June 6, 2016

'Kohli's clarity of mind and of the game is extreme'

Two Royal Challengers Bangalore insiders explain the method behind the mad numbers

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Iain O'Brien, Dirk Nannes, Ajit Agarkar and Daryll Cullinan discuss what's made Virat Kohli's IPL this year so fantastic

Over seven weeks, across eight cities, against seven different bowling attacks in varied conditions (at one point playing nine matches in three weeks), Virat Kohli scored 973 runs at an average of 81.03 and a strike rate of 152.03 in this IPL. These are freakishly staggering numbers. They go against the grain of the format. This is consistency unheard of, almost undreamt.

The fickleness of the T20 format is such that it is still up for debate whether such freakish batting is less desirable than three big hitters sharing the duties between them and in the process striking at a higher rate. In the two big tournaments this year - the IPL and the World T20 - eventually the big hitting trumped the contributions of batsmen seeking perfection. This tussle of style will make for interesting viewing in the leagues to come, but Kohli's amazing consistency is worth looking back at. After all, for eight IPL seasons before this one, no one had managed an aggregate of over 750. Kohli battered it in one go.

Two men who worked with Kohli at Royal Challengers Bangalore are not surprised by his numbers. Trent Woodhill, the team's batting coach, and Ed Smith, a former England batsman, now a sportswriter, who worked as a consultant to the franchise in the lead-up to this IPL, watched Kohli prepare and knew he was going to do something special this season.

"Virat Kohli was in that special place that a very few athletes get into at some point in their careers, where they are at the peak of their competitiveness, they are phenomenally fit, and their determination is exceptional"
Ed Smith

As cricket gets shorter, it is now more frequently compared with other sports, and Woodhill and Smith have no hesitation in putting Kohli in the bracket of prime athletes like Novak Djokovic in tennis.

To break Kohli's feat down technically, to understand how it came about, is difficult for an outsider, but these two close-in observers saw a man at the peak of his fitness, competitiveness, mental health and technique.

Woodhill's explanation for Kohli's mind-boggling consistency is simple. "He has trained himself to repeat.

"What I mean by that is that before going out into the match, he is playing the same game. It's not like he is trying to play a certain way and then can't repeat that. When he wants to hit the ball to a certain area, he is not thinking how he is doing it technically. He is just repeating. He is seeing the opportunity and taking that opportunity.

Most 50+ scores in an IPL season
Player Team 50+ scores Season
Virat Kohli Royal Challengers Bangalore 11 2016
David Warner Sunrisers Hyderabad 9 2016
Chris Gayle Royal Challengers Bangalore 8 2012
David Warner Sunrisers Hyderabad 7 2015
AB de Villiers Royal Challengers Bangalore 7 2016

"It's the whole holistic channel. From his diet to his fitness to how he prepares for his innings is the same every time. So the consistency is there. The fitness is there, so he can physically do what he wants to do. Mechanics are sound, so he is able to mechanically perform the way he wants to perform. Because he is stronger and fitter, he doesn't have to manufacture shots. Now when he is hitting the ball aerial, they are landing ten metres beyond the rope.

"He is not fighting physics or mechanics. Himself and Davey Warner were consistent because day in day out they had the physical attributes needed to back up the mechanical structure they had put in place over a period of time."

Physical fitness, according to Woodhill, is what separates Kohli, Warner and AB de Villiers from the others.

"What I have found out about Virat, through [Shankar] Basu, our fitness coach, and through Virat, is that because of his complete determination to be the best, he is physically at the top of his game. There is no one more physically fit than Virat. There are people as good. Davey Warner, for example. But no one better.

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"Others are willing to do it a little bit. Kohli and Warner train harder in all aspects of their life than others do. You can't just decide you are going to bat four hours a day and be the best batsman in the world. You have to put it all together.

"Virat is a complete player. He is not fighting anything that is not natural. The beauty of him and Davey is that they are not interested in what other people think of their mechanics. They are just looking to repeat what they do day in day out. That's the first part of the journey. Every time you hit a cricket ball, it has to be with the mechanics you are able to repeat."

It sounds like a simplistic way to explain such a low-risk approach to T20 batting, one that has given Kohli so much time at the wicket. But perhaps the knowledge that he can now hit sixes if he commits fully to an aerial shot, that he can runs twos when the ball has only travelled as far as the 30-yard circle, means that he rarely goes slow, and doesn't have to play low-percentage shots when he does fall behind the pace.

Consistency of preparation has brought consistency of results. "The big thing about AB, Warner and Virat is that they take their techniques out of play," Woodhill says. "They commit 100% to every ball of every game, practice session and pre-match warm-up, so the finished product looks so pure and refined when really they're only doing what they have done from a young age."

Woodhill is a batting coach who likes to undersell technique. He says Kohli has not had to work on his technique too much to find this consistency, but over the last two years he has made changes. He widened his stance and stood outside the crease after his failure in England in 2014; in 2015 he worked out that this adjustment was taking the cut shot out of his batting, so he narrowed it a little. He still doesn't play the orthodox cut, but he has found a way around bowlers bowling short of a length and wide to him.

"The beauty of Kohli and Davey is that they are not interested in what other people think of their mechanics. They are just looking to repeat what they do day in day out"
Trent Woodhill

When Kohli came to Royal Challengers this season, he was supremely confident of his technique. He came with knowledge that he didn't have any weaknesses.

Smith says that confidence was palpable. "One of the very striking things was the determination, aura and readiness of Virat Kohli to have a great series.

"I don't think any of us could have guessed quite how good, but it was clear - and this is not being wise after the event - that he was in that special place that very few athletes get into at some point in their careers, where they are at the peak of their competitiveness, they are phenomenally fit, and their determination is exceptional. Technique is in a good place. It was the coming together of all those factors. Body, mind, technique, mentality.

"In terms of total commitment in every aspect of his life to excellence on the field, it reminded me of Djokovic. In terms of taking this total game to new heights. All those things about Virat manifested themselves very quickly, the way he approached preparation and training before the IPL."

This confidence can only come from knowing that your game is in such a good place that on most occasions only you can beat yourself.

"A lot of it is inbuilt," Woodhill says. "The Messis, the Ronaldos, the Nadals, the Federers, the Lebron Jameses, they make sure they are at the top of their game to compete with so many good sportsmen. The day they don't give 100% to their preparation, they give the opponent an opportunity. Kohli and Warner worked it out that if they have complete commitment to what they think they do best, it is really hard to have weakness."

Kohli's commitment to being in peak physical condition has been one of the reasons for his phenomenal success © BCCI

Woodhill sees no weakness in the games of Kohli and Warner right now. Smith saw no way in which Kohli could fail in this IPL. "If you asked me what could stand in the way of Virat doing well, I would have struggled to have come up with any answers," he says.

"What could stop someone of that ability from performing very well? Perhaps their technique is slightly off. Perhaps their determination is slightly down. Perhaps their motivation is waning. Perhaps their fitness is just a bit down - whether it is injury or something catching up. Those are the questions. None of them was at all likely to keep him from succeeding. I just couldn't see anything that was going to stop him. I think the clarity, above all else, of his mind and of his game is just extreme. I saw someone very, very clear in his own mind that he was going to succeed and quite certain that he had the ability to do it."

In Kohli, Smith saw a man who knew this was his time.

"I have been around a few great sportsmen in cricket and other sports. It is very inspiring and thrilling to see someone grab his moment. That's what I think he has done. The recognition that he could do something special, the knowledge that everything is in place, the commitment to doing it, the conviction with which he approached this moment, is exceptional.

"An opposition coach was once asked after an NBA final series if he was surprised at what Michael Jordan had done. 'Surprised? No,' he said. 'Amazed? Yes.' That is very much how I felt about watching Kohli."

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo