On Virat Kohli and Greatness

He is still a couple of months shy of being quarter century old. Yet, he has been in the national limelight already for 7 years. First as the captain of the successful India Under-19 team, then as the brash youngster in the IPL and then as the run-machine in Indian blue.

Two weeks ago, in an interview with Press Trust of India, Gary Kirsten was asked whether Virat Kohli was the next Sachin Tendulkar. He declined to anoint him as such: “It’s a very dangerous position and very risky to name anyone.”

Well, since Kirsten won’t do it, allow me to do the honors. Virat Kohli is the most natural successor to the exalted spot of Sachin Tendulkar in the Test team at number 4, and he will, if not better, at least be as great as Tendulkar was in the limited overs game.

Of course, we will not know whether Kohli would even come close to matching Tendulkar’s numbers and the consistency with which they were produced for at least another decade. Such are the stats of the Great Man. But when has that stopped us from wondering about the possibilities?

Sporting greatness is the ultimate meritocratic space that only a rarefied few get to inhabit. It isn’t something that can be attained through performances over just a couple of seasons. It is through sustained excellence weathering the various opponents on the field and off. Greatness is eventually realized in old age but must be dreamed of, in one’s youth. One doesn’t accidentally become great; they have to have wanted it all along.

Kohli is already third in the list of century makers in ODIs for India behind only Tendulkar (49) and Sourav Ganguly (22). Overall, he is 17th in the history of the limited overs game, and his average 49.72 is the best of those 17. These are numbers that a kid still making his bones in international cricket rarely would be associated with, but Kohli is already pushing to be included in the conversation.

In a recent CNN-IBN interview, Kohli was asked whether he had complete comprehension of all the mathematical mayhem of the records that he has been causing and the young man replied with an admission of a little wonderment but provided a glimpse in to where his sights are. “I keep getting these updates along the line whenever I get a hundred. It’s hard for me sometimes to believe I’ve already got these many hundreds… but I try to forget these moments quickly because I don’t want to think about it too much and start doubting myself thinking it has come too early because I want to achieve something really big. I get that thought and I let go of it. When I sit down and think about the greats of the game, they started doing that from a very early age. So it’s not such a bad thing.”

Even though Kohli is a product of the new India, bold, outspoken and not necessarily deferential, he has his mind set on cricketing greatness, and realizes the path to that is only through Test cricket.  “As a youngster my only aim was to play Test cricket for India and to wear that white jersey and score runs for India, because I saw see all these greats of the game doing well in Test cricket and that was my only aim” says Kohli who wants to be known as a good Test player first, adding that his immediate goal is to get his Test average up to 50. If his appetite for runs in ODIs is anything to go by, we should be seeing him piling on in the Test arena as well soon.

Michael Jordan, The Greatest Basketball player of all time, was known to use even perceived slights to motivate himself. He knew he was a great ball player. He knew he had a very good team around him. He knew he had quickly developed a pedigree of success. So he looked for minor things like some newspaper writing about another player being better than Jordan (Clyde Drexler suffered for it in the 1992 NBA finals) or when Karl Malone allegedly lobbied to get the MVP trophy ahead of Jordan and suffered in the NBA Finals to Jordan’s Bulls. He was just looking for something, anything to get his competitive juices going.

During the recent Tri-Nation ODI series in the West Indies, due to Dhoni’s hamstring injury in India’s opening game of the tournament, Kohli was given the mantle of captaincy. I was covering the series and so had the opportunity to ask questions of him. India came in to the tournament winning the Champions Trophy in England but lost both their matches in the Jamaica leg of the tournament and their continued relevance in the tournament hung by a fine thread.

Coming in to that must-win match against the host West Indies at Port-of-Spain, Kohli had not scored a century in 16 ODIs and his average in those 16 games was under 30 with the highest of 77 not out. The last time he had scored a century in an ODI, his 13th, was in his 91st innings (meaning he averaged 7 innings per century). I asked him whether the lack of a big knock was bothering him, whether he was pushing too hard for it. He responded quite calmly that he wasn’t too worried about his form as he was hitting well and that the team was doing fine even without him needing to get the big scores, and it’s international cricket and the rate of making centuries don’t mean much when you step out on the field.

Of course, he hit a blistering 102 against West Indies, off just 83 balls to set India for a huge win. As he walked past me seated in the front row of the press conference, he kiddingly looked at me and asked, “Happy now?” Only that, I got the feeling he wasn’t totally kidding.

This article was published on Star Sports India

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