March 2, 2012

Kohli's next challenge

He has overcome himself. Now he needs to show he can overcome his environment

Virat Kohli's hundred in Hobart was spectacular, but it wasn't our first sighting of him. He isn't a star newly seen in the evening sky; it isn't his first patent, nor a first novel newly discovered by a publisher. He has nine one-day hundreds, though this one would by some distance be his best, and his record at this stage is comparable to that of anyone who has played cricket - even some of the mighty names that he will probably one day sit alongside.

Kohli has been on the radar for a while, as a player, character and captain. The middle quality, like a middle name, should have been the least conspicuous. Certainly that is the way we have always looked at young players in India. If they strut, put their collar up, wear cool shades, and sport spiked or gelled hair, the eyebrows rise; it influences opinion, defines them. So it was with this brash young kid who could play. Yes, he was brash but everyone who saw him said he could play. You just needed to look at him long enough without letting everything else colour your opinion to know that he could

But it was through those glasses that I first saw him. I had seen a very young Tendulkar, and fine shy young men in Kumble, Dravid and Laxman - people who stood quietly by and spoke when they were spoken to. This kid had a swagger, but I had heard far too much about him to not ask about him. I did. I got a roll of the eyes, that raised eyebrow, and a sideways movement of the head. He was clearly next generation.

But I knew, too, that he had lost his father early, and my mind took me back to an outstanding India Schools player of my vintage who let his astonishing skill slip away with the passing of his father. It is a crucial phase, when you are not quite man and no longer child, when you think you know what you need to do but don't really. In some very articulate interviews later, Kohli spoke of that phase, of being lost and loud at the same time. He did well to get over it because deep down, he could play.

It was the getting-over phase that was to define him, because he was one of those players you kept an eye on, whose name your eyes drifted towards first in a scoresheet. He could have imploded in rage and self-pity, and he admits he scanned that horizon, but he pulled himself back, and it was in winning his battle with himself that he became a cricketer.

Now he has a World Cup medal and a Test hundred; he has opened the batting and played finisher; he is still a young man and the vice-captain of the national side. He knows they are saying that when the time comes for Dhoni…

And people say he is cool, that he brings a sense of calm to an innings. Yes, he can play to the gallery a bit, communicate to the crowd with his fingers, colour his language in many shades ("Shit happens," he said on air as he misfielded once while miked up), but he times an innings well, understands his role, plays the aggressor or the quiet partner (as he so beautifully did when Chris Gayle was annihilating opponents in last year's IPL).

He still likes the leg side, like all young Indian batsmen do. He can flick it there and also muscle it through, and inevitably his wagon wheel will be skewed in that area. But he can play the cover drive, and in an era in which batsmen increasingly give themselves room to play powerful shots on the leg side, that will become the gold standard; that and the straight drive. In the course of that astonishing innings in Hobart, the two shots that stood out were an inside-out six off Angelo Mathews and a cover drive as crisp, as any you will see, off Lasith Malinga.

Now he must battle expectations, for in India we know zero and one, white and black. He will be told he is the next superstar, he will be rated by his endorsements, somewhere the voices around him will seek to overpower the voice within him. He will be wrapped in superlatives and at times condemned with them. Like some before him have, he must find a calm amid the storm that India's cricket can be. It won't be easy. Having overcome himself, it is in overcoming his environment that the next ten years will lie. Maybe 15.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here

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