Early on in the IPL, when he was still injured and hadn’t yet walked into the disastrous campaign, Virat Kohli stood by the boundary line during a game. Beside him a commentator was riding the hype-train. “You must be gutted to have missed out on this great competition” or words to that effect, when Kohli piped up: “The priority is playing for India. That’s the ultimate as a cricketer”. The commentator persisted gamely and Kohli again had to put him down gently. “Champions Trophy is coming up and that’s the main goal”. He, of course, got fit soon and played the IPL, but as a message from an Indian captain, it was reassuring to hear him say those words.
Even so, he wouldn’t have been then prepared for what was to hit him in the IPL. A string of frustrating losses, morale-sucking moments as a captain, couldn’t have been the ideal preparation. Especially, considering that this fall had come after such a thumping high of home series triumphs against Australia, England, and New Zealand. Especially considering, Kohli is still a young man — a very intense one at that who understandably finds it difficult to come to terms with losses.
Is there any learning when you drop to earth with a thud? Or can it be a blessing in disguise for a personality like him before a big world tournament? A reality check after all the aura-building, chest-thumping glory? How exactly does a person like him view these setbacks?
“After the kind of season, we had, it teaches you about yourself as a person at a few levels. From a mindset point of view, it made me realise that you cannot do everything in every game. Sometimes people might start looking at you like that, sometimes as a human being you need to realise your limitations and take a few steps backwards,” Kohli said a few hours before he and the team took off for London for the tournament.
Hero worship, especially the kind Kohli receives, comes up with dangerous side-effects and young, adrenaline-charged sportsmen who live in a bubble can find it difficult to handle. Kohli says he wasn’t sure what was going on in the first place. “It was so bizarre everything that we tried was going against us. Never experienced that in a side. Not just 11 but all 15 in the squad were all in the same mindset. It was bizarre.” Bizarre is understandable and perhaps an apt description of the unexplainable campaign, but what about the residues it leaves on the person? Kohli went on to put it into perspective. “Maybe it was to teach me to balance things out and take a step back and think about how much you can do on the field and how much intensity with which you can play — may be choose your phases.
“As I keep getting older, those things are important and you need to avoid burnout too quickly. Those were the biggest learnings for me. I was pretty fortunate that I got to experience such a time. It teaches you a lot as captain, it teaches you a lot composure wise. You take a lot away from failures which is what I have always cherished.”
Others in the same boat
Apart from the chastened captain, there are a few others in the team for Champions Trophy who could potentially be in the same boat. Shikhar Dhawan, for starters. After a dreamy year or two, things went so pear-shaped for him that he was dropped from the Test team, and would well have been jettisoned from the ODI outfit as well if not for a bumper IPL. He has one of the important roles in this team. Though his partner Rohit Sharma returned from a five-month injury lay-off, and led his IPL team superbly, the runs didn’t exactly flow for him.
It would be upto Dhawan to not only ensure his own personal survival but also look out for Sharma till he eases back in form. Last time around, in Champions Trophy in 2013 that India won, Dhawan had topscored among all teams’ batsmen with 363 and had excellent partnerships with Sharma, who also finished among the top 5 run-scorers.
Then there is Yuvraj Singh and MS Dhoni. It’s not wise to use the term ‘chastened’ for such experienced men, but they are at a curious stage in their careers. Both cannot possibly survive a disastrous campaign with younger men snapping at their heels. Yuvraj has been in good form, and supremely-fit Dhoni has been doing his damndest to get among runs in the IPL, and it would be utterly fascinating to see how they go here.
One more such character is Ajinkya Rahane. This is not exactly the last throw of dice but he would be on notice. He has the goods and the temperament, can he reward the trust invested in him if he gets the opportunity?
Ravindra Jadeja isn’t exactly under any pressure, but he has had a lacklustre IPL, perhaps due to fatigue of what was a hectic season that preceded. With the likes of Krunal Pandya rising, Jadeja would have to ensure to keep the contenders out.
Then there is R Ashwin. Even when he was picking wickets by the bucketful at home, he was the first to be dropped from the attack in the one-day internationals played abroad, like he was in Australia early last year. There is no chastening this high-performing cricketer, of course, as he has already talked about potential mystery balls and what not that he might unleash at the Champions Trophy. Still, considering how the selectors have handled him in away ODIs in the recent past, a good outing in England is of paramount importance to him.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar is the most improved limited-overs cricketer in world cricket in some ways, but still finds himself the first to be left out from the Indian playing XI. His yorkers are gold, he has even developed a knuckle ball this IPL, and he is a thinking cricketer as they say but the team balance seldom makes him a default option. Especially, with the return of Mohammad Shami, and the unarguable logic in playing Umesh Yadav and Jasprit Bhumrah ahead of him. So, these are quite humbling times for a talented bowler.
And that’s how it rolls. Pick the rest, too, like Kedar Jadhav or Dinesh Karthik, it’s easy to envision the pressures on them. Jadhav didn’t have a great IPL and would for the first time in his brief international career, face the pressure of expectations. Karthik of course is on a comeback mode, and the inherent pressures are obvious. As good a bowler as Shami is, he too is coming back after missing out a majority of home season for India.
From the captain downwards, this is a team that is really talented but with back-stories of pressure running through — they would be all on the lookout for performances, especially early in the tournament, to quieten the little voices if any in their heads.