and his thirst for runs. He just loved to bat; always the last one out from nets. He was a natural leader in the sense that he was confident, loved to lead by example and was very methodical in his approach. He gave everything in practice,” he remembers.
Whatmore credits Virat’s toughness to his Ranji Trophy stint, and while he most certainly refers to the rigours of first-class cricket, the much-reported incident of Virat losing his father and turning up at Feroz Shah Kotla the next morning to score 90 and help Delhi avoid a follow-on against Karnataka did go a long way in building his hard-as-nails character.
“I don’t think I had ever seen anything like that before; maybe Tendulkar returning from his father’s funeral and scoring a hundred against Kenya during the 1999 World Cup, but really, nothing else. And remember, Virat was just 17,” Lokapally, who covered that match, says.
“I think all of us were flabbergasted to see his mental toughness. After he got out to a bad decision, I and (Venkatesh) Prasad, the Karnataka coach, went to talk to him. He was in a zone; a zombie. I think that tragedy changed him.”
The boy from West Delhi, to flog a tired cliché, became a man. The scrapper was ready.
In every athlete’s career, arrives a year that comes to define her/his time. It becomes synonymous to the athlete’s being. Very little before, and very little thereafter matters. 1974, Ali. 1980, Bjorg. 1998, Tendulkar. 2008, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. On the available evidence, 2012 comes closest to the year that gave ballast to what is now a remarkable career.
It was the third year in succession when Kohli clocked over 1000 runs in One-Day International (ODI) cricket, but that’s not what made news. It was the year when he not only emerged unscathed from India’s horrid tour to Australia, but came home with his reputation enhanced and his career on the runway to impending glory.
The Test hundred in Adelaide ahead of the limited-overs’ tri-nation series gave him belief, and the manic 86-ball 133* liberated him. India needed to chase down Sri Lanka’s 320 inside 40 overs to stay alive in the series. On that stunning evening in Hobart, they achieved it with seven wickets and 20 balls to spare.
Next month, India travelled to Bangladesh for Asia Cup, and Virat set the event alight with a blazing, expletive-ridden masterclass. 183 chanceless runs flowed from 148 balls against Pakistan, and the chase of 329 was completed with 13 balls and six wickets in hand.
“Those two knocks were very important in the context of his career. To be fair, he played well in the 2011 World Cup also, but the same year, he was dropped from the Test side. So maybe yes, 2012 could be that important year in his career,” says Chopra.
Virat scored two more tons that year, taking the number of his three-figure scores in 2012 to five. Three of those five hundreds had come while chasing, and India won each time he scored a hundred. In total, Virat crossed 50 eight times in 17 innings in 2012, and six of those came batting second. The legend of Virat Kohli, the master chaser, was formed.
“The reason Virat is so good at chasing is,” says Lokapally, “because he has the mindset of a hunter.”
“The hunter waits for his time, and pounces on his prey when the time is right. The way he constructs his chases is just superb. Also, another reason why I think he is so good is because he plays proper cricketing shots.”
Coach Sharma concurs. “He has all the shots in the book, and he doesn’t have to play the aerial shots, or the paddle sweeps, the reverse sweeps etc. to get runs. His ODI game is an extension of his classical Test match shots.”
“I think what stands out for me in Virat’s batting is the way he middles the ball,” says Jasvinder Sidhu, another veteran cricket journalist.
“Right from his U-19 days, he saw the ball late and closely, and you can do that only if you are concentrating hard, ball after ball. I would say, his is a very refined batting, and he scores well on both sides of the pitch. Also, his game is built for fast pitches, but look at the way he plays spinners on low and slow tracks. It’s just so good.”
The same year, Virat’s cricketing idol Sachin Tendulkar announced retirement from ODI cricket, and unofficially, the baton of team’s most reliable batsman was passed to the man who had once dreamt of hitting fast bowlers for straight sixes, like Tendulkar.
Over the course of next five years, Virat became India’s batting lynchpin who reveled in high-pressure run chases. His ODI record batting second is jaw-dropping: 5892 runs at an average of 67.72, including 21 centuries. In chases of 300 runs or more, he has scored seven hundreds and one fifty in 13 matches.
Sidhu, however, sounds a note of caution. “While there’s little doubt about Virat’s abilities, I am not so sure how well he has done in big matches; the finals, the semi-finals etc. One can easily remember him getting out to a bad shot in the semi-final of 2015 World Cup. Remember the Champions Trophy final against Pakistan, or the recent ODI series-decider against England?”
A quick glance at the statistics bolsters Sidhu’s misgivings. Virat is yet to score a fifty or a hundred in the eight finals he has played (of tournaments featuring more than two teams). His highest score of 43 (against England in the ICC Champions Trophy final, 2013) does scant justice to his otherwise incredible record.
“I am sure it’s a minor blip, and he will sort it out the way he learnt to handle his emotions. I always believed a player of his class doesn’t need to burst into an abusive rant when he gets to a hundred. He is too good a player to do that,” says Sidhu.
For Chopra though, the highlight of Virat’s decade-long career has been his dynamism; the quest to get better that has manifested itself in him famously mastering the short ball after a torrid Test debut, and more recently, sprucing up his judgement outside the off-stump.
“When he started in 2008, I remember him getting out to short-pitch deliveries. He got bounced out a few times in Test cricket and in IPL also, and even in some Irani Trophy games. But now, if you bowl short to him, he will actually punish you. Other thing is his front foot stride, which was very short and very across has now changed,” observes Chopra.
This desire to improve is also a function of the erratic ways in which the Delhi cricket — and the city itself — operates. Slack off, and you’ll be pulled down. Drop your guard, and you’ll be run over. It is a ruthless city — never mind the lazy Dill (heart) reference so often used to describe it — with a ruthless cricket culture: always on the move, always ready to forget.
“Growing up in Delhi cricket, you know you have to fight to get your share. It’s unlikely that you’ll get a red carpet even if you are very talented. Then, you get slightly street-smart as well, thanks to the nature of how Delhi actually operates. Virat is also cut from the same cloth,” muses Chopra.
“You are kind of aware of what is happening around you, but you learn to insulate yourself from that; not letting it consume you, you know, being attached and detached at the same time.”
Read Chopra’s words carefully and you will watch them pan out on Delhi’s streets on a daily basis. The ‘attachment-detachment’ phenomenon exists in everything that has come to describe the city in popular culture, things that the Delhi people would like to avoid, but nevertheless find a strange, masochistic sense of belonging with: the road rage, the bluster, the show-off, the noise.
The quiet Sunday morning in West Delhi is slowly coming to life. The chhole bhature carts are back in business, the Pajeros are being tended to in the garages, and fittingly in an odd way, fine strains of gurubani filter through the smoky haze. Could Virat Kohli — he, of Ghalib’s grace one moment and West Delhi’s street-fight the other — have come from anywhere else?