A long chat (or two) with India's Test captain and the world's hottest cricket star
"I can only give you 30 minutes." Crisp and clear. That was Virat Kohli's response when the Cricket Monthly requested an in-depth interview in England last September. For a journalist, the prospect was both thrilling and terrifying.
Kohli was the captain in waiting. He was India's most improved player across formats. He was breaking one-day batting records at a phenomenal rate. Kohli, not Tendulkar, not Dhoni, was India's most wanted, most popular, most sought-after brand. Not just cricket fans, all of India was interested in his life now that he was dating a Bollywood actress. Yet for all his brash confidence it was hard to get a sense of Virat the man. No one had succeeded in getting past his swagger.
Two days before the Indian squad departed England, Kohli pulled out of the interview, sending an email to say he had to attend last-minute team activities. It was disappointing, and the feeling persisted over weeks and months as Kohli put the wretched England tour behind him and emerged to dominate the series in Australia. Though Steven Smith's Australia won the Test series, Kohli's India finished a proud second. Yes, Kohli's India. It was not Dhoni's India any more, not in Tests. Self-belief and aggression defined Kohli's team and his captaincy. But that was a public role. The private man remained a mystery.
Months later, in Kolkata, during the first week of the IPL, Kohli agreed to an interview once more. It was followed by a worrying silence. Then a week later in Bangalore, walking into a training session at the Chinnaswamy Stadium, he said: "Noon, at the team hotel." We were on.
Kohli came to the hotel lobby straight from breakfast, wearing grey beach shorts, a blue singlet and flip-flops. "Let's do it," he said. The first question was about his driving - a car. He broke into a big smile.
For the next hour he was focused but also open and at ease. He did not duck. He did not flinch. He did not look at his phone. He took questions both cricketing and personal. At the end of an hour, many questions still remained. Tomorrow, same time, he said.
He was there. Once again in the driver's seat, taking us through his journey as cricketer, man and leader.
Ramji Srinivasan, the former Indian team strength and conditioning coach, has a story about you. A few years ago in Delhi he was in a car you were driving. He was accustomed to sitting alongside Narain Karthikeyan, the Indian racer. But he says he aged a little that day, having experienced an F1-like ride with you. What impressed him was your control.
I love driving. I love speed. I love cars. I remember the incident. We were heading to watch a preview show featuring the tribute documentary to Michael Jackson, This Is It. MS [Dhoni] and [Suresh] Raina were in another car. It was late at night and we were playing against Australia in Delhi. We started racing and we wanted to see who gets [to the cinema] first. It was a crazy experience and something I like to do every now and then. But I don't really get the time during the busy hours in traffic, so I like to drive late at night to satisfy my craving or need for speed.
Do you have the seat belt on?
Absolutely, I always have the seat belt on. I never drive the car without the air bags. There are some things I always keep in check: I wear contacts, so I make sure I am wearing my glasses when I drive. All these small things really matter, especially in our country where it is very important to be safe when you are driving because someone or something can come out of nowhere and then it can get really messy. That is why I choose to drive when the roads are absolutely empty and then I can relax.
"Maybe I had a few toys in the house and I decided to pick up the cricket bat. My family tells me that when I was about three I would pick up the bat and start swinging it and force my father to bowl at me"
You bring that same assuredness to your approach to your game too. How did you develop this?
I don't really know how and when it started. I started believing more in my ability after the first proper year in international cricket. I would say from 2009 onwards. Before that I did not have so much belief in my game - about being able to cover up later in the innings. But now I have started to realise that I have the ability to catch up with the required rate later on. And that is what gives me the best chance of going out there and doing the same thing again and again, because I back my game. I do not really drift away from it too much because of the format or because of the match situation. I like to play in a certain way that suits every format and possibly every situation, so I have built my confidence and faith on that sort of realisation of my game.
When did you think that you had the belief to play at the highest level?
I really started believing that I belong after my first hundred, against Sri Lanka in 2009 in Kolkata. My ODI career started getting on track and going in the direction that I wanted thereon. It is a lovely and natural process: at international level I played ODI cricket for three years before I was picked for Test matches [in 2011]. For those years I was pretty happy doing what I was doing because I did not have to face the pressure of Test cricket. And I was able to focus on my one-day career and try to build it in the best way possible - had time to reflect on what I had done right or wrong. So I was feeling stable.
Then I came into Test cricket. That is when the real challenge starts. Failures are failures, be it Test matches, ODIs or T20s. Earlier I had only had to cope with a few bad times in ODI cricket, but now I had to maintain the balance across all formats and make sure I took my game to a level where I could maintain consistency across all three formats.
