Sunday, 29 October 2017

Meet the real Virat Kohli: India’s best-loved cricketer who wants to be ‘a monk in a civil world’

Tracking down a modern-day cricket star can be a nightmare. When the individual in question is Indian cricket’s millennial icon, it becomes that much tougher. Moving from one game to another in an endless whirl of competitive sport, encircled by protective agents and pushy sponsors, the 21st century sportsperson is living life in a bubble. Entering that hallowed space is not easy.

To be fair, Virat Kohli does occasionally answer my WhatsApp messages, promising to do an interview for my new book on Indian cricket, but offers no firm date. “You know, my father Dilip Sardesai played for India, it will be great if you can give me some time,” I plead. “Don’t worry, it will happen,” is the short answer. Finally, six months and dozens of phone calls later, I get a message from his agent: “Virat will meet you at 1 pm at his Gurgaon residence.”

So on a warm summer day, I make my way to Virat’s new home. It’s a two-storey house in one of Gurgaon’s more quiet, leafy corners, almost another universe from the cacophonous and congested bylanes of Vikaspuri in west Delhi where a young man first nurtured his cricket dream in a small middle-class self-financing colony flat.

As I enter the plush house, a cute-looking beagle greets me. I have a beagle too, so I sense an instant connect. I also smell food being cooked in the kitchen. This is, after all, a traditional Punjabi household, and at lunch time, the whiff of freshly-cooked chhole wafts through the air.

I am taken to the basement where I wait for my star interviewee to arrive. On the table before me is a bowl of fresh-cut fruit and almonds. Minutes later, Virat comes striding in, wearing a loose T-shirt, track pants and slippers. He seems to have just come from his home gymnasium, his well-toned muscles lending a macho edge to his gait. He is a little shorter than I have always imagined, but then I should have known better: India’s finest batsmen have always been well under six feet. His rimmed spectacles give him a slightly unfamiliar serious look, his well-trimmed beard and neatly cropped hair a more recognisable image. He munches on the almonds, peels a banana and then asks for a protein shake. “Will you have something?” he inquires helpfully. I am happy to munch on the almonds, while wondering if the chhole will be part of the lunch menu too.

“This protein shake is excellent,” he tells me. I would have preferred the chhole somehow, but quickly realise that I am in the company of a supremely fit sportsperson who is committed to a gluten-free, low carb, high-protein diet.

Virat’s Rule #1: Be fit for life, not just for the field

When the history of Indian cricket is written, Virat’s runs and centuries will dazzle us. What will be concealed amidst the raw statistics is the manner in which Virat has transformed the notion of fitness in Indian cricket. My father’s era in the 1960s and ’70s where cricketers never stepped into a gym, where the size of  the midriff didn’t really matter, where players actually had tandoori chicken-eating competitions in the middle of  test matches, where a light jog and a few stretching exercises were par for the course, is well and truly over.

“Today, I could take on Novak Djokovic in the gym!”

As former India strength and conditioning trainer, Shankar Basu tells me, “You should view Indian cricket now in terms of the period before Virat and then after Virat. He is not just a great batsman, he is a champion athlete who is powerful and supple like a leopard!”

It was Basu who first introduced Virat to a high-level fitness regimen in 2013. “I realised that if I wanted to compete with the best in the world, then I just had to be a top-class athlete. Today, maybe I could take on a Novak Djokovic in the gym!” smiles Virat. It couldn’t have been easy. His coach Rajkumar Sharma tells me how a young Virat relished his kebabs, biryani and kheer. Early photos of Virat show a boy with a pudgy face, staring at the camera.

“Well, I am a good Punjabi boy who used to love butter chicken and food in general, so the early days of a controlled diet weren’t easy,” admits Virat. Now, the diet is a life choice, as are the hours spent in a gym running and lifting weights. The great Kapil Dev, arguably the fittest cricketer of his generation, consciously avoided weight-lifting, convinced that it would make his body stiff. Under Basu’s tuletage, Virat has a well-regulated lifting programme, especially before a T-20 game, one that he says helps give the body the ‘explosive’ energy required in the short format. By sharing his fitness videos on Instagram, Virat is hoping to inspire the next generation of cricketers to follow his path. Most of them already are: every Indian international cricketer today has fitness hard-wired into his DNA.

Virat’s Rule #2: Never back off, never step back

Unlike his idol Sachin Tendulkar, Virat hasn’t had an easy ride to the top. Tendulkar, the ultimate teenage cricketing prodigy, made his debut in the sport like a sparkling Ferrari with scarcely an imperfection, almost as if he was born to play the game. Virat, by contrast, initially struggled to find his balance on and off the field. In the early IPL years, as stardom was thrust on him at a young age, Virat admits to have been carried away with the sudden adulation. Reports of late night parties and binge drinking led him to acquire a ‘bad boy’ image and even to be dropped from the Indian team for almost a year.

