What has changed for Virat Kohli?

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Virat Kohli has never missed an opportunity to blow a raspberry at real and imagined critics. He has often positioned himself as a victim of the imagined detractors either to motivate himself or because it was his natural inclination. In Australia at the World T20, with the fault-finders sharpening their knives, Kohli showed that ‘The Virat Story’ was far from over.

What wasn’t against him in the recent India-Pakistan World T20 game? He had lost the captaincy crown, he had dealt with sliding mental health, there was a burning feeling of victimisation, those fiery Pakistan pacers had to be dealt with, the fans at the 100k capacity MCG were screaming and the match was on a slippery eel. Worse, the intense game had infused self-doubts in him.

“I am making a mess of this,” he self-admittedly felt at one stage. The claustrophobic situation remarkably liberated him to unfurl two of the greatest T20 sixes of all time off successive balls. India won, and Kohli’s stature in Indian cricket further grew. The critics didn’t know what hit them. They were left with no other option — many turned into believers overnight.

Bharat Arun, India’s former bowling coach, someone who has watched Kohli from close quarters, was one of the two men who weren’t surprised. The other of course was his close ally and former India coach Ravi Shastri, who had told this newspaper in his appraisal of the knock: “Chup kara diya na sabko? (He has shut up everyone, right?)”

Arun is a quieter personality, prone to a more considerate reflection. Even he is unable to restrain himself from repeating that Shastri line and having a chuckle. “It’s this side of Virat’s personality that sets him apart. How many players in world cricket can you visualise being in that situation — and I am not talking just about the game but all the turmoil leading up to that moment — who can shut out the noise, go deep inside his self, manage to pull out some hidden gear, soak up the pressure, and do something this epic?” Arun tells us.

Ravi Shastri and Virat Kohli. (Source: Express photo by Kamleshwar Singh)

Most of the turmoil Arun refers to has been well-documented. Take Kohl’s ugly departure as India captain. After losing the mantle, Kohli had effectively called out India’s one-time influential skipper and the then BCCI president Sourav Ganguly a liar. Days after Ganguly’s statement that the cricket board had tried to persuade Kohli not to quit T20 captaincy, there was a counter. In a rare public disagreement between two Indian cricketing greats, Kohli went on to say that no one had tried stopping him. Soon, he would be stripped of his ODI captaincy, a fact he would say that he was only cursorily informed about during a selection meeting. In January, this year, he would quit Test captaincy too and suddenly the king was without a throne.

When he was the India coach, Shastri had ensured that the noise didn’t reach Kohli. When Rahul Dravid came in for Shastri, the functioning and the equations in the dressing room changed. Without the bullet-jacket that was Shastri by him, there was no one to shield Kohli from the BCCI politics and other distractions of being a captain. Things changed for the superstar known for his feisty temperament. Emotional decisions were made. The feeling of being pinned down by the world grew.

In his telling, the ensuing months were hell. “Only MS Dhoni called when I quit captaincy,” he would say later. By his own admission, his mental health suffered. The poster boy for intensity began to fake it in the middle. Runs dried up. Barbed tongues took aim. King Kohli was now sitting on the game of thrones, and winter had seemingly set in forever. Once in an IPL game this year, he would look up at the skies and mutter his anguish: “What the hell do you want me to do? F*** me!”.

Kohli is a much-respected, even admired star with a huge legion of fans but he isn’t as loved as Tendulkar or MS Dhoni. Surely one of the loneliest among the great players, he has lived largely in his head and heart. And now he seemed forlornly alone on the cricket field too. Perhaps, it’s due to his self-admittedly brash younger days or his in-your-face aggressiveness, he is also a person who has got his fair share of brickbats. In a rare moment of revelation on his Twitter feed in November 2019, through a note that he posted to his younger self, “You will be loved by many but will be disliked too. By some who don’t even know you. Don’t care about them. Keep believing yourself.”

Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni. (Source: File)

The tendency to isolate oneself, creating a crowd of others in one’s wake, is a sign of a star. It is also the road to playing the victim. Kohli has often given the image that he likes to be painted in the corner, that the world is fighting him or he is fighting it. The captaincy too had taken its toll. Under him, India scaled unbelievable heights — world number 1 in Tests for a long time, overseas wins; ambition has seldom been acknowledged this publicly or pursued with such intensity by an Indian captain. At one point, it seemed he was using insecurity as a performance-enhancing drug in the team, a point that Shastri didn’t deny as a coach. But he saw it as Kohli setting standards very high and having to take tough decisions to follow his dream.

Arun remembers a moment early on in the association. “Ravi told him ‘If, as you say, you want to be No 1, whatever needs to be done, we will do. I want to infuse steel in the team. So, it seems, do you. But you have to take ruthless decisions, not run on emotions. Right or wrong, we shall live by it but you have to be ruthless; are you ready?’” Kohli, Bharat says, was more than ready. He seemed to be waiting for this moment all his life.

If one were to nitpick, Kohli can be accused of lacking in emotional quotient — in sensitivity — as a captain, in the way Ajinkya Rahane, Cheteshwar Pujara, R Ashwin and a few were treated at various phases of their careers, but his achievements speak for themselves. A Kohli with more emotional bandwidth would have been nice but that’s how he operated.

How does Kohli view himself? His wife, actor Anushka Sharma, offered a clue in an interview with Filmfare magazine once. “His honesty is something I deeply value. I’m an honest person and have suffered on account of that. He’s brutally honest, too. I’m so happy that I met someone like him because we both lead our lives with complete honesty… I have a life partner with whom nothing is pretentious. Everything is real,” she said. Going by Kohli’s statements too, Anushka’s assessment is a fair reflection of how he views himself.

Whether the world believes it or not isn’t the question but how he sees himself is pertinent here. For a man who sees himself as honest, upfront, the tumultuous events around his captaincy, especially in the absence of the Shastri shield, proved too much. It all came to a boil. Until he agreed with Shastri’s public call for a break earlier this year and took a month-long break to rediscover himself and his love for the game.

A strange thing began to happen to Kohli at this juncture. At his most vulnerable state, unconditional love finally rushed in from the outside world. Even his hard-nosed critics seemingly turned soft in this season, rooting for him. And he noticed. “I have received so much love that I hadn’t seen before at such a large scale,” Kohli would tell near the end of the IPL. “It was lovely. The kind of support that I have got this IPL, this whole time as well, I am very grateful and I am in a very blessed position. I have no complaints, regrets and (have no) hesitation in admitting that I have received so much love that I hadn’t seen before at such a large scale. I am forever grateful for that and very very happy to see.”

He was now in unfamiliar territory. He had even softened down on the field — more smiles, more friendly chats with the opposition, and a toning down in general. Whether the on-field lasts isn’t the question, that the softening or thawing if you will could even eventuate is noteworthy.

It’s love from the fans that has made a noticeable difference. He keeps acknowledging it every time he is miked up after the matches these days. “Happy space” and “Love and support from fans” are common phrases that keep coming from him.

All of which makes this final phase of Kohli’s career utterly fascinating. Many say he will quit T20 internationals after this World T20, leaving him one final shot at the 50-over ODI World Cup next year in India. Then, he has his much beloved Test matches.

But before that he has a job at hand. At this World T20, Kohli has made a habit of bailing out India in crisis situations. The fans, in turn, have been showering him with praise. Kohli, it seems, had an inkling about how this was going to pan out. Even when he was feeling low, he had seen the signs, the light at the end of the tunnel was from the continent he loves visiting.

“When I heard the World T20 was in Australia, I was grinning from ear to ear,” he said after another of his game-changing knock against Bangladesh at Adelaide this week. Down Under has been his cricketing wonderland. It’s the place that has given him runs, captaincy triumphs, respect, admiration — and now that elusive love.

What’s next Mr Kohli, what do you have for us?

 

Kohli’s Resurgence: A Timeline

March 2020: ‘Affects eyesight, strength turns into weakness’

When Kohli was in the middle of a poor run-patch, Kapil Dev suggested that Kohli’s reflexes have slowed down and there was an issue with his eyesight. “When you reach a certain age, when you cross 30, then it affects your eyesight … it shows that your eyes and your reflexes have slowed down a bit and in no time your strengths turn into your weakness.” In 2021, former Pakistan seamer Mohammad Asif had said that Kohli won’t be able to make a comeback. “Kohli is a bottom-hand player. He is doing well because of his fitness and it is supporting him. The moment he will face a decline, I don’t think Kohli can make a comeback.”

December 2021: Kohli takes on Ganguly

Virat Kohli and Sourav Ganguly. (FILE)

In December 2021, the then BCCI president Sourav Ganguly had said that the cricket board had requested Virat Kohli to not quit T20 captaincy but he didn’t listen. Soon, Kohli came out with his bombshell version. “Whatever was said about the communication that happened about the decision that was made was inaccurate… I was contacted one and half hours before the selection meeting on the 8th for the Test series [against South Africa] and there was no prior communication to me at all since I announced my decision on T20 captaincy.” The BCCI announce Rohit Sharma’s anointment as ODI and T20 captaincy without making any mention of Kohli in their release.

July-August 2022: Month long break for mental blues

A few months after Ravi Shastri urged him publicly to take a break, Kohli took a month-long sabbatical from cricket in mid-July. He didn’t even touch the cricket bat during that phase. “I came to the realisation that I was trying to fake my intensity a bit recently … Your mind is telling me to take a break and step back,” he told Star Sports. “This period actually taught me a lot of things that I wasn’t allowing to come to surface. When they eventually came up, I embraced it. There’s much more to life than just your profession. Or when the environment around you is such that everyone looks at only your professional identity, somewhere you start losing perspective as a human being. I was experiencing that I’m not excited to train, I wasn’t excited to practice, and that really disturbed me.”

September 2022: ‘Only Dhoni called me’

Kohli quit Test captaincy on January 31 2022.. Months later, in September, Kohli would say, “When I left my Test captaincy, only [MS] Dhoni called me, nobody else did, even though many had my number.”