In the press conference shortly after India’s defeat against New Zealand, Virat Kohli used the word “outside” 10 times in 15 minutes. Twice in a cricketing sense, but the rest referring to criticism beyond the field. So he began with “I know the (perception) outside changes with one inning,” when sought a self-assessment of his batting. The follow-up line was: “If I thought like people on the outside, I would probably be on the outside right now.”
He kept repeating similarly-worded lines throughout the interaction. The next: “First things first, just block all the noise from the outside.”
Two lines later: “But we are a side that has never really paid attention to the outside noise and we will continue to do that.” Again: “If we had been listening to things from outside, we would have been back at No. 7 or 8 again. It doesn’t matter to us what people outside are saying.” The last one: “We don’t think or talk like people on the outside.”
It was classic Kohli, fuelling the siege mentality when there was no siege. As devastating as the 10-wicket loss was, arguably among the heaviest during his tenure, he didn’t have to cop relentless criticism like when he lost in Perth or Lord’s. The selection faux pas were not discussed at length, nor the handling of his bowlers. No one put out a personal ledger for the series — 131 runs in nine innings. Just a slump every batsman endures.
But Kohli spoke as if the world was baying for his blood. How his mood has changed from the first media interaction of the tour when he said: “Even if you want to think of revenge, these guys are so nice you cannot get into that zone.” Then in an interaction at the Indian High Commission in Wellington, he conceded that “if we had to share our number one spot with any other team, it will be New Zealand.”
Ahead of the Test series against New Zealand, #TeamIndia visits the Indian High Commission in Wellington. 🇮🇳🇳🇿
— BCCI (@BCCI) February 19, 2020
There was nothing remotely needling between the teams in the build-up or in any of the previous games. Some of them are good friends, some are IPL teammates, there was no premise for using words like revenge or grouse, there was no sense of antagonism, no history of animosity, no pre-series verbal bouts. It was as if India, genuinely or artificially, were trying to be extra nice to a bunch of guys branded Mr Nice Guys (though it’s time the condescending tag is shed) since the days they started playing cricket.
It’s not Kohli’s natural stage. To be not antagonised by the opposition. It is very hard for him to excel without confrontation and a siege mentality – weapons he has used to spectacular effect. It’s the stimulant that unclutters his mind, forges that single-minded desire to win, and brings the best out of him. Unlike most batsmen who don’t like to get worked up, Kohli relishes the sniff of combativeness.
Let’s look at the prelude to some of the important tours during his tenure. South Africa was all about the start of India’s long overseas sojourn, the baptism by fire; England was all about taming old nemesis James Anderson, a question of his batting pedigree; Australia, as Australia always is, an unconquered frontier, a supremacy stamping tour. Tough as New Zealand tours have historically been, there has never been a throbbing rivalry between the two sides. They meet rarely enough that the scope of a running rivalry is minuscule.
Hence, perhaps the lack of that extra layer of motivation. Test cricketers, by virtue of being Test cricketers, needn’t require a further dose of motivation, but sometimes there’s an added drive to perform, a kind of prove-all-of-them- wrong daring. Subconsciously, it manifests on the field.
Like on the England tour, a true marker of Kohli’s greatness. All good batsmen make technical changes, but it’s the flexibility of approach that makes a batsman great. For that, they tame the ego.
Like Sachin Tendulkar during that famous 241 not out against Australia in Sydney, where he hung steadfast to off-side abstinence, cutting out the punches and drives that made him famous. Similarly in England, Kohli resisted from attacking Anderson, barely playing a hold-your-breath stroke. Anderson fed tempters, but with monkish self-denial, Kohli kept leaving those, reining over his instincts, controlling his impulses and triumphing over his adversary by virtue of the strokes he did not play, and not the ones he played. To the deliveries on the stumps, he would offer a straight defensive blade. Surviving Anderson, he would annihilate the rest into submission. To invert a limited-over cricketing truism, his defence was the best mode of attack.
In Perth, Kohli composed one of the most understated knocks of his career, a knock that was drowned out in defeat and selection blunders, but one that illustrated a different dimension of his batsmanship, the art of stonewalling. Evident thus was a transcendental batting genius, in utter control of everything he did. A faultless hero.
Perhaps without that shot of motivation; no history, enmity or wanting to prove himself in the conditions, Kohli is less Kohli, the same but different batsman. Looking at him at the crease, there is no seething rage or scything glances, no theatre or dash. Not a lack of intensity, but a lack of the intensity seen in South Africa, England and Australia.
And so Kohli failed in Wellington. In the first innings, he attempted a loose drive outside off-stump in the first session of the game, when the ball always nibbles around. His explanation: “If I see a situation, if it is a green wicket, then I try to counter-attack so that I can take the team forward. I think that’s a very thin line and a very delicate balance of when to attack and when to put bowlers under pressure which we failed to do in this match and there is no harm in accepting that.”
In the second, he attempted a pull, falling into a carefully-dangled bait. His explanation: “I think that’s a very thin line and a very delicate balance of when to attack and when to put bowlers under pressure.”
Usually, Kohli strikes that balance, like a soothsayer he knows when to attack and when not to. Few batsmen pick those moments as precisely as him. Not in Wellington, though. On both instances, he would have been better served with a tinge of caution.
In neither innings, he looked noticeably troubled, to suggest a technical fault. Probably, if he were in similar circumstances in England or Australia, he wouldn’t have attempted either of the strokes, especially on the first morning of the first Test. The strategies were crystal clear, and as shrewd a batsman as he is, Kohli would have quickly detected it. He read it, but couldn’t out-read it. Kyle Jamieson was preying on exactly that away-from-the-body stab. Trent Boult was exactly anticipating a failed pull shot. Not that Kohli’s understating New Zealand, or thinks he could take things for granted, but he’s not over-antagonising them. Therein he misses what Mohammed Shami usually terms as junoon, or the beat that throbs in his batting. The me-versus-them fuel. When the fuel is non-existent, he wants to manufacture it.
Hence, he came into the press conference with the preconceived notion that the world is raging against him, the world wants to burn him, when there was none of it. Hence, the frequent “people” or “voices from outside” references. He’s trying to make-believe, convince himself than any of the “voices”, trying to simulate a world wherein everybody is critiquing him.
Now that Kohli has succeeded in creating such a narrative and seems to be feeding off it, found the fuel and beat, expect him to be different in everything he does in Christchurch. It could be the magic cure to his batting ailments. Expect him to burn his ego, ride the rough storm, replenish that siege mentality, and rage out against the outside world if he gets runs at Hagley Oval. The Kohli we know.
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