“Some of the stories were exaggerated but, yes, I did make mistakes,” he confesses. I like the candour with which he is willing to confront the demons of the past: this isn’t your typical celebrity living in denial.

Tendulkar was Mr India through his career, someone who probably has contributed more to the Gross National Happiness index than any other Indian of his generation. We celebrated his every century with the rousing echo of  a ‘Sachin, Sachin’. Virat doesn’t quite unleash those extreme emotions even while he leaves us awestruck with the brilliance of his stroke play. Maybe, that’s because Virat hasn’t always tried to play the nice guy on the field. He has had televised spats with colleagues, fallen out with the team coach, dared opposition captains and umpires. Does the aggression come naturally to him?

“I guess it does, right from school matches, I always wanted to play hard and be a winner,” Virat claims.

Maybe the transition from Sachin to Virat mirrors how India and Indian cricket have changed over the years. Sachin grew up in what I like to call ‘the pre-tattoo age’ when cricketers were still deferential to authority, when an exhibitionist lifestyle was frowned upon, when you didn’t angrily vent over 140 characters on Twitter. Virat is a product of a more noisy, rumbustious era, of an impatient start-up culture that is constantly on the lookout for new opportunities of  an India where a youthful demographic isn’t seeking  brownie points for just being ‘nice’ but wants to win at all costs.

“When the Australians try and intimidate us, no one targets them. When we now give it back, no one seems to like it,” is Virat’s firm defence.

The aggression is almost a part of Virat’s armory, his shield against critics and rivals. If there is a moment which exemplifies Virat’s fearless attitude to the sport, it came in the Adelaide test in 2014 when the Australian fast bowler Mitchell Johnson hit him flush on the helmet with a bouncer off the very first ball. Just days earlier, Australian batsman Phil Hughes had died after being hit on the head. Virat could have been excused for feeling a little daunted by the challenge. Instead, in his first test as India captain, he got up, dusted his shirt, adjusted his helmet, focused his eyes with a steely gaze and smacked the next short ball for four. “Virat will always fight fire with fire, there is no second guessing or half measures with him,” says an admiring coach Ravi Shastri.

“Look, it’s not just me, I don’t want anyone in my team to ever back off. Back off from whom and for what?” argues Virat defiantly.

As I am leaving the house, I see a portrait on the wall of Prem Kohli, Virat’s doting father who took him on a scooter to play cricket as a nine-year-old for the first time at the West Delhi Cricket Academy. That his father passed away at night while Virat was an 18-year-old playing only his fourth first class match is part of his early life tribulations. That he still went ahead and batted superbly at the Feroze Shah Kotla ground the next morning even as the cremation was kept on hold is a story of sheer courage in adversity that defines a man’s character.

Virat’s on-field belligerence, you sense, was shaped in the tragedy that befell his family that chilly December night. It’s almost as if he took a vow that day never to step back, to always be on the top of his game, to take his passion for the sport to another level where his father’s spirit would stay with him forever.

“I miss him but I know he is always there for me, wishing me well, egging me on to do better,” he says, wistfully.

Virat’s Rule #3: Conquer the world, then forget it

Who is the real Virat Kohli? Is he the champion batsman and tough captain set to break almost every record in the sport with a single-minded obsession, or a spoilt  superstar in love with himself? Is he the gentle soul who has adopted stray dogs, is environment-conscious, and has now started his own charity foundation, or is he simply a highly marketable brand being driven by cricket’s relentless commercial treadmill? Is he the emancipated new age man who stood firmly by his girlfriend, actor Anushka Sharma, when she was viciously trolled on social media, or a brash macho hero who loves to pick a fight on the field? 

“Look, I don’t go out much to parties or page 3 events. When I am not playing cricket, I hang around with a few friends, we play video games and do our own thing,” he says. He is well on the way to becoming the richest sportsperson the country has seen, but the material acquisitions – cars, houses, restaurants and gyms – aren’t his motivation.

“I want to be attached, yet detached from all I do, like a monk in a civil world.”

“The money comes when you are successful, I don’t think about it too much. I just want to be in a space where ten years from now I will be seen as having helped take Indian cricket forward, where every player in this team will leave a strong legacy behind,” he insists.

I’d like to believe him because, like all great sportspersons, there is a raging ‘junoon’ in his soul that seeks to conquer the world. He may never be as adored as a Tendulkar but the truth is, Virat is a fiercely ambitious and remarkably successful young man who is still discovering his full potential, on and off the field, someone who is redefining the sport in the 21st century by excelling in all its formats.

One of his lines has stayed with me: “I want to be attached, yet detached from all I do, like a monk in a civil world.” Virat Kohli may seem an unlikely cricketing monk but then he is also the original Punjab da Puttar who gave up chhole for a protein shake!

A news anchor and senior journalist, Sardesai is also the author of ‘Democracy’s XI:  The Great Indian Cricket Story’, published by Juggernaut Books and released last week

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