Brian Lara has called him the greatest timer of a cricket ball. Ian Chappell has called him the best placer of a cricket shot — recently moving Lara to the second spot. Virat Kohli is perhaps the greatest chaser the game has seen. And not just that he is, by some distance, the most accomplished batsman in world cricket today — across all three formats.
As we dream of days when international cricket will return to Pakistan, an abiding hope that gives meaning to life ahead is that some day we can stand on our feet in Gaddafi and welcome Virat Kohli as he enters the ground — to bat for India at number 3. I do not know whether it will be a sunny day or an overcast one, whether Virat will be staring into the sun or the floodlights. All I know is that it will be a day that Lahore will be truly privileged.
I have seen him play live only once — at the Kotla in Delhi when Pakistan played India in the third game of a three match series in 2013. Pakistan had already won the series but the game still turned out to be a cracker — with India winning a low-score affair. Virat did not get many runs in that game, or series for that matter, since Junaid Khan had the better of him. But there was no doubt about his class. All Pakistanis remembered Virat’s innings of 183 in the Asia Cup the previous year. Not even against Tendulkar had we felt such a sense of inevitability. It was as if something beautiful (i.e. a Kohli innings) was meant to happen and why would we want to get in its way?
There was one moment in that game which I will never forget. When India lost Gambhir, the Delhi crowd knew that the local-boy Virat was due in next. From where I was sitting I could see him sitting waiting for his turn. He got up to walk out to the pitch when the wicket fell. But he did not just walk out. Amid chants of “Kohli, Kohli”, he almost ran with a defiant air as he entered the ground — like a boxer entering the ring. One of Delhi’s greatest sons had arrived. And we could not be more grateful to him for sharing his talent with us.
What happened next was equally remarkable. Irfan pitched the ball up on middle-stump to Kohli. He seemed to have flicked it gently to the on-side — it seemed that way till everyone realised the ball was racing across to the mid-wicket boundary for four. Not a single fielder moved. Even the crowd took that quiet long second before erupting into cheers.
It was as if everyone present needed to gasp first before they could applaud. Only Roger Federer has that effect on crowds — or so I thought till I saw that Kohli moment in Delhi. Kohli got out soon after that. Pakistan lost the game. But these are just details. What I paid money for that day, and what I would pay money for over and over, is to see such Kohli moments.
In Virat Kohli the world has seen the evolution of a man — from allegedly hot-headed talent to the most calm head in the greatest of pressure situations. Kohli’s evolution is a tribute not just to his own ability but the human spirit — his desire for improving himself is seemingly limitless. Like his idol, Sachin Tendulkar, his only real competition is his own self.
It is one thing to be known as a good player. It is quite another to build the mental temperament and self-discipline that gives one the kind of consistency he exhibits. He keeps things simple; yet his immense hardwork must never be ignored. He does not get hundreds or consume run chases out in the field. He does that in the practice sessions where he puts in more thought and effort into his game than most players can even imagine. Like all successful professionals, he is never “off the job”. His interviews give you a clear idea that he is constantly thinking about not just his own technique but about the sport that he serves. His interest in the larger endeavour, that spirit of selflessness towards a sport that will outlast him, is perhaps part of the reason he is such a success.
In one way, Virat is a role-model for all professionals. He is teaching us that keeping things simple and choosing the long haul over momentary glamour is well worth it. He reminds us, ever so often, that even when you have to punch above your weight you can do it — since you can always out-think and out-work an opposition, as long as you are willing to put in the extra hours.
Recently I met a few people from India at a dinner in Lahore. The first question I asked them was, “how does it feel to be able to say that Virat Kohli bats at number 3 for my team?” It must be pure pride if he plays on your team. But then another part of me thinks, and perhaps knows, that Kohli doesn’t just belong to India. He is ours to celebrate. Every single cricket fan should take pride in him for our beautiful game has seen his passion to take our imagination to another level.