From the time he was a very young man, a fire has raged within Virat Kohli. An angry flame that licked at the surface and occasionally shot through in a violent burst. When word of his ability spread, so did word of his temper. In India, we have a word for it. Attitude. He’s got “attitude”, they said, not in the admiring way we would now when we say, “Wow, Kohli’s got a great attitude.” It was a destructive flame, some thought it would burn him. (STATS || POINTS TABLE || FIXTURES)
There is still a fire within Virat Kohli. But it is a fire that drives him forward, fuels his aspirations. You can see it in his eyes, narrowed to slits and looking to infinity, you can see it in the cry for two when a ball travels into an open area and powers him back. It cannot go to his head anymore, for there it encounters ice. That is now a cold, calculating chamber, taking in data, setting off alarm points, deciding when a two is right and when the ball needs to go over cover. Or when the rare sweep needs to be pulled out.
Fire and Ice. Such a cliché. Like the name of a downmarket disco or the headline of a cheesy ad for bad liquor. But it defines Virat Kohli today.
The ice is a relatively recent acquisition. It wasn’t there when he was a young Under-19 team captain. And even as late as that dramatic series in Australia where he peeled off four centuries and played some breathtaking shots, he sometimes, and only sometimes, let the fire loose. Every ball then became a war to be won and the Aussies realised they could needle him and get him to play a rash shot. To his credit, he snapped out of that zone quickly. On that tour, in the second innings at Adelaide, with India needing 364 to win on a last-day track where 250 looked tough, he played the innings I will always remember him for. He made 141, and if there was any doubt about his temperament, it was dispelled.
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It was also proof that he relishes tough situations. It is often the sign of a champion. It is also pretty rare. There are many bone china batsmen around, pretty and stylish but who crumble at the first sign of pressure. Kohli seems to become twice the player, buoyed up and ready to wade into battle. It is a quality we saw in Dhaka, in Kolkata, and so dramatically in Mohali.
Some years ago Rahul Dravid, who had admitted to raising an eyebrow when the young man walked in to the RCB team back in 2008, said what struck him about young Kohli was that every time he met him, he seemed a better player than at the previous meeting. Dravid was right in his assessment, as he often is. Just under two years ago, Kohli encountered problems outside his off stump in England. To play or not to play is a simple question that has befuddled many. If he played, he edged, if he left, it hit his stumps. Word spread. Even on a flat deck in Bangladesh, they bowled a fifth or sixth stump line to him so he would reach out.
Watch him now. The bat close to the body, the feet decisive. And his response to the outside-off line is to play one of the most thrilling cover drives in the game. In the last few weeks, I have lost count of the number of times I have gasped at the Kohli cover drive. Only a few days ago, on television we showed his scoring areas. The weak zone outside off had produced a strong zone through cover.
The flick through mid-wicket is still a favourite shot and it hasn’t had to give way to the scoop over fine leg or the upper cut or the switch hit; those modern shots that bamboozle bowlers and purists. In the modern game that could become as much a limitation as a qualification, but he doesn’t need to worry about it yet. In fact, quite to the contrary, I believe he stays away from those shots for fear that it could become a habit; a go-to shot that infects his technique. For someone who is very much a man of his times, he is still a fairly old-fashioned, orthodox batsman.
That innings in Mohali, coming on the heels of two match-winning efforts against Pakistan, is Kohli’s version of Tendulkar’s sandstorm special in Sharjah in 1998. Deep down, it must tickle him enormously that the comparison is even sought to be made for there is a reverence in his voice when he talks of his idol. It has been said that when he wants to discuss technique and batting, he seeks an appointment with the man he talks about in such respectful tones.
He came across to talk to us on Star Sports after his amazing innings in Kolkata where we were hardly aware that another masterpiece was to surface so soon. He was very happy, he said, that his blood pressure hadn’t gone up in the run chase. It was a revealing statement. He wanted the fire to power him, not singe him.
The fire was doing its job, the ice was doing its job. That, in essence, was Mohali 2016.