It is one story that is sure to do the rounds of the Ferozeshah Kotla and be narrated much beyond for years to come.
It is the tale of a teenager, in his rookie Ranji year in the Delhi lineup, who put aside personal tragedy to pull his team out of dire straits. An act that stunned his own teammates and officials as much as the opposition.Then 18, Virat Kohli was finding his feet as a Ranji batsman in 2006-07 when the hosts found themselves in serious trouble against Karnataka. Kohli battled until stumps but few gave Delhi hope of avoiding follow-on when he headed home amid gathering gloom on that December evening.
That night, his world turned upside down. His father Prem Kohli, just 54-years-old, passed away following illness.
A game of cricket would normally be the last thing on a player’s mind then. But his coach Raj Kumar Sharma was in for a shock. In Australia then, he received a call from a weeping Kohli informing him of his father’s death but explaining about how Delhi badly needed him.
“I was in Sydney at that time and I got a call from Virat. He was weeping and told me ‘my father is no more’. Virat also told me he was batting on 40 and whether he should go back to play.
“I asked him what he wanted to do. He said mujhe khelna chahiye (I want to play). Then I gave him strength. I told him ‘this is the time to show your character. Go out and play’.”
By then his Delhi teammates, and Karnataka, had come to know about the tragedy. To their amazement, they found Kohli was back the next morning. They expressed their condolences and told the newcomer that he could go home and take care of the last rites with elder brother Vikas.
“He was barely 18 and he had lost his father at 4 am,” said Chetan Chauhan, former Test opener and then Delhi coach. “I spoke to Virat and his brother and was told that he was in the mental shape to actually go out and bat.”
In the end, Kohli dug in to score 90 and put on a big partnership with Puneet Bisht, who hit a century, as the last recognised pair did enough that afternoon to help Delhi escape with a draw.
Kohli then rushed home for his father’s final rites but was extremely disappointed at being wrongly given out, caught behind when his bat had only brushed the pad.
“He was again crying when I received the next call, saying he was given out wrongly. That showed his commitment, during such a turbulent time of his life,” coach Sharma recalled.
“That showed he was mentally very strong, leaving his father’s body at home, and then rushing to perform the last rites. It shows his tremendous love for the game,” said Chauhan.
Bisht remembered how strange it was batting with Kohli, who hardly played a false shot. “In the middle, I just didn’t know how to communicate with him. Should I appreciate or not? He was brilliant that day. Woh aaya, maara, chala gaya (He came, scored and went away).”
Kohli had an early initiation into cricket. His father, a businessman, took his elder son Vikas, five years older, and the eight-year-old Virat to Sharma, who had opened a new academy in Paschim Vihar in West Delhi in May, 1997. A few days later, Sharma gave his assessment to the father — the younger son played far better.
While Vikas left the academy after some time, Virat went from strength to strength.
“He was among the first trainees here,” Sharma said. “He was a different child. He was a very good learner, and developed tremendous power in his shots. He always wanted to spend a lot of time in the middle, and wanted to lead; always wanted to be involved. Normally children are happy to bat for 20-25 minutes. But not him.”
A teenaged Virat often came across as an arrogant player but Sharma says it was far from true. “Virat was always a confident child. Sometimes he gets over-confident in his eagerness, that is all.”
Like many other players who have made it to the Delhi and India ranks, Kohli also had to face early disappointment. He came to his coach weeping after being ignored for the Delhi U-14 squad. “I just consoled him. Next year, he hit two hundreds at the U-15 level.”
Kohli’s appetite for long stints in the middle was apparent very early. He followed up two double hundreds at the U-15 level with two more in the U-17.
Sharma was sure from early on that Kohli would make it big.
“When he was 13-14, I was talking to BDM’s Pintu Mahajan. I told him ‘give this boy cricketing gear.’ He trusted me, but still asked me what has he played? I told him he will definitely play for the country. He was an India player in the making from the start.”
Kohli blossomed rapidly, debuting for Delhi and then leading the U-19 team to World Cup glory in 2008.
He was included in the India ODI squad for a series in Sri Lanka when Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag opted out.
However, the early success was also accompanied by questions about his attitude.
In the first flush of success, especially after the U-19 victory, Kohli came in for criticism, that he wasn’t humble enough.
Ray Jennings, his coach at Royal Challengers Bangalore, was once quoted as saying that the youngster, for all his talent, at times appeared to behave as if he was larger than the game itself. Kohli himself admitted last year that he plunged into intense partying and night-outs, but had learnt from his mistakes.
“The confidence he got from his initial success in ODIs carried him through that phase when he faced criticism,” Bisht said.
His big moment came against Sri Lanka in Kolkata, when Kohli scored his maiden century and shared a huge partnership with Gautam Gambhir to guide India to victory in December 2009.
Though Kohli, who is also a brilliant fielder, has established himself in the Indian Premier League — he was the only player to be retained by the Royal Challengers Bangalore — his coach gently reminds him that his unwavering focus should be on Test cricket.
“Virat was always keen to play in the World Cup and was delighted when he was selected. But I told him ‘you must set your target on playing Test cricket’.
“Now he is also very keen on breaking into the Test squad.”