Marked for the future
Only 23, Virat Kohli has been elevated to vice-captaincy. How he sheds his 'angry young man' image and embraces the new task will be crucial for a team in transition.
Although he did fine in the home series against West Indies, it was like scaling regulation peaks for a mountaineer. The real test was Australia. For a batsman from the subcontinent, it's like attempting Mt Everest straight up. Imagine being part of a room where most have achieved such feats in their careers again and again. The first two Tests were nightmarish for Virat Kohli; doubts were being raised whether he had the mettle to shine at the highest level. He could see that in the looks of the senior pros as well. It was not certain he would get a third chance to prove himself. But good sense prevailed and Virat was walking out to bat in Perth. Batting at WACA can feel like attempting one of the world's most treacherous peaks when the elements are against you, as if the storm is brewing and you are up there, alone and defenceless.His coach, who talks to his ward almost every day, admitted the chap was nervous. Virat knew it was do-or-die. If he failed, he would be bracketed with those who didn't have what it takes to succeed at the highest level. Thrown into the deep end, the boy finally swam through. The second innings half-century (75 runs) gave him the self-belief. "Ab theek ho jayega lagta hai (Now, I can manage in this league)," he told his coach, Raj Kumar Sharma, that evening.
The mental block gone, the ton came in the next Test, the eighth of his career, at Adelaide. Virat had arrived in Tests!
Still, no one expected the kind of innings he played in the final tri-series game. It was not just the quality of batting; the situation in which he produced the 'Hobart Hurricane' bowled everyone over.
He spoke to his coach again after that effort. "The day he got the hundred against Sri Lanka, he called and asked, 'Did you enjoy it'? I said, 'Ullu ke pathe (that is how I call him fondly), not just me, the whole country enjoyed it'. We spoke again after a day and he said he had already watched his innings six times."
No one is surprised. It's among the few moments Indian fans had reason to celebrate on the tour Down Under.
Australia 2011-12 was a massacre that will haunt Indian cricket for a long time to come. The scars are deep and erasing them will not be easy. After hurtling from one defeat to another all around the Australian continent, as the team returns empty-handed after three months, the desperation has left everyone clutching at straws, for there were few positives.The 4-0 Test whitewash and the tri-series flop make it clear the current squad has no future. Indian cricket is in crisis. From the depths of doom and gloom, everyone is hoping that a new world will emerge. Virat is the man who has shown the potential to become the player around whom the nucleus of the future team can be built.
While the likes of Laxman, Sehwag and Dravid faded away Down Under, Virat took the fight to the opposition camp once he got his game sorted.
It's not just about strengthening India's middle-order, it's almost decided by the Indian board that Virat is made for bigger responsibilities. Even before properly settling down in the Test line-up, he has been elevated to vice-captain in one-dayers. And he is expected to hold that position in the longer format too. Already, there is talk he will be given the Twenty20 captaincy.
Ideally, the 23-year-old should have got the vice-captaincy in two years' time. But then, as they say, there's never a perfect time. You have to be ready when the opportunity knocks on your door.
He's been earmarked for the leadership role from his under-19 days and Australia provided proof of his mettle for the senior selectors. Dilip Vengsarkar, who as selector had plucked him from the 'A' team and slotted him in the senior side, says it's the right move. "It's a very good call. You have to groom him as future captain. It's the right occasion, it's an inconsequential tournament and the pressure will be comparatively less."
The former India skipper says Virat has vital attributes like "good body language, good cricketing sense, mental toughness; and he plays hard and is a good motivator."
"He's a young guy, you can't expect him to act like a 30-year-old. We will need to support him for the first two or three years."
His development has so far been consistent, feels Vengsarkar. "His graph is good. He has got himself back on track after getting carried away a bit by the IPL razzmatazz early on."
Virat himself is excited about the additional responsibility. "I gave him the news he has been appointed vice-captain and he was very excited," says his coach. Sharma says even as a kid one could see Virat's natural leadership qualities. "Even when I made someone else the captain, he would dominate and set the field. I had to scold him sometimes and he would say, 'Sir, I made the changes because he has set a wrong field'. He always liked to dominate and had loads of self-confidence.
"My only concern was I had to check him from getting over-confident. I have groomed him in such a way he understands the difference because sometimes he feels he can do everything on his own. I have had to calm him down."
Vengsarkar has a word of caution for Virat. "He's a fast learner, the only thing he needs to do is control his emotions." He once got blinded by the bright lights, having admitted to losing focus after the first edition of the IPL. How he handles the trappings of stardom will now be the key.
He is pretty much a born star, but even he, or his coach, will have no idea what awaits him after the success in Australia. His popularity has sky-rocketed, and as a successful player and captain-in-waiting, he will be hounded by fans, agents and the media. "He has seen the world now. He is more mature and calmer now, he knows how to handle it (the fame)," said Sharma.
That he could be easily provoked was seen from his reaction at Sydney, when he showed the middle-finger to the abusive crowd.
His mentor is confident there will be no repeat of such behaviour. "It is in the past now," Sharma says. "We have spoken a lot on the issue and he has realised his mistake. He is slightly aggressive and sometimes can't take the nonsense, but otherwise he's very respectful and humble. You should see how he gels with the youngsters in the academy. He turns into a kid when he is with them."
Sharma feels it's ideal his fiery student will learn the trade as Dhoni's deputy. "It's a perfect opportunity for Virat. Under Dhoni, the biggest thing he can learn is how to maintain his cool."
With increasing responsibility, pressure will only go up. Learning to remain calm might be something that he may need to work on.
There is a lot riding on Virat, not just his own career but for Indian cricket. If he succeeds, Indian cricket will breathe a lot easier.