A quintessential West Delhi boy, Virat Kohli has infused the team with Punjabi brashness and vigour. In the last two years of his captaincy, India have steamrolled all opponents at home. Now, Kohli & Co arrive at the foot of the Table Mountain in what is the beginning of a tough year of away Test cricket. These 12 months, starting at Newlands on Friday, will determine if their tashes remain proudly twirled.
Balwinder Singh Sandhu, while recalling his playing days, those heady early 80s, inadvertently allows a peep into the present-day Indian dressing room. The 1983 World Cup hero is talking about the Punjabi culture of the Kapil Dev era, but the images that come to mind are more recent — the viral WhatsApp clips of Virat Kohli and Shikhar Dhawan displaying mean wedding bhangra moves.
Sandhu acknowledges that it’s yesterday again in Indian cricket. After the late 80s, there’s a strong North Indian feel to the Indian team again with a Punjabi-speaking full-time skipper. Kapil had Mohinder Amarnath, Madan Lal, Kirti Azad and Yashpal Sharma. Virat has statemates Dhawan and Ishant Sharma, UP pacer Bhuvneshwar Kumar and the two non-resident North Indians — Gujarat’s Jasprit Bumrah and Vidarbha’s Umesh Yadav.
A West Zone-centric batting line-up, is another common trait that the two teams separated by three decades, share. Back then it was Gavaskar, Vengsakar, Ravi Shastri and Sandeep Patil; now it’s Rahane, Rohit and Pujara.
Sandhu says it was this “lethal combination” that gave India its first World Cup. “In 1983, Kapil promoted this team culture of “bas gale pad jao” (very loosely translated as “go for the jugular”). It’s that aggressive Punjabi ethos of ‘jeetna hai kaise bhi karke‘. When combined with the khadoos (gritty, again a lame translation from the vernacular) attitude of Mumbai’s cricketers, it was a lethal combination. “I see that in this team too,” he says.
Similar northerly winds had blown in Indian cricket at the turn of the century. Harbhajan, Yuvraj, Ashish Nehra, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir were young, restless but very respectful of the prevailing dressing room hierarchy. They were in-betweeners, the valiant soldiers who would never be generals. For most of their careers, they lived in the shadows of stalwarts who were not from the North but were called Paajis. The tradition continues. Even Pujara, a Gujarati, or Ashwin, a Tamil, refers to Tendulkar, a Maharashtrian, as Paaji.
But now there’s just one Paaji in the team. He is the unquestionable leader of a team that now gets identified for playing with what is globally reputed as the Kohli-kind of intensity. And there’s a precious dividend Kohli earns from the team’s new demography.
Sandhu explains it best. He calls himself “a Maratha Sardar”. By virtue of being a Marathi-speaking turban-wearing Sikh, he was priceless to Kapil as the bridge that connected Indian cricket’s two islands — Delhi and Mumbai.
For India, the ’83 World Cup triumph seamlessly blended two very Indian but contrasting cricket approaches. After two years, in 1985, this same band of merry men, this time under Gavaskar, went on to win the World Series ODI final at MCG. ‘Jeetna hai kaise bhi karke‘ — remained the war cry. They inspired a generation of teenagers to wear India blues, play under floodlights and drive an Audi.
Kohli’s men have shown the chemistry and cohesiveness of the pioneers. Actually, the millennials are an evolved species; fitter and more skilled. Kohli’s too successful, too influential, too powerful and too big a brand. He is the one and only power centre in the dressing room; make that in BCCI.
The year 2017 saw India win 37 of 53 games across formats, mostly at home. It’s a feat second only to Steve Waugh’s Australia of the early 2000s. With India playing 10 away Tests in 2018 — in South Africa, England and Australia — Kohli’s team are in with a chance to be called the ‘Invincibles’. South Africa is a high hurdle — the Table Mountain, if you will — but not the Himalayas. Historically, Indian teams have done better here as against in England and Australia. Most Indian batsmen have had centuries here on earlier tours, the bowling line-up is the best that has flown to foreign shores in decades.
It will be a colossal irony, in case the millennials provide India the template for winning Tests abroad. Who would have thought, the brash, chubby kid from Delhi would one day be on the cusp of unparalleled cricketing success? A few say that they saw it coming. The doubters too are changing their minds, or rather sit perched uncomfortably on the fence.
Sandhu first saw Kohli as an Under-16 cricketer at the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore. “He hasn’t changed a bit, he still hates losing,” he says indulgently. He follows it up with the biggest compliment a senior from Mumbai can give to a junior from Delhi. He regrets not getting a Kohli-kind of skipper while playing for Mumbai. “In our days with Sunil Gavaskar as captain, you were always scared to take pangaa with a batsman. We would think our captain was such a serious man and we would look like fools if we took pangaas with batsmen. If we had an aggressive captain, he would have said ‘tum gale pad jao, dekha jayega’.”
Virat is one such captain, an aggressive skipper who the bowlers love. “Like a bowler, he too is expressive. He is John McEnroe,” says the one-time junior coach.