As a cricketer you always see your idols, icons, legends of cricket - they do well in ODI cricket and in Test cricket. That is what you want as a cricketer: you want to be playing regularly for India in all formats. So I wanted to be successful in Test cricket. That took a bit of time. It took a bit of working. But it is a lovely experience of how things start, they become stable, and when a new thing comes along, they become unstable again, then you get back on track again. That teaches you a lot about what works best for you.
Big crowd, lots of noise? No problem: "I can see everyone, I am out there in the open, but still I am not drifting, not getting carried away. That makes you think that, yes, you belong"
Big crowd, lots of noise? No problem: "I can see everyone, I am out there in the open, but still I am not drifting, not getting carried away. That makes you think that, yes, you belong" © AFP
You are very animated when you talk cricket. What were the early influences that drew you to serious cricket?
Maybe I had a few toys in the house and I decided to pick up the cricket bat. My family tells me that when I was about three years old I would pick up the bat and start swinging it and force my father to bowl at me. You don't remember everything because those memories are too far away now. It is just instinct. I like this thing and I am going to play with it. You are supposed to play with it when the ball is thrown at you. So throw the ball at me.
You are a committed student of the game, aren't you?
Yes, I'm a student of the game. I would not say I follow all the scores of matches going on around the world, but if you talk cricket with me I can keep going on. I can keep talking about it the whole day. Just the mindset, understanding the game, understanding angles, playing in different situations - I love talking all that. Not so much about the performances and scores, but cricket in general. It excites me. I like to learn from and discuss with a lot of people because eventually it will open your mind to new things you can absorb. I love listening and saying things that would help each other. It can even be with a friend who wants to understand how the game works. People close to me are curious to know how I think as a cricketer when I am out there batting in front of 50,000 people. What goes on in my head - that is pretty fascinating for them. Because they can see something on the television or from the stands, but they would never know what exactly is going through my mind.
How do you kill the noise?
If you speak to any cricketer, I don't think anyone would say we listen to the noise of the crowd. It is amazing and I cannot understand how despite playing in front of 50-60,000 fans in the ground I am not bothered at all. I can see everyone, I am out there in the open, but still I am not drifting, I am not getting carried away. That makes you think that, yes, you belong. You are meant to do this. You have the ability and the skill to actually perform in these conditions because you are able to focus on that one delivery despite so many obstacles.
"I looked at myself in the mirror after the IPL and - this is an honest assessment - I told myself: 'You cannot look like that if you are an international cricketer. You need to do something'"
You have this tremendous work ethic according to your coaches. Is it something that you have consciously worked on in the last few years?
I have, actually. I would not say I was always a maniac in working hard. You go through phases in life where you make decisions on whether you want to be mediocre, whether you want to be just performing every now and then, whether you want to be an average cricketer. Or if you strive to be, if you wish to be among the best players in the world, if you want to be consistently getting runs, if you want to take your career to different heights. Then obviously these people must be doing what a lot of people do not do. That dawned on me after 2011.
Till 2011 I did not really have strong work ethics. I would work hard at practice, I would do fielding drills, I would do batting drills, but the [physical] training part, the eating part, the self-discipline part, all that was not included. All these things are part of work ethics for me. I am a freak for keeping things clean. Keeping my room stacked up nicely and stuff like that is part of my daily routine now. So I had to figure out what can take me to that next level. What can give me more stability in my mind so that I do not focus on stuff like opinions, advice, suggestions.
That struck me in 2012 going into the IPL. I was high on confidence based on my success in the Australia Test series and the Asia Cup. I had very high hopes for the IPL since I was hitting the ball really well and I wanted to bat really aggressively, but that did not happen. So that really messed me up mentally. My eating habits, my training habits, they became very bad. I looked at myself in the mirror after the IPL and - this is an honest assessment - I told myself: "You cannot look like that if you are an international cricketer. You need to do something."
So it was not the belief, but the smaller things that were amiss...
Belief was always there. I am glad that I actually made a conscious decision myself because people can keep telling you, you might be getting a little slow, you might be getting a little fat. But you will never work on those things unless you want to yourself really badly.
Also, my decision to change things was based on the fact that I was wondering at the time: why are other teams doing really well in international cricket and why are we not being able to get there? That is because they were getting fitter than us, they were training better, they were eating better, and they could concentrate for longer periods. They were following a set routine and discipline which would help their game and would give them confidence mentally.
So I made a conscious effort that I am going to eat right. I am going to train right. I lost about 11kg in about eight months post the IPL that year.
The power of visualisation: Kohli celebrates the hundred in Johannesburg in 2013
The power of visualisation: Kohli celebrates the hundred in Johannesburg in 2013 © AFP
How much did you weigh originally?
I weighed around 84 and then I came down to 73kg. You know, that just gave me so much confidence - I was feeling a second or two quicker, I was able to react to the ball quicker and my game absolutely changed from there on. I had the belief. The machine was getting built, but these small nuts and bolts were missing. It was a totally amazing experience when I was doing my routine.
