Virat Kohli has always had a way with words. In his career so far, the majority of which has seen him raise the bar for excellence, he has been someone who puts great thought into what he says. One could question his opinion at times, but never the eloquence with which he expresses himself.
Through the course of India’s Asia Cup 2022 campaign, this clarity of thought made a mark again. Kohli returns from the UAE after scoring a much-awaited 71st international century but as much as the runs he scored with the bat in hand, the words he uttered holding the microphone too deserve attention.
India were the defending champions at the Asia Cup but defeats to Pakistan and Sri Lanka in the Super Fours led to their ouster before the final. It was a forgettable result for the team but the tournament might potentially mark the return of the ultra-consistent Kohli of old. He ended up with scores of 35, 59*, 60, 0 and finally an unbeaten 122 runs off 61 balls.
However, there was one other way in which Kohli led the way. Along with all the runs on the field, he was also consistent in his advocacy of an increasingly significant aspect of cricket – the mental health of players.
It started even before the Asia Cup began. Kohli decided to skip India’s tours of the West Indies and Zimbabwe in July-August to take a break from the game. Many had wanted him to do so in order to regain his form and finally, he decided it was time.
And it’s this break that led to a reinvigorated Kohli, in more ways than one.
In the lead-up to the Asia Cup, Kohli gave a detailed interview to broadcasters Star Sports and revealed a great deal about his thought process during the time away. Reflecting on the break, he said he “came to the realisation that he had been faking his intensity” on the field. For one of the game’s fiercest competitors, it was a bold admission. But Kohli had no hesitation in being brutally honest.
“This is the first time in ten years that I have not touched the bat in a whole month,” said Kohli. “When I sat down and thought about it, I was like I haven’t actually touched a bat for 30 days, which I haven’t done ever in my life.”
He added: “I have been looked at as a guy who is mentally very strong, and I am, but everyone has a limit, and you need to recognise that limit, otherwise things can get unhealthy for you. So this period actually taught me a lot of things that I was not allowing to come to the surface. When they did, I embraced it. Yaar, there is much more to life than just your profession. And when the environment around you is such that everyone looks at you through your professional identity, somewhere you start losing perspective as a human being.”
The former captain then showed up for the post-match press conference after India’s defeat to Pakistan at the start of the Super Four stage. Once again, he spoke at length about mental health in sport and why players taking breaks must be normalised.
“I didn’t think I’d go a month without touching my bat, but the situation became such that I had to take a break. More mentally than physically,” said Kohli.
He added: “That drive and purity for the game, that joy dissipates. It was important to rediscover that again for me. I think no one should run away from this, if someone is feeling negative or low, taking a break isn’t a bad thing. And I hope people will derive strength from that and address whatever they are feeling. We’re all human, everyone can feel this way. But to recognise that and care about it is important. If you ignore it, you will get more frustrated. This is something I realised and I got a lot of help.”
India had been knocked-out of the tournament but for Kohli against Afghanistan, it was more time in the middle. And he turned back the clock with a sparkling ton. No wild celebration followed, like the ones in years gone by. There was just a big, genuine smile on his face and you could see how happy he was in that moment.
From being someone who was the epitome of consistency, he had gone through a prolonged patch in which he seemed to invent ways to get dismissed. But he stuck to his beliefs, paid attention to himself, and worked his way to that elusive 71st ton. And the satisfaction of it all was unmissable on his face.
Just moments after completing his knock, Kohli was in front of a mic again. And yet again, he didn’t miss the opportunity to highlight the importance of being in the right space mentally.
“When I came back, I wasn’t desperate,” said Kohli. “I was grateful for what God blessed me with before, you know. People were talking about me not getting a hundred, but I looked at how much he’s given me already. So that really calmed me down, that relaxed me and I was just happy to come back after six weeks off. I was refreshed. I understood after taking a break how tired actually I was mentally and physically.”
He added: “Your competitiveness doesn’t allow you to take that call. But I think it was a blessing in disguise for me and I wanted to be the best version of myself, for the team. And when I came here when I started playing in the nets, I felt like my old rhythm was coming back. And it was just about getting those performances in the middle again.”
Kohli being in a rejuvenated space also goes to show the value of a good support system.
When Kohli gave that interview to Star Sports before the start of the Asia Cup, it was easy to wonder whether he was prematurely suggesting he’s turned the corner. It’s all well and good to feel fresh, but he was yet to find his flow on the field.
However, he went on to walk the talk. He got an unbeaten half-century against Hong Kong, played a key role in India posting a competitive total against Pakistan, and finally got that much-awaited 71st century. Agreed, the Afghanistan team looked jaded in that match having also played the night before, but it would be fair to say that Kohli’s batting in the Asia Cup looked promising. He timed the ball well, found gaps, manipulated the field, ran hard between wickets, and paced his innings smartly – just like he did when he was at his best.
And to top it all, he was consistent off the field too. Be it before the tournament, during it, or after – he kept bringing attention to mental health and the importance of taking a break. Not every player in Indian cricket would be as privileged as Kohli to step aside when jaded, but one of the greats of the game repeatedly emphasising the importance of it is definitely a start.
Kohli got his 71st international century 1021 days after he got his 70th. The wait was long and the moment deserved to be cherished. And even though some of its shine may be lost because the match was a dead rubber against a deflated opposition, we would do well to remember the real significance of his return to form. At times, it’s okay to hit the pause button and restart.