The Millennial Master
Rajdeep Sardesai | 25 Oct, 2017
ADVERSITY BUILDS character. For an eighteen-year-old playing only his fourth first-class match for Delhi, 19 December 2006 should have been like any other day on the batting pitch. Brimming with the exuberance of youthful talent, Virat Kohli was returning home from the Feroz Shah Kotla ground, enthused about cricket and life. Karnataka had piled up a massive 446 runs and Delhi was struggling at 103 for 5 at the end of the second day’s play but Virat was still batting on a well-made 40. He had struggled for form in his first few games but now appeared poised for a big score, which slightly stemmed the tide of the impending follow-on.
As he climbed the stairs to his first-floor home in the West Delhi colony of Vikaspuri, Virat had only one thought on his mind: rescue his team from a precarious position, score his first Ranji Trophy century and cement his place in a strong side.
Hours later, joy turned to sorrow. That night, Prem Kohli, Virat’s doting father and the first to nurture his cricket dream, passed away after a sudden heart attack. The teenager faced a stark choice— stay at home and grieve with the family or leave for Kotla the next morning and resume his innings. This is how the story unfolded in Virat’s own words.
‘I had come home feeling good about my batting. I was 40 not out, playing on a wicket I knew very well. I felt like I was in the zone and wanted to capitalize on the opportunity, especially since I hadn’t done too well in my first few games. I knew my father had been unwell. He had been under stress on the business side of things while looking after the family [Virat’s father had a criminal law practice and was attempting to start his own business]. Because of the stress he was under, he got a stroke and the left side of his body was paralysed. He was a self-made man, so the physical disability and the fact that he was now dependent on others got to him I think. He wasn’t in the best frame of mind when he got a cardiac arrest at around three in the morning. My mother realized something was wrong but we didn’t have help or the resources needed to save him and he passed away almost immediately. I was eighteen and my mind just blanked out. I didn’t know what was happening around me. All the relatives were informed, and the house was in a state of shock.
‘In the morning, around 6 a.m., I remembered that I was supposed to go out and bat and I needed to take a call. So I called my coach Rajkumar Sharma who was in Australia at the time and I told him what had happened. He asked me what I wanted to do. I told him it didn’t feel right for me not to play, that’s what my father would have wanted me to do. So I went, I actually drove myself to the ground which could only have happened because my mind had blanked out completely. I remember telling my teammate Ishant Sharma, who used to drive with me to the ground, that my father had passed away, and he didn’t believe it. When I reached, I didn’t say a word to anyone. I just wanted to be as normal as I could be. Ishant told the team members about what had happened. I was fine till then but when everyone came to console me, I broke down. That’s when it hit me as to what had actually happened—my father was gone. The senior players told me I didn’t have to go out and bat, but I said no, I want to bat because I wanted to do what has to be done. I batted, scored 90, and then got out to a bad decision—I was given out caught behind when I hadn’t nicked the ball. I was disappointed but along with wicketkeeper Punit Bisht, we stitched together a partnership that helped us avoid the follow-on. Punit scored 150 but during the innings I hardly spoke to him. My mind was focused on scoring runs and saving the team. Nothing else mattered. From the ground, I went straight for the cremation ceremony.
‘I didn’t even tell my mother that I was going to the match. It was only my elder brother who informed her much later. I think everyone was in too much shock to even realize what was going on around them. Mentally we were all scarred. If you ask me today, I am not sure whether I would do the same thing all over again and play a match when you lose your father. But that day, it just seemed the right thing to do.’ Virat narrates the agonizing story without getting overly emotional. His stoic nature is perhaps the mark of the man. Faced with tragedy, he sought strength from the field, the game his refuge and his armour.
Virat has a calmness under pressure while chasing a limited-overs target, the ability to run hard between wickets, and play his shots with freedom
His teammates remember the day well. ‘He is my dear friend, I am sitting with him in the car, and I don’t know what to say to him but he is ready to play the game,’ says Ishant. Mithun Manhas, the Delhi captain for the match, recalls seeing Virat with bloodshot eyes sitting in a corner in the dressing room hours before the game. ‘I remember going up to him and asking him what happened and he just mumbled, “My father has died”. I didn’t know what to say initially. Then I told him that he didn’t have to bat and could go home. He insisted though that he would play. I was stunned.’ Former India player Aakash Chopra, who was also playing the game, says the entire team was staggered by Virat’s bravery. ‘You’ve just lost your dad a few hours ago, you are only eighteen but you still haven’t lost your focus on cricket. What can one say to such a person.’