Not too long ago, he could have been compared to Nick Kyrgios. Runs and results change public perception. With new coach Ravi Shastri around, the team, and Kohli, look settled. The Shastri-Kohli bonding brings into the conversation Anil Kumble, and a guarded reaction from Sandhu. “Virat’s behaviour has changed in the last one year. First he was wild and aggressive, now with Ravi around, the Mumbai khadoos-ness has come into him. He will slowly mould him,” he says. The Anil Kumble reference: “Ravi knows how to keep the balance. He made the best of his limited talent. He knows how to make an average cricketer above average. Anil Kumble sat on the top seat, it was all maharaj ki jai ho during that time.”
Shastri understands North India; he has spent enough time with Paajis. Sandhu recalls those days. “I would speak Punjabi with North Indian boys and Marathi with Mumbai boys and, yes English with Roger Binny. Though our jokes were all in Punjabi as it was difficult to translate. Those days no one played music in the dressing room but our team bus would always have Punjabi songs,” says Sandhu.
“Punjabi music chalta hai sirf … in the change room. Most people get their iPods. Hardik’s iPod has English songs but he doesn’t even know five words of any song. He just wants the beats. My iPod has all Punjabi songs, sometimes there are Hindi romantic songs but mostly Punjabi… mahaul thoda lively rehta hai, Punjabi hone chahiye team mein ek do… (the atmosphere should be lively, there should be one or two Punjabis in the team) Shikhar hai, main hu.”
This is Virat Kohli unplugged on the Breakfast with Champions web series. He is speaking to IPL’s very popular, and very Punjabi, anchor Gaurav Kapoor. They sing Punjabi songs, crack inside jokes. They look like old friends catching up. The globe-trotting celebrities also talk about the trauma of the inner West Delhi mundas in the mostly English-speaking world.
“Who’s come to my show today, is it the post-match gentleman or Delhi ka chhokra?” is Kapoor’s opening poser. “Gentleman toh humko jab hona hai tab ho jaate hain, bas switch on karna padta hai. This (pointing to himself) is the default setting. Jaise hi apna mahaul mil jaata hai uske baad aapko pataa hi hai hamara kya hota hai (I can be a gentleman when I want to be one, but for that I need to take the effort and turn on the switch. This is the default setting. Once I get the right vibes, after that you know what I am like.)”
It’s an insightful interview that’s mandatory viewing for those fascinated by Virat and his alt-ego. He has been a puzzle. He can be erudite when even extempore, but on days he can get effortlessly instinctive with his invectives. He can play the statesman at will but remains a street-fighter at heart, the quintessential Delhi ka chhokra. Eyes ready to pop out of sockets, hands moving wildly and the tongue cracking like a whip.
If there’s an on-field cause that needs a voice, Kohli’s never at a loss of words. As for “getting carried away”, it’s a trait very common in a city where a car scratch can trigger an hour-long fight and two hour-long traffic jams. It’s been a while since India had an expressive captain. Ganguly was the last, and a very successful one at that. This angry Kohli has an army of passionate fans.
Fans wearing ‘18′ shirts, spin doctors and marketing suits aren’t the only ones who love the made-to-order for billboards ‘Scowly Kohli’. Across the border, they are in awe of this Delhi ka chhokra and his attitude. Pakistan loves firebrand cricketers. Maybe, they see their past heroes in Kohli.
There’s this very popular Pakistan television cricket show called ‘Game on hai’. One Youtube search for this show leads you to where Wasim Akram, Saqlain Mushtaq and Shoaib Akhtar are discussing another Pakistan debacle. They sound like depressed parents of an academically average kid who, unfortunately, has the class topper as the neighbour. With every Kohli praise, they point to the corresponding flaw in their own young cricketers. “Aur hamare ladke dekho…” becomes the common expression of exasperation on the show. It’s an unbiased, unabashed assessment of the one-of-a-kind cricketer with very un-subcontinental work ethic and diet.
Saqlain has just returned from India. He was England’s ‘spin coach’ for the 2016 India tour. He talks about meeting the extremely courteous Indian captain with an obsessive drive to do well. “Paaji paaji karta raha, he was meeting me like I was from his country. He was eating bhutta (corn), he said he hasn’t had paranthas for the last five years,” he says. The Punjabi-speaking Pakistan panel has the collective expression of the audience on ‘Ripley’s Believe it or not’.
Saqlain isn’t finished yet. “After his bad patch in England, he went straight to Sachin. Uske peechhe pad gaya, usse sab nikalwaaya aur sab absorb kiya,” he says. Shoaib interjects. He provides comic relief also. “Once I asked Kohli, ‘don’t our cricketers ask you questions?’ He said, ‘they do, but it is always about my cars’.” Laughs, rather smirks, all around. Typical class-topper snitching.
Mind you, Akram, Shoaib and Saqlain — all world cricket’s game-changers — are difficult-to-please men. They have no patience to suffer cricketing wannabes. Over the years, they have been very selective and pragmatic in their praise of India’s stalwarts. But Kohli had them at hello.
They keep mentioning Kohli’s tons in winning causes and shaking their heads in disbelief. Shoaib too recalls his Kohli meeting. “I asked him ‘how you always finish the games?’ He said that the game awarness was always there but he has enhanced it by watching the game. He has learnt when to accelerate, when to score at what run rate, when to be the pinch hitter…”
Akram can’t stop himself, he cuts Shoaib short. He needs to mention a recent Umar Akmal misjudgment during a botched up chase. “Arre, there is just one main bowler and he is specially brought in to get you out. Aur aap usi pe chance le rahe ho…” And the Kohli comparison again.
He continues, “Uski 17 chasing centuries ho gayi hain and all in winning causes. Usko success ka raaz pataa chal gaya hai. Nothing is easy. You have to work hard.” At this point, the chances of a shoe flying towards the television at the Akmal household would have been brightest.
At home, the Kohli dissection is more threadbare. The knives are sharper, the cuts deeper. They have seen him grow, they know his flaws. Bishan Singh Bedi is the original Delhi boy. His praise comes laced with riders.
“His own work ethic is rubbing on to the team. It is a good sign. I am confident they will do well. It will be one man’s burning desire to do well. I hope he doesn’t get carried away,” he says.
After a bit of thought, he adds, “I want to see him in a tighter situation. He has to take decisions on his own, instinctively. Abhi dekhna hai, yehi real hai … South Africa, England, Australia mein pataa chal jayega.”
Kohli’s respect for Delhi’s grand old cricketer is well known. Recently, during Ashish Nehra’s farewell ODI at the Kotla, Kohli saw Bedi during the end-of-the-game lap of honour. He, along with Shikhar, jumped over the in-stadia ad hoarding and touched his feet. Actually, Bedi’s feet are the most-touched at Kotla.
In these parts, he is known as the man who gave Delhi its DNA. It was under Bedi that Delhi took on Mumbai’s might. “We enjoyed a good battle with Mumbai and West Zone. We used to think ‘yeh Mumbai wale itna dominate kaise karte hain‘. We used to call Mumbai enemy territory. It got the best out of us.” Taking on the powerful and disturbing the status quo is a Delhi thing that has been passed from Bedi to Kohli. They aren’t scared to rock the boat or afraid of calling the white man a cheat.
Vaseline, John Lever, 70s … Smith, DRS, 2017.
Trust Bedi to also point to the character flaw that he has noticed in many North Indian cricketers. “Hamare yahan showbaazi jyada hai. Hamare yahan ek saikda bun gaya toh apni shadow ko dekhna shuru kar dete hain. I tell you this North Indian haughtiness…”
But Bedi does give a lot of credit to cricketers like Kohli, Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag who reached lofty heights despite being part of one of India’s worst-run cricketing set-ups. “It’s all individual effort and their burning desire. A good cricketer is a good student of the game, and there are many good students of the game in Delhi. A good administrator is a good servant of the game. There are no servants in Delhi, they all want to be the boss.”
A few hours at a Delhi cricket academy explains how players like Kohli made adversity their strength. The making of Kohli will help one understand his unquenchable desire to succeed and be ultra-competitive on the field.
Meet Sanjay Bharadwaj aka Gambhir ka coach. He runs an academy at Ashok Vihar which trains close to 150 young cricketers at any time of the year. Bharadwaj is a portly middle-aged man whose every sentence is a quotable quote. He is Delhi cricket’s Deepak Chopra and John Buchanan rolled into one.
Watching the fight for survival among kids on a daily basis has made him wiser, if not cynical. “Delhi cricket ke bachche mein bahut aggressive power hai. Usme jo junoon hota hai woh give-up wala nahi hota, fighting wala junoon hota hai,” he says. He is a man who loves his dramatic pauses. “Jinke peechhe koi nahi hai, jinki backing nahi hai unka junoon alag hi hai. Jo bachcha cricket ko hi apni backing maanta hai, wohi aage jaata hai.”
In Delhi, a junior cricketer is made to realise very early that it’s him all alone against the world. “Delhi association is very weak. There is no powerful official who will fight for our boys at the top level. Har haal mein performance deni hai.”
In other words: Jeetna hai kaise bhi karke.
A bunch of teenagers outside a West Delhi academy vouch for that motto. Most of them have the Kohli hairstyle. “Half the job is done, now I need to just bat like him,” says one whose only claim to fame is being shortlisted among the top 50 at Delhi’s junior trials. They all crack up.
They are looking for a ‘chhole bhature‘ kiosk. They ask you to join them, you follow. “Bhai ko gluten-free bhature dena,” says another smart one, referring to himself in third person. Everybody, but the shopkeeper, has a laugh. It’s clear these leg-pullers aren’t his favourite clients.
Ask the boys about Delhi cricket and talk about their team’s phenomenal domestic season and how they have reached the final of all competitions. “If Mumbai cricketers are khadoos, what are Delhi cricketers?” you ask them.
The one having ‘gluten-free’ deep-fried bhature starts referring to a recent Bollywood hit about four Delhi boys who bend rules, challenge the underworld, outfox the cops and humiliate politicians. But they still live to tell the tale. The word literally means slacker but it’s mostly used to describe Delhi’s likeable rouges. “Have you seen Fukrey?” he asks.