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By Suresh Menon
Watching Virat Kohli make a century in the first one-dayer in New Zealand, batting seemingly on a different planet from his teammates, it was difficult not to recall the early 1990s when Sachin Tendulkar gave the same impression. It confirmed what many were hesitating to say when the Mumbai master quit. In his final innings, after Tendulkar was caught off Narsingh Deonarine, new batsman Kohli drove the next delivery to the fence. It was a nice mix of the symbolic and the realistic: the successor had announced his first day in office.
The poet T S Eliot once told a young writer who had achieved overnight fame that he might have gone about it the wrong way. Sometimes it is better, he said, if you begin by building concentric circles of serious readers. It guarantees a long career.
I don’t expect Kohli to have read Eliot – he once famously tweeted his disregard for books – but he would understand the essence of that. After initial hiccups, Kohli is settling in for the long haul. And that is crucial for Indian cricket.
The South Africa tour shone the light on the new middle order, ruled by Kohli and Cheteswar Pujara. The former a natural stroke player adjusting to the rigours of leaving the ball outside the off stump, and the latter, a natural Test player exhibiting his range of strokes after an initial period of settling in.
The day before the first Test against the West Indies in Kolkata, Kohli turned 25, and now bears the double burden of being the No 1 one-day batsman in the world and the one chosen to succeed Tendulkar in Tests. Already he was the most experienced specialist batsman in the side, having played about a tenth of Tendulkar’s matches.
It had been an eventful start. A debut series in the West Indies which saw Kohli make 76 runs in five innings, was followed by a blossoming in Australia as a Test batsman with a century in Adelaide, and a dramatic rise in one-day cricket.
Kohli took his time to establish himself at the highest level, and that will probably serve him well. As captain of a World Cup-winning Under-19 team, his entry into the big league was expected; what was not was his brashness. These were, of course, the reactions of a successful teenager who loved to party and the good things in life. Nothing wrong with that, if only people would understand. But they didn’t, and Kohli was a marked man; his foul-mouthed celebrations were threatening to overshadow his immense promise and remarkable all-round ability at the crease.
The legends grew – especially over the IPL tournaments. The determination with which he turned out to save a match for Delhi the day after he lost his father at 18 was quickly replaced by the stories from the late-night IPL parties.
The IPL probably honed his batting skills; it helped that he played under Anil Kumble and coach Ray Jennings who both understood the young mind and recognized when to read the riot act. Kumble called him the best Under-22 cricketer in the world. In the national team, there was the example of the two most calm men in the game – Rahul Dravid and Mahendra Singh Dhoni. The Royal Challengers Bangalore acknowledging his leadership skills made him captain; the Indian team let him develop at his pace, and left him largely alone. Both were remarkably mature reactions to the indiscretions of youth, and Kohli prospered under such care.
Success followed inevitably. His century in the World Cup opener of 2011 came faster than Virender Sehwag’s. That tournament ended with Kohli carrying Tendulkar on his shoulders and providing this memorable quote: “For so long has Sachin carried us on his shoulders, it was time, we carried him.”
Kohli has since matured into a world class player in all forms of the game, a superb reader of game situations and the natural successor to Dhoni as India captain. He led the India team in Zimbabwe in Dhoni’s absence.
Two brilliant centuries, off 52 and 61 balls respectively – in the home ODI series against Australia - led to his elevation as the No. 1 batsman. There was no slogging; the aggression was founded on solid technique and a respect for the fundamentals.
Gone is the arrogant brat, and in his place is a young man with a rare self-awareness. T S Eliot’s line sums up the evolving Kohli wonderfully well: “We shall not cease from exploration…”