All the Right Moveshttps://indianexpress.com/article/news-archive/web/all-the-right-moves-4/

All the Right Moves

As a 14-year-old,Virat was playing A division league — the highest grade in Delhi.

The story of Virat Kohli is one of contrasts. It’s the story of a sportsman’s determination to never let the opposition take him lightly. It’s also the story of a young man who got too much too soon. A look at the dynamic cricketer’s journey from an unassuming sports academy in West Delhi to Indian cricket’s newest pinup hero

In the summer of the late ’90s,Raj Kumar Sharma,a former India under-19 spinner,took a risk of sorts. He started a cricket academy in a dense West Delhi locality. In an area dominated by families known for their business acumen,sports was merely an evening indulgence for young boys. Paschim Vihar wasn’t quite Mumbai’s Shivaji Park nor was cricket a popular career option here.

But on the very first day of his enterprise,Raj Kumar got a glimpse of the latent sporting culture of the capital’s Little Punjab. Late in the evening,a father walked in with his two sons. Unlike other parents whom the coach had met since morning,Prem Kohli didn’t see the academy as hobby class during the summer break. He was here for the long haul.

In the years to come,cricket was to fall off the priority list for Kohli Sr’s elder son Vikas. But for nine-year-old Virat,it was the beginning of a journey that would,in a decade,make him one of the biggest names in Indian cricket. His technique that day at the trials was awful,but he impressed his coach with his timing and power.

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Sharma didn’t check the young boy’s wild swing of the bat or his unquenchable desire to smash every ball that came his way over the boundary. But within months,the coach’s blind eye to the child’s aggression gave rise to a problem. The broken bats in Virat’s kit bag could make for sufficient bonfire wood for the entire camp in the winters. Father Prem,with his middle class monthly budget,suddenly found it tough to fund the demands of the two cricketers in the making.

It was then that Sharma stepped in. He used his influence to request sports goods manufacturers BDM for a bat contract for Virat. Two days later,when Virat reached the BDM headquarters in Meerut,a dumbfounded official called him. “Sir yeh bachcha toh zyaada hi chota hai. Aap bahut lambi investment karva rahe ho,(Sir,this child is far too young. You’re making us invest for the long haul),” he said. Sharma merely chuckled in response. A decade later,the coach and the official regularly laugh over the conversation.

The doubts over Raj Kumar’s “lambi investment” soon faded as Kohli became the youngest player to be included in the Delhi league. As a 14-year-old,Virat was playing A division league — the highest grade in Delhi. Opponents often hesitated bowling full throttle to him and that infuriated the young batsman with a big ego. He would often complain to his coach and sometimes take things in his own hands. He would needle the bowlers by stepping out and slogging. If that didn’t egg them to bowl fast,he would resort to sledging. It’s a habit that he still struggles to get rid of. Those close to him say,Kohli doesn’t like being ill-treated on field. He wants respect from the bowlers. When it’s not forthcoming,he ensures he gets it anyhow.

Both brother Vikas and coach Sharma have tried hard to rein in his over-reaction on the field but the 22-year-old’s natural aggression and involvement with the game have come in the way of a radical change. “I do talk to him from time to time about controlling his aggression,whenever I feel he has overdone it. He often admitss that maybe he should not have reacted in that manner but generally,he likes to give it back there and then. Honestly,Virat is a different person when he’s not on the field,much more jovial and naughty,” says Vikas,26.

It isn’t just an indulgent elder brother speaking,everybody who has spent time with Virat says that there isn’t a dull moment when he is around. His sense of humour and his pranks make him the life of the dressing room. Once,to celebrate his World Cup under-19 victory,Kohli took Vikas and Sharma for lunch in a busy Rajouri Garden mall. While waiting for food to arrive,he began fiddling with his latest O2 series mobile phone,which could sync with any television to act as its remote. Kohli increased the volume of the LCD to maximum,forcing guests to leave in a huff,even as the perplexed owners went on an apologising spree. “Till date,the owner doesn’t know what happened to his TV suddenly,” says Sharma. “I told Virat,‘do whatever you feel but ensure we don’t get beaten up.’”

Vikas says when people talk about Kohli having an attitude,he is more hurt than surprised. “If you look at any 22 or23-year-old on the street,he wants to wear branded clothes and look good. He would tattoo his arm and have a particular hairstyle,and will get provoked if something is directed at him needlessly. Virat is just like any 22-23 year old,who has money and likes to get dressed. He likes getting photographed and seeing himself on camera and on magazine covers. Which boy doesn’t have those dreams? Just because he’s a celebrity,he is made out to be someone with attitude,” he says.

Kohli himself isn’t quite bothered about the things that are said or written about him. On January 1 this year,the cricketer,who is active on social networking sites,tweeted: “We are humans not machines.” Typically,when he got his first tattoo at 16,he showed it off at the Delhi nets. State coach Ajit Chaudhary admonished him,calling it “an act of indiscipline” and asked him to concentrate on cricket than on “stylebaazi”. Kohli protested,citing examples of English batsman Kevin Pietersen and Shikhar Dhawan,his senior in the side,who sported tattoos. Chaudhary gave him an ultimatum: if he didn’t score well in the Vijay Merchant tournament match the next day,he would wear a full-sleeved jersey henceforth. Kohli promptly scored a half-century and continued flaunting his tattoo on the field.

