Emerging into his own
On December 18, 2006, Delhi were reeling at 59 for 5 in the face of Karnataka's huge first-innings total of 446 in a Ranji Trophy game at the Feroz Shah Kotla. It was the second day and B Akhil was on fire, Delhi desperately needed a partnership and Virat Kohli remained unbeaten on 40 at stumps. Early next morning Kohli lost his father.
Despite the personal loss Kohli decided to turn up for the game. He felt he needed the distraction. His mind might have been occupied but he was aware of his responsibility and of the task ahead. In the company of Puneet Bisht, he batted grimly to control the damage before falling ten runs short of his maiden Ranji Trophy century. He was disappointed yet something had changed forever for Kohli.
"The way I approached the game changed that day. I just had one thing in my mind - that I have to play for my country and live that dream for my dad," Kohli said.
Today Kohli, named in the ODI squads for the Sri Lanka series and the Champions Trophy, lives that dream. "My first reaction was of absolute joy. I could hardly believe it." Despite the celebration, Kohli turned up on time for his nets session at the St Sophia's School ground in West Delhi, where he was mobbed by parents of the other players.
Kohli admits it was just the timing, not the call-up itself, that caught him unawares. He was one of the top scorers in Australia during the recent Emerging Players tournament, one that Dilip Vengsarkar, the chairman of selectors, had kept a close watch on. "A plus point was the chief selector was there. I hadn't done as well as I'd wanted to in the Indian Premier League, so I knew this tournament was an important opportunity. It was pressure to have the chairman watching me against tough opposition. But once I started doing well, I grew more confident about my batting," Kohli said. The tournament included his best innings to date, a hundred against New Zealand, playing outside his position as an opener.
Vengsarkar has kept his eye on Kohli for a while now, believing he has the potential to achieve bigger things. "Dilip sir asked me to keep doing what I do. I knew he had been observing me for sometime now and I hope I can live up to his expectations," Kohli said.
Kohli's USP is his naturally aggressive batting. There are no second thoughts. "His love" for batting, as his coach Raj Kumar Sharma describes, has always helped Kohli gain recognition; during his Under-15 days he scored a couple of double-hundreds; then, in an Under-17 championship game against Himachal Pradesh, he scored 251 to put Delhi in the lead after they were stuttering at 70 for 4.
"He is a very physical type of player. He likes to impose himself on the game, backs it up with his skill", said Dav Whatmore, coach of the India Under-19 side Kohli led to World Cup victory in Malaysia earlier this year. Kohli agrees that it is calculated aggression. "I can't be bogged down by a bowler. I just like to give it back."
However, at times this need impose has turned into a sort of desperation and Kohli has lost his wicket while trying to force his way through. He had a disastrous IPL campaign with Bangalore Royal Challengers, scoring 165 runs in 13 games at 15.
But he went back to the West Delhi Cricket Academy, where he first arrived in 1997, to seek the help of his coach. After receiving a dressing-down from Sharma, Kohli promised he would let his bat do all the talking. A hundred in the Emerging Players event was just returns. "I was asked to open the innings, which I don't usually, but I remained unbeaten on 120 and helped India win," Kohli said of the innings which he terms his "best so far".
Kohli has been helped on his way by Whatmore and Martin Crowe, who, without asking him to change anything in his batting style, re-directed him towards a proper route to success. Whatmore told him that in order to have more contribution in the game he needed to be batting longer at the crease. "He was disappointed that on a couple of occasions he didn't get as many runs as he should have, simply because he had wanted to get a reasonable amount of runs a little bit too early. Therefore we agreed he should be looking to bat into the 40th over." Against New Zealand he batted out 41 overs to secure the win.
During his stint with Bangalore, Crowe, who was the franchise's chief cricket officer, asked him to play to his strengths. "He just told me to recognise my strong areas during the game and go for the shots I felt confident of, and could pull off" Kohli said.
Life has turned a corner for Kohli quite fast in the last few years. He might appear brash with his ready comments but he is confident of where he is heading. He understands it is unlikely he will straightaway get a place into the Indian middle order but he isn't bothered about that right now. He says he'll get the job done when the moment arrives. "I am naturally confident. If I believe in my own ability I don't see anything else in the field. I had in mind I had done well in Australia and might get a chance soon."
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo