As coach, the great quality I’ve seen in him (Virat Kohli) is willingness to adapt to specific conditions or the need of the hour. In 2014, Virat was going through a horrible patch in the Test series against England. I was in England too as commentator, and after joining the team as Director for the ODI series, spent quite a lot of time with him. I was amazed to see how positive he was though he was struggling for runs. Forget moping, he was determined and convinced that he would master English conditions soon. Such never-say-die optimism is part of my playbook too and was one of the reasons – apart from believing in the Indian team and the challenge of the task – why I accepted the job of Team Director and later, chief coach. I realized there was an uncut diamond in Virat.
His talent has been evident from his Under-19 days. Early exposure to international cricket can be a double-edged sword. Some players learn even when they fail, some fade away with even minor setbacks. He wasn’t a loser, and that made it easier for me. Frankly, the only thing needed for him to succeed consistently was fine-tuning.
Players at the highest level have reached there because they have already put in the hard yards. Coaches should not be giving foundation courses in batting, bowling and fielding at this stage. Any change they recommend should be incremental or subtle. Some players will use this to make gigantic strides, some won’t. Progress comes from a player’s own discipline, dedication and ambition in constantly setting new personal benchmarks rather than from following advice blandly.
On the field, Virat is totally focused and fiercely competitive. He’s in your face, and passionately expressive in whatever he is doing. It may seem like posturing, but it comes naturally to him. India’s success over the last five or six years is largely owed to Virat’s rapid growth as a champion batsman. He sets the bar high, for himself and others. As a captain, he’s matured a lot since taking over from M.S. Dhoni. Unlike MS, who was calm and tranquil in the most difficult circumstances, sizing up opponents and situations astutely and coming up with offbeat moves, Virat’s approach is more ‘lead-from-the-front’. A draw is only to be considered if victory is impossible. This has rubbed off on his teammates, making India a seriously competitive side playing anywhere now.
Off the field, Virat’s a totally different character, very relaxed and chilled out. He wears his superstar status lightly. He enjoys success, of course, but not to the extent that it affects his preparations for the next day or match, or his life off the field. Importantly, he doesn’t carry any baggage of the past with him on to the field. He learns from his mistakes, instead of brooding over them, and spends time charging himself up for the next challenge. You might not know what’s going on in his mind because he is a perky sort. That can lull opponents into believing that he has dropped his guard. But put him into a contest, and he instantly turns into a bull terrier.
Virat’s aggregated runs by the thousands and averages over 50 in Tests, ODIs and T20s, which is a spectacular achievement. His ability to make tall scores in Tests, chase down targets in ODIs and T20s puts him on a pedestal all of his own. His charisma stems from his batting prowess, which reflects his personality. An effervescent stroke player with strong wrists, and a penchant for the pull and drives, there is a distinct element of bottom hand in some of his strokes, particularly the cover drive. But he has worked out for himself how to minimize the risk and how to optimize run productivity.
Bowlers, captains and coaches try to lure Virat into drives that are slightly wide of the off-stump. He’s been dismissed on occasion when playing these, but it is not a weakness as some see it. As Ian Chappell always argues, why stop playing strokes that get you plentiful runs just because they can also get you out once in a while?
People often ask me whether Virat and I are kindred souls. I don’t know. We are separated by a quarter of a century in age, and have vastly different pursuits, passions and pleasures in life.
Where cricket is concerned, however, our mindsets converge: playing any sport is about self-belief and wanting to win, not settling for being second best.
Virat already has over seventy international centuries, and if he remains fit, he could break all records. He is a master batsman and an entertainer. The runs he makes, and the way he plays, brings in the crowds. He’s also become an invaluable ambassador for Test cricket by actively propagating the format. In my opinion, he’s the biggest boon to cricket so far this millennium.
Published with permission from Star Gazing: The Players in My Life by Ravi Shastri and Ayaz Memon – HarperCollins Publishers India.