Coach Rajkumar Sharma too has vivid memories. ‘When Virat first rang me up to inform me and asked me what he should do, I didn’t have an answer. I knew his father so I was naturally shocked. I called him back ten minutes later and told him that if he wanted to play, then it was a good decision,’ says Sharma. The coach, a father figure for the young Virat, reveals that Virat called him again in the lunch break and this time cried over the phone. ‘The first thing he said was “Sir, I was given out wrongly when I was just ten short of a century.” Such was his obsession with cricket.’
In the plush multistorey house in Gurugram where he now lives there is a portrait of Virat’s father as you enter through the main door. ‘I just wish he had been around to see my success, but I know his presence is always there, that he is there to support me at all times, whenever I achieve something, I always thank him for being there for me in spirit,’ says Virat. The loving father for whom his son’s cricket dream had become his own personal mission, Prem Kohli often drove Virat to matches on his scooter. In a photo album there is a lovely picture of the child clinging to his father’s shoulders at the dinner table, almost climbing on top of him with an impish smile. Prem Kohli, still wearing his blue helmet (probably just returned from work), smiles out of the photograph. ‘Do you know my father was in hospital once and watching a cricket match on television when suddenly he turned to me and said, “Dekh lena, mera Virat one day will also play for India and be a big star,” says elder brother Vikas. Prem Kohli’s younger son is now a global cricket superstar and arguably the best batsman in the world.
This is a journey that began on a chilly December night soaked in tragedy, a night Virat can never forget. It strengthened his resolve to fulfil his father’s dream to play successfully for India. Sometimes as he takes guard at the wicket, he knows he guards another dream. He hears a familiar whisper in his ear and feels a soft touch on his shoulder, his father’s words echo: ‘Mera beta India ke liye khel raha hai.’
WEST DELHI WAS once on the periphery of the national capital, an area populated by Punjabi refugee families who arrived in large numbers after Partition. The past tense is used advisedly here since the social geography and demographics of the capital city have rapidly changed in recent years. The spread of the Delhi Metro service and the wide expanse of flyovers have reduced distances and ushered in a mini-revolution. West Delhi’s middle-class colonies remain congested but the small roadside businesses have given way to multistorey shopping malls.
Sometimes as Virat takes guard at the wicket, he hears a familiar whisper and feels a soft touch on his shoulder, his father’s words echo: ‘Mera beta India ke liye khel raha hai.’
‘There is a hunger to succeed here that has sparked off an upwardly mobile ecosystem. We were once seen as the poor cousins of Delhi’s urban elite, now we are showing the way, especially on the cricket field,’ says Arun Jaitley, Union finance minister and cricket addict (he was president of the Delhi & District Cricket Association for thirteen years) who also grew up in the area.
Due to the emergence of role models and a strong work ethic, West Delhi has slowly become the heartbeat of cricket in the capital. The majority of cricketers from Delhi who have represented the country over the last twenty five years have come from West Delhi and surrounding areas: Virender Sehwag, Ashish Nehra, Ishant Sharma, Gautam Gambhir, Shikhar Dhawan, Aakash Chopra, and, of course, Virat, are all products of a cricket culture that could even rival Mumbai’s Dadar Union-Shivaji Park dominance of the 1960s.
Chopra calls it a triumph of ‘Punjabi aggression’. ‘I guess as Indian cricket changed and became more competitive, it suited our Punjabi temperament,’ he says. Gautam Gambhir, who belongs to an affluent family in the area and is an alumnus of the privileged Modern School, says he grew up listening to horror stories of Partition from his maternal grandfather which inspired him. ‘My family had to flee from Pakistan and the tales I heard as a child gave me the stomach for combat which is important for a sportsperson,’ he says.
Gambhir’s opening partner Sehwag says that the environment in Najafgarh, a Jat-dominated rural township on the West Delhi- Haryana border where he grew up, toughened him up at an early age. ‘Our area was known for its gang fights and crime. I have even seen two businessmen being murdered in front of my house. Once you’ve seen murders, then fast bowlers se darna kya!’ he says. With little cricket infrastructure in the locality, Sehwag would travel almost two hours by bus to another West Delhi colony to play cricket. ‘I would get up at 5 a.m., reach school at 7 a.m., then at 1 p.m. when school was done I would sleep for an hour in the school itself, then go to the cricket ground where I would help lay out the matting and water the pitch, practise from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. and finally reach home by 8.30 p.m. and almost straight away go to sleep,’ he recalls. Today Najafgarh has ten cricket academies as young children aspire to emulate their hero and become the next Nawab of Najafgarh. In the 1980s, however, there were no grounds and much of Sehwag’s early cricket was played on an uneven road with a tennis ball.
At the heart of West Delhi’s transformation was the Sonnet Cricket Club, begun in 1969 by ‘Ustad’ Tarak Sinha, Delhi’s answer to Ramakant Achrekar who like his Mumbai counterpart can claim to have coached an India eleven. The purpose of the club was creating cricket opportunities for Delhi’s youngsters beyond the scope of elite schools and colleges.
