Sunil Gavaskar thinks he will break Sachin Tendulkar’s record of 49 ODI centuries. Ian Chappell has crowned him the new prince of Indian cricket. “He (Kohli) is now set to take over not only Tendulkar’s coveted No. 4 spot but also his mantle as ‘the Indian player opponents most want out’. Long remember the king for he’s (nearly) gone; hail the prince, because he’s still around to torment bowlers,” writes Chappell. Bishen Singh Bedi took to micro-blogging website Twitter to say “ViratK is still ‘David’ in frnt o ‘Goliath’ SRT!”
Comparisons between a fading hero and his putative successor are flying thick and fast, perhaps a bit too prematurely too. For while Virat Kohli, the 25-year-old batsman from New Delhi, has shone in the shorter varieties, he is yet to dominate in Tests. And yet, as his scores in his last 11 one-day international innings — 115*, 68, 100*, 61, 68*, 14, 115, 2, 31, 102 and 0 — show, India has a player who is a cut above the others.
Compare him with his peers. Rohit Sharma, for a long while, was laidback and lacking in ambition. Suresh Raina did not quite seem to possess similar technique. Cheteshwar Pujara did not look like he would straddle all formats with ease. And unlike others who have led teams, Kohli appeared a natural leader.
FROM BRAT TO MR MATURE
When Kohli burst onto the Indian cricket scene, he was this young brat who exuded a certain kind of arrogance. Call it the brashness of youth or an enthusiasm to prove himself, Kohli often found himself in the news for the wrong reasons. In Australia in 2010-11, he reacted to abuse from the crowd by showing the middle finger. There were several run-ins on the field with opposition players. Everyone, from expert to fan, was agreed on this: yes, he is a good batsman but does he have the maturity of a real star?
Success came to Kohli a bit early in life, when he captained the Indian team to the title in the Under-19 World Cup in 2008. His father, his inspiration, passed away in 2008, when Kohli was playing a Ranji match. The next morning, much to the shock of his team-mates, the youngster was on the field. “He was always mature for his age but had this aggressive streak which people thought of as arrogance,” says Vijay Dahiya, former India wicket-keeper and Delhi coach. Dahiya has seen Kohli become a man — both on and off the field — due to sheer hard work and dedication. “He is one of the most focused individuals I have come across,” says Dahiya.
Kohli’s performances show how he has come of age. He is the only batsman in ODIs to score 3,000 runs at an average of 60-plus in chasing targets. India have won all 10 games when Kohli scored a century in run chases. Only Tendulkar (14 in 124 innings) has scored more. As Kohli channeled his natural aggression into his batting, he has matured into a batsman India can bank upon to deliver.
DIRECTING THE NEEDLESS ANGER
The profanities hurled after reaching centuries, clashing with opposition during Indian Premier League matches and at times losing his cool — and his wicket — were Kohli traits early on in his career. Rahul Dravid, who saw the young batsman from close quarters when playing for India and Royal Challengers Bangalore, once remarked that while Kohli had the talent, he wasn’t sure if he could channel his aggression properly. “His talent was never in question, but he didn’t have the mental discipline or cricket smarts to make that talent work,” Dravid had said.
Kohli, however, soon turned that needless aggression into the energy required to bat decisively. And it didn’t come by happenstance. He worked hard to change himself. From 2010 on, the crowds saw a new Kohli. He scored a century in Australia in 2010-11. The England tour which followed was a disappointment, but Kohli’s strength of mind helped him overcome failure. 2012 was a stellar year for him. In five Tests that year, he made runs at an average of 62.62. In ODIs, he became the mainstay of the Indian batting. While veterans like Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag floundered, Kohli was confidently on the front foot.
Kohli himself admitted in an interview recently that he has learnt to control his aggression. “As I am getting more mature, I am also improving on that front,” he said. The recent ODI against Australia in Jaipur where India had to chase down a score of 360-plus was an example how Kohli has learnt to be restrained yet dangerously aggressive
ONE OF THE BOYS
The thing about Kohli is that he is a technician. He plays cricketing shots, not blind slogs, and he is helped by his immaculate timing. Like his temperament, there were question marks over his technique in Test cricket, and some might say that they still exist. But Kohli has proved he is working on his shortcomings with hundreds in Perth and Sydney.
His childhood coach, Rajkumar Sharma, says that Kohli is blessed with confidence and talent. “He will never talk about his batting with everyone. His basics are right and he knows that if he sticks to them, the runs will come. A former team-mate says that there aren’t any “attitude” issues, contrary to what outsiders may think. “He is one of the most chilled-out guys, always looking to have fun and to help others,” he says.
Kohli’s other trait is his complete focus on the team rather than on himself. In the last match against Australia, Kohli was run out for no score due to Rohit Sharma’s reluctance to take a single. But there were no sulks. When Sharma scored 209, Kohli was the one who was cheering the most vociferously. As in this instance, he has shown time and again that he plays for the team, rather than for himself.
GRABBING THE SPACE VACATED BY TENDULKAR?
It perhaps is too early to say whether he will be the batting successor to Tendulkar. But it is clear that he has quickly become the backbone of the Indian batting. Opposition teams now think, as Chappell said, that his is the most valued wicket — like Tendulkar’s was.
At the same age into their careers, Kohli’s one-day numbers shine above Tendulkar’s.The Mumbai batsman took 79 innings to score his first 100; in his 115 innings so far, Kohli has 17!
And yet, Kohli remains in awe of Tendulkar. When India won the 2011 World Cup, with Tendulkar perched on his shoulders, Kohli said, “Sachin has carried India for years, we can at least do it for him once.”
Some point out that it is futile to compare Kohli’s statistics with Tendulkar’s since new rules and flat pitches favour batsmen heavily. Yet the runs have to be scored, and there are few today who are doing it as well as Kohli. And like with Tendulkar, there is a sense of a mishap whenever Kohli loses his wicket. If this isn’t an indication of Kohli’s importance to the Indian team, what is?
Kohli has reportedly signed a Rs 10-crore per year deal with German sports goods giants Adidas, purportedly the most lucrative contract signed by an Indian sportsperson. He is good-looking and oozes attitude and spirit. He is someone that youngsters aspire to be, so brands are obviously queuing up to sign him. Kohli is estimated to have earned around Rs 40 crore last year from his advertisement commitments. He currently endorses 13 brands, including Toyota, Pepsi and Cinthol.
Till last year, Kohli used to charge Rs 3 crore per year as endorsement fees, but the Adidas deal has put him into a different league. “For the past few years, Dhoni was at the top, but Kohli is catching up very fast. While Dhoni connects well with the masses, Kohli has a more urban appeal which a lot of brands want to cash in on,” says Indranil Das Blah, COO of celebrity management firm Kwan.
The similarity to Tendulkar, therefore, seems to exist even off the pitch.