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Virat Kohli: Story Of A Superstar

Freddie Wilde examines what makes India’s rising star so special.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006 
Virat Kohli is 18 years 44 days old

3am
Virat’s father Prem dies of a brain stroke 

9am
Kohli arrives at the Feroz Shah Kotla stadium, for the third day of the Ranji Trophy match versus Karnataka. His Delhi teammates were shocked to see him, telling him his place was at home, with his family. Rajkumar Sharma, Kohli’s batting coach encouraged him to play, urging him to take every opportunity he had to play Ranji Trophy cricket. Virat, 40 not out overnight, responded to his team mates suggestions of going home with, “I want to bat.” 

12pm
Kohli walks back to the pavilion having scored a chanceless 90 to save the follow-on and the match

3.30pm
He attends the cremation of his father Prem

This incredible sequence of events exemplifies why Virat Kohli is the brightest star in India’s cricketing firmament. Of all the demonstrations of Kohli’s mental strength for India, and there have been a few, nothing comes close to that Tuesday in 2006.

In the past 12 months he has established himself as the anchor of India’s ODI side and some strong performances have cemented his place in the Test middle order. England’s bowlers, who face India this winter, will have breathed sighs of relief when Indian greats, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, hung up their spikes earlier this year. However, the emergence of Kohli suggests that England will have it far from easy.

India churns out batting talent more efficiently than China produces plastic, but how mentally resilient that talent might be is less clear. Hence the excitement when Kohli ground out a maiden Test century in Adelaide in January.

Clear thinking and a desire to improve are Kohli’s defining features, and his mother, Saroj, believes it stems from his father’s death. “Virat changed a bit. Overnight he became a more mature person. It’s as if his life hinged totally on cricket after that day. He looked like he was chasing his father’s dream which was his own too.”

Kohli’s ability to detach himself from match situations was vital on that occasion. Venkatesh Prasad, Karnataka coach said, ”An innings like this really shows what stuff he’s made of… you tend to have an overflow of emotions, but he played a superb knock.”

Kohli celebrations on reaching a landmark hint at the emotions he routinely bottles up. Fist-pumping, vein-throbbing reactions are not uncommon.

As young as nine, Kohli was earmarked as something different, a neighbour noting, “He’s got great strength in his arms for a kid.” By 17, he had scored two double-centuries and three centuries for his age-group side. The following year, 2006, prior to his father’s death, he scored 610 runs, averaging 87, for India under 19s in England on his first overseas tour.

The months after Prem’s death were the darkest. Last July, Kohli said, “Rather than give me support everyone started criticising me. My family was at one side, trying to recover, and couldn’t understand what was going on. I was away on tours, away from family.” Despite being in a bad place mentally, Kohli said: “Never at any point did I feel like missing a training session. I was very keen on improving as a cricketer.”

However, he admits it took time for him to get to grips with life and that he made mistakes. Only after being left out of an India ODI squad did the penny drop. “I was in total shock. That was when I started thinking, ‘This is a major issue and I need to look into it.’” Kohli’s attitude changed radically. “I didn’t feel like hanging out with friends or going for a party. For one and a half years, I was in the gym, the field, or practising. I would come back and lie down, thinking that I should get 10 hours of proper sleep for my body. My only aim was to get back into the team.”

Since then he has battled great expectations and a golden Indian batting line-up, but his hard work is now bearing fruit. His phenomenal 2012 was kick-started with a gritty Test hundred during the embers of Australia’s 4-0 whitewash of India. The innings drew comparisons with Laxman’s breakthrough hundred 12 years previously in Sydney.

Kohli has saved his best for the 50-over format in 2012, his most outstanding innings an unbeaten 133 off 86 balls as India chased Sri Lanka’s 319 inside the required 41 overs. His crowning as ICC’s ODI Cricketer of the Year was almost a formality. He has shown a remarkable ability to convert fifties into hundreds: already only four middle-order batsmen have scored more ODI centuries than he has. And he is not yet 24.

Questions over his ability to score runs in the more sedate arena of Test cricket were emphatically answered in the recent Test series against New Zealand when he scored fifty or more in every innings, including a century and match-winning fifty in Bangalore.

He also demonstrated that he stood at the front a pack fighting to fill the boots of the departed galacticos. Kohli made his India debut in 2008 playing alongside two other pretenders Suresh Raina and Rohit Sharma.

The gulf between Kohli and them was never clearer than in Bangalore. Sharma was not even selected and in the fourth-innings run-chase Raina’s panic was obvious as he scraped around before charging down the wicket to be bowled by Jeetan Patel for a 10-ball duck. Kohli was still on nought after 15 balls but waited for the right ball to attack and was eventually off the mark with a sumptuous cover drive. Raina’s charge and Kohli’s drive: there was the difference in class. Kohli offers what others don’t – talent combined with a cool temperament, nerves forged with steel and an entrenched desire to succeed.

It is testament to Kohli’s development that others now use him as an idol or, as someone observed, ”a live manual on how to manage their careers.” Yuvraj Singh, a veteran of the India side since 2000, has said: “His work ethic is brilliant, his focus is immense. I wished and wondered why I didn’t have that work ethic when I was his age.”

Prem Kohli was told early on that Virat had a special talent and from Virat’s ninth birthday onwards his father made it a mission to guide his son to the upper echelons of Indian cricket. In a bitter-sweet twist of fate, Prem’s death was the stimulus for his son’s success.

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