Atul Wassan, the fast bowler who played for India in the late 1980s, recalls how the boys from Sonnet with no club ground of their own had to fend for themselves, even laying out a matting wicket by carrying the mat on a cycle. ‘We grew up in difficult conditions which made us more determined to succeed. We were battle-hardened Punjabi boys who always wanted to defeat the elite VIP kids of the NIS camp at National Stadium. We used to joke that they had the big cars, we had the bigger hearts,’ he says.
At fourteen, Virat was already playing in Delhi’s highly competitive A-division league. He was still not picked though for the Delhi under-14 team, an omission that left him in tears
By the mid 1980s, as many as nine members in Delhi’s team were Sonnet products. They included Rajkumar Sharma, an off-spinner- batsman who played only a dozen games for Delhi over six years. This included a match against Imran Khan’s formidable Pakistan team in 1987, about which he says, ‘I was hit for four successive sixes by Manzoor Elahi.’ The stocky Sharma started the West Delhi Cricket Academy in May 1998 with around 200 kids at the Saviour Convent School cricket ground. One of his first wards was Virat, still six months short of his tenth birthday. ‘I remember his soft-spoken father bringing him on a scooter along with his elder brother Vikas, and just telling me, “He loves cricket, please just look after him.”’
Until then, Virat’s cricket had been limited to playing with the tennis ball in the middle-class self-financing colony in the Paschim Vihar area where he would play with children much older than him. ‘I used to watch Sachin on television and try and copy some of his shots. My colony friends were so impressed that they told me I should go to a proper set-up because I had a skill, so I went up to my father and told him I wanted to take up the sport. That is when he took me to Sharma sir,’ recalls Virat.
For a registration fee of Rs 200 a month, Virat became a member of the West Delhi Cricket Academy. ‘From the very first day I saw him, I knew he had something special,’ says Sharma. ‘What struck me initially was his power and athleticism. I remember we were once playing a practice match and Virat was fielding at third man. He must have been ten or eleven years old and a slightly chubby little boy, but from 75 yards, he threw a hard parallel throw to the keeper and ran the batsman out.’
The other quality which caught Sharma’s eye early enough was his fearlessness. ‘He was only eleven years old and playing in the under-12 nets but he insisted on batting against the “big, fast boys” in the under-15 nets. He batted with ease against them but once got bruised on his arm. His worried mother came to me and said, “Please don’t let him play just yet with the bigger boys”,’ remembers Sharma.
Not that a minor bruise was going to stop Virat from indulging his passion for the sport, and batting in particular. The academy would function from Thursday to Sunday and matches were played round the year. ‘I would get Virat to play three to four matches every week, mostly 40-over games, after which we would come back to the nets to practice. What always struck me is how obsessed he was with the game. Even though I made him bat at number four, he would always be padded up. When he went to bat, he never wanted to get out. He would often take a single off the last ball because he wanted to retain strike just to stay in control of the innings. And when he wasn’t batting, he wanted to bowl or take catches, he just wouldn’t sit still, he had so much energy,’ says Sharma.
‘Ours was a relatively small club at the time so we didn’t have the same number of good players as the bigger club sides in Delhi. Which is why I felt I must score as many runs as possible in every game so I could be recognized and the team could win,’ explains Virat, adding, ‘I think it helped to get so much match practice at such a young age and the fact that the team was relying on me even as a twelve-year-old helped shape my mindset to think clearly and absorb pressure.’
The similarities with Sachin are uncanny—the unbridled appetite for the sport from a young age, the presence of a caring coach who nurtured talent with fatherly benevolence, and the well-knit middle-class home environment. And if Achrekar didn’t hesitate from occasionally slapping Sachin if he stepped out of line, neither did Sharma. ‘Yes, I have hit him on a few occasions when I felt he deserved it, when he got out to a bad shot or scored 60 to 70 runs and the team lost because of him. But it never changed our relationship; for me, he is like a son,’ says Sharma who, like Achrekar, works in the mornings for a few hours in a bank before heading to the ground to do what he loves most: coaching young children.
In a sign of things to come, Virat came in to bat in the final in Mumbai when Sachin was dismissed and India were 20 for 2 chasing Sri Lanka’s total of 275
The special guru-shishya equation bore fruit soon enough. At fourteen, Virat was already playing in Delhi’s highly competitive A-division league with men twice his age. He was still not picked though for the Delhi under-14 team, an omission that left him in tears. ‘Yes, I cried because I knew I was good enough to make the team, but it also toughened me because I knew I would have to score more runs than anyone else to make a mark,’ says Virat. Sadly, Delhi’s cricket has for long mirrored the Machiavellian politics of the national capital. Sehwag, for example, was twice denied a place in the Delhi under-19 team after being given just four balls to bat in the trials. ‘I think I hit two of the balls for sixes but since I had no godfather I wasn’t selected,’ he says. Chopra was removed as Delhi captain because he refused to accommodate an official’s son in the team. ‘When I played my first game for Delhi, an official warned me that this was going to be my last game even as I was preparing to bat. Delhi cricket has flourished despite the system not because of it,’ he remarks.
