Kohli may be tired, but his hunger remains
- By giving up captaincy only in T20s but not ODIs, he has kept himself in the hunt to earn trophies in ODIs and Tests.
It was unlooked for—and yet not entirely unexpected—when Virat Kohli said that he would step down as T20 captain after the coming World Cup. As Indian cricket goes, it was a very unambiguous statement—no cryptic one-liners his predecessor preferred—yet it feels like a mixed signal that has left us with questions. Why tell us now, and focus the lens on him even more? Why share it on social media, and not through the press release of his employer? If the medium is the message, it feels like a case of wanting the first word and the last.
Through the din, two themes ring true from the message Kohli put out.
One is quite clear in the 243 words he used.
Virat Kohli is tired.
For the other, read between the 20 lines that he shared.
Virat Kohli is hungry.
To unpack the first, the question really is how could he not be tired? Countless productivity books preach that human beings have a finite store of energy in a day. Normal people, like you and me, look to use this energy efficiently. Kohli is beyond normal, and so has sought to enlarge his energy pool, not just economise it. How else could he sustain the constant, ebullient intensity he has brought to every single game he has led India in, and indeed played. The energiser bunny has nothing on this always prowling, sometimes snarling, beast.
Kohli’s entire career has been an exercise in going deeper by getting narrower. Addition by subtraction. His diet reflects this: he subtracted alcohol and his party-oriented lifestyle, and took his fitness seriously. Cheat meals like chole bhature were removed. Recently, Kohli subtracted meat entirely, in order to help him recover faster and keep up with India’s cricketing calendar.
But Kohli has been a three-format captain since 2017. He has not scored an international century since 2019. He averages 26 in his last 12 Tests. Perhaps this is how a remarkable career reverts to the mean. Or perhaps it is his game telling him that to find the next level, something’s got to go. Perhaps this is what it looks like when the obsessive get tired.
Speaking before the Tests in England, after the Indian team enjoyed a rare month-long break, Kohli inferred the next subtraction: staying away from the game itself, in order to be able to focus on the game.
“Being a captain and handling the responsibility of a team is a stressful job,” he said. “On top of that if you are confined in a bubble for a long time it becomes even more difficult. So, these periodic breaks are very important for cricket and for cricketers, because if you don’t have players fit then the quality of cricket is hard to maintain.”
Stepping away from captaincy, in some shape or form, was the logical step in this arithmetic.
But it is the shape and form that shows his hunger.
If Kohli’s career ended today, he will be remembered for being the best cross-format batter of his generation, the man who revolutionised India’s fitness standards, and the most successful overseas Test captain who leaves a culture of being able to win from any position. And yet our black/white narratives will always count him as the captain who never won an ICC trophy.
Across multiple interviews, Kohli has stressed that he pursues excellence, not results. A legacy of excellence is what matters to Kohli, not trophies. But before he steps away from leadership entirely, he seems to want more than one shot at that excellence earning some silverware. By relinquishing captaincy only in the T20 format but not white ball cricket entirely, he has kept himself in the hunt to earn trophies in the two formats he has been most successful, ODIs and Tests. And he will continue to lead in the IPL, where Royal Challengers Bangalore find themselves in playoff contention for the second year in a row.
Kohli’s announcement is about self-preservation, yes, but also about ambition, the kind of ambition that is intrinsic to the high(est) performance athlete. Despite the whispers, there is little objective ground for him to not captain India in ODI cricket. With a World Cup on home soil and a World Test Championship Final scheduled for 2023, this is the time Kohli has chosen to make a final subtraction, to push him into the next phase of his career.