Discipline,however,has never been Kohli’s forte. After batting at the nets,he once slept off at the stadium ground in Patiala. He told Chaudhary that he was only following his teammate Tejeshwi Yadav’s (son of Lalu Prasad Yadav) lead. When threatened with expulsion in the next game of the tournament against Punjab on disciplinary grounds,the cricketer apologised. The coach made him promise that he would make up for his action with a special innings the next day. Kohli kept his word. He went in to bat when Delhi was 60 for 5,and went on to score 230. That innings convinced his teammates — including Ishant Sharma,Pradeep Sangwan,Yogesh Nagar — that he was special. And it came just a few months after he had scored two double hundreds for Delhi under-15. The spotlight had clearly focused on Kohli.  

Chaudhary’s connection with the cricketer continued during his Ranji Trophy days and it was he who gave Virat his nickname Cheeku. “Virat came to me one day,sporting a spiked look,which he had laboriously tended to with a lot of hair gel. When he asked me if I liked his new look,I told him he looked like the funny bunny from Champak’s (Hindi comic book) Cheeku series. The name stuck. The other day,I heard Dhoni calling him Cheeku on the stump mike. When I asked him,he simply said,“Aapka Cheeku ab Team India ka bhi Cheeku ban gaya hain (Your Cheeku is now Team India’s Cheeku too),and we both laughed.”

Kohli’s growth in stature as an indispensable cricketer is matched by the fact that he is now seen as the future captain of the Indian cricket team. Testimonials of his captaincy skills are aplenty,particularly from his under-19 World Cup win in 2008.

In the final against South Africa,India were bowled out for a mere 159 runs. The South Africans were in great spirit at lunchtime,anticipating victory. Kohli heard an interview being given on how fabulous it felt to win the coveted Cup. An irate Kohli walked up to the player after the interview and told him the match wasn’t over yet. He got his team into a huddle,told them to give their best,and a fired up bunch of youngsters subsequently made history that day in Kuala Lumpur,Malaysia.

A couple of years later,the Delhi team was staring at relegation (facing elimination from the elite category of the Ranji Trophy) and needed a bonus point against Maharashtra to revive their Ranji campaign,when Kohli took over as captain. He immediately boosted the aggression,asking his bowlers to dig in short,and his fielders to charge. Delhi needed to knock off 100-odd runs for a bonus and Kohli insisted on opening the innings with Shikhar Dhawan. He managed to get the bonus.

The recent Australian tour has been one of India’s most disastrous in recent history,but Kohli was in the thick of things,with the bat,and in his reactions to the crowd and opponents.“My playing style is innately aggressive. If I try and be soft,I will not be able to play my natural game. I like to keep the energy levels up and take the opposition by the scruff of the neck. Sometimes,perhaps,I tend to overdo it,but I am also the first to own up and say sorry,” he says.

Kohli maintains that his connect with the game is hugely emotional,which is why he doesn’t find it difficult owning up to his indiscretions. Immediately after his successful IPL debut in 2008,with the under-19 World Cup win behind him,the adulation sent the young teenager off kilter. Basking in endorsement deals and media attention,his game suffered. Kohli recalls the dressing down he got from his coach for losing focus. “I made some wrong choices early in life,but I was young and everything came to me all of a sudden. I am still learning,and in a way,it’s good that I have seen it all and come out of it at such an early age. I think it’s more important to see if you have corrected yourself from the wrongs you have committed. I have learnt my lesson,” he says.

The reason for Kohli’s quick U-turn was the realisation how important cricket is to him and the kind of sacrifices he has made to achieve his dream. He lost his father during his debut Ranji season in 2006,during the match against Karnataka. Delhi player Punit Bisht was the overnight batsman on the day he padded up hours after his father had passed away. “We came to know in the morning about his loss. The skipper told me to shoulder more responsibility because he wouldn’t be in a position to bat. When the innings opened,he didn’t come to warm up with us. He was in the dressing room sobbing and we left him alone. We batted in near silence,but held a near 200-run partnership. He was eventually dismissed short of his century,and broke down again. But this time it was because the umpire had taken a wrong decision,” says Bisht.

Sharma sees this as an example of Kohli’s grit. “I was in Sydney when he gave me the news of his father’s demise. He asked me what he ought to do and I suggested he play in the match that day. He said,‘I was thinking the same thing.’ He called me again the next day crying because the umpire had robbed him of a 100. ‘It would have been a fitting tribute to my father,’ he sobbed,” says Sharma.

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It’s been 14 years since Sharma opened his academy,but it’s only in the last few years that he has been inundated with requests from aspiring parents to turn their child into another Virat Kohli. “I always tell them there can be just one Virat,” he says.