But Virat’s talent couldn’t be hidden for long. In 2003, he scored a double century in the under-15 national tournament. A string of big scores in junior cricket meant that he was picked for a strong Delhi Ranji team in November 2006 just days after celebrating his eighteenth birthday. ‘From day one, I was clear in my mind—I didn’t want to just play one or two games for Delhi, I wanted to be a successful player for India and the best I could possibly be,’ says Virat. Sharma echoes Virat’s sentiment: ‘The one thing about Virat which has always shone through is his self-belief. He is scared of nothing, he always wants to be aggressive on the field. Even today when he plays a game of football or volleyball with the other boys in my camp, he always wants to win.’ Ishant, with whom he has grown up, says, ‘As we say in our part of West Delhi, bande mein dum hai!’
VIRAT’S FIRST ONE-DAY century came in a run-chase against Sri Lanka in December 2009, where he shared a big partnership with his Delhi senior Gautam Gambhir. A few years later, the two would get involved in a nasty on-field confrontation in an IPL game, but that day Gambhir was so impressed with his partner’s batting that he chose to hand over his Man of the Match prize to him. ‘Look, I had gone through a lot of insecurities in my career so I didn’t want Virat to go through the same,’ explains Gambhir. ‘This was my way of making him feel secure, important and a part of the Indian team, since he was just starting out. I am proud of what I did that day.’
That innings reflected the qualities that would become part of the Virat phenomenon in later years. A calmness under pressure while chasing a limited-overs target, the ability to run hard between wickets, play his shots with freedom and invariably find the gaps. This knack of absorbing the pressure made Virat an integral part of India’s World Cup success in 2011. ‘To be honest, I didn’t really feel the pressure of the big stage because I was only twenty-one at the time. I knew I had nothing to lose, that I had time on my side, and it wasn’t going to be my last World Cup. Yes, I wanted to do well but my situation was nothing compared to Sachin’s, for whom this was the last shot at the title,’ he says.
In a sign of things to come, Virat came in to bat in the final in Mumbai when Sachin was dismissed and India were 20 for 2 chasing Sri Lanka’s total of 275. ‘When I walked in at the Wankhede stadium, I felt like I was entering a graveyard, there was pin-drop silence. Sachin had been batting like a champion in the tournament and now he was gone. I was literally shaking when I took guard. But then the nerves settled and Gambhir and I put up a partnership that was the first step towards the win. That innings gave me a lot of self-belief, the confidence that I could handle any kind of situation.’
What followed was even more special and revealed a new- found maturity in the ‘bad boy’ of the early IPL years. Carrying Sachin on his shoulders along with Yusuf Pathan on a victory lap, Virat was asked about the spontaneous gesture. Pat came the reply, ‘Sachin has carried the burden of the nation for twenty-one years, it’s time we carried him.’ The simple remark was uttered with such natural reverence that it came to define Virat’s character, that of a young man who saw himself as the potential inheritor of a grand legacy, someone who was paying respect to a legend but without a trace of sycophantic hero-worship. If the image of Dhoni smashing a six to win the Cup will remain the defining one of the 2011 triumph, then Virat’s sound bite is the best tribute any cricketer could have paid to a senior colleague in his moment of glory.
‘I didn’t plan or prepare to say anything. Through the tournament, all my focus was on the cricket and doing well. It’s only when I saw the emotions in the dressing room after we had won the Cup that I realized what I was actually part of. When you see seniors like Sachin, Yuvraj, Viru crying, even M.S., who is always so balanced and cool in such situations, then you realize what this win meant to everyone. I mean Sachin had been playing for so many years for India and now his dream had been fulfilled. I felt like we were all part of something very special, a once-in-a-lifetime kind of moment.’
A year after the victory, Sachin would shower Virat with an equally effusive compliment. At a function in March 2012 to mark his 100 international centuries, Sachin was asked if he thought anyone could break his record. ‘Yes, I think those who can are sitting in this room only . . . I can see those youngsters, Virat or Rohit [Sharma] are the ones. As long as an Indian betters it, I don’t mind,’ said Sachin.
(This is an edited excerpt from Democracy’s XI: The Great Indian Cricket Story by Rajdeep Sardesai; Juggernaut; Rs599: 288 pages)