The unique thing about you, your team-mates say, is your belief in your ability. One guy said that is why he never saw you sulk on the 2014 tour of England when you were failing in the Test series, and that is what helps you to get through tough situations.
It is a fair assessment. Not many people understand the kind of things I have seen in life at a very young age. Maybe that is why I believe in myself a lot. I think if I did not have belief, I would not be able to build my career all these years. Playing cricket for India is a one-in-a-million chance. There might be people more talented, more skilful than me. Maybe I am blessed. Maybe I have that extra bit of luck. You still need that extra bit to elevate yourself from the pack and do what you really want to do and eventually play for India. When that happened, when I carved a way for myself to play for India, that is when I started believing in myself a lot more. Bad times will come but it makes you want to look forward to the good times that lie ahead, as well as appreciate the good times that you have had in your life and career. Respect the bad times when they come and not be broken by it.
In a way you are saying what Sachin Tendulkar has always maintained: that getting to know yourself is the key.
He is a mentor to me. I love speaking to him about the game. Picking his mind is priceless. He never says "don't" because the things that work for him might not work for me. That is because we are two different characters and personalities. He will never tell you dos and don'ts. It is only when you ask him questions, ask his opinions, he will say what he used to do. He will never tell you: this is right for you, this is wrong for you. That is the beautiful thing about speaking to him, because he understands that people want to know what he used to think. He has been a phenomenon. If you want to learn anything about composure in pressure situations and how life changes, there is none better than him.
"One thing Tendulkar told me was, 'You should always do what works for you.' He told me that throughout the 2003 World Cup he did not bat in the nets"
What is your favourite interaction with Tendulkar?
I like people who might not praise you to your face, but when people speak to them about you they have all the appreciation and adulation for you in the world. That is one of the lovely things about Tendulkar. He would just say, "Well played." That is because he does not want people to get complacent or overconfident. He wants them to continue working hard.
Last year after returning from the England tour I was working on my batting in the Bandra-Kurla Complex in Mumbai and I requested him to come along because I wanted to speak to him about batting in general and pick his mind on how he dealt with difficult times. That was more important to me than going into the technical part. It was about how he used to cope with such times. When life is changing, when people want to talk to you or want to meet you more, how did he handle it?
One thing he told me was, "You should always do what works for you." Before the game if you do not feel like batting in the nets, don't bat in the nets. You should never do it just because other people are batting for half an hour in the nets. He said he always did what he felt comfortable doing. He told me that throughout the 2003 World Cup he did not bat in the nets. He always faced throwdowns, middled the ball perfectly and felt good about it. The way he played in that World Cup was amazing. That is one of the things I have learned from him: always follow your gut feel. That is about understanding your game, your self.
It is amazing, right, that it is the simple things that matter even for the most successful athletes?
A lot of things that happen in cricket or sport are the simplest of things. For example, if I say before the game, "I listened to that particular Punjabi song and that got me in the right kind of mindset", some might say I am mad. But that is the truth. It might be anything, it just changes your whole feeling, your mindset and suddenly you are happy and you say, "It is my day today." These small things, a lot of people do not understand, are the things that matter the most. That is what needs to be protected. Not the bigger picture. Not the outside world. Not the eventual results. These small little things are what make you feel the best.
"As a subcontinent player, as an Indian player, the general feeling has been that we are not supposed to talk like this. I do not connect to that"
© Getty Images
"As a subcontinent player, as an Indian player, the general feeling has been that we are not supposed to talk like this. I do not connect to that" © Getty Images
You succeeded in Australia in the last series. How important was that personally?
After the England tour I was really disappointed with myself more than anything. I put too much pressure on myself. I made it seem like it was way more important than I should have. Not the failure but the series in general. I made it seem like a big mountain in front of me and once I was not able to scale it I was really disappointed. I should not have put so much pressure on myself. I should have enjoyed my cricket. When I was not able to get the results I wanted, things kept growing and I was not in the right kind of mindset. It was not a nice feeling.
But I appreciate that bad time. I just need to go through this phase. I need to appreciate it because this will make me a better human being. This will make me mentally stronger. This will help me eventually in every way possible in life because when the good times come I will appreciate things more, having seen a time where you feel like you are not able to do anything.
After that, going to Australia was very, very important for me. I remember about two months before that tour I started building the kind of mindset I wanted to have in Australia: it was all-out aggressive. I knew that I wanted to go out there and take on these bowlers because there is no way if I keep on struggling for runs I would be doing justice to what I wanted to do. Eventually I had visualised it so positively, so strongly, when I went out there my body just followed what my mind had stored two months back.
That was one of the most amazing times for us as a whole unit as well, because after what happened in England, as a team it was very important for us to go out and play the kind of cricket we played in Australia. It does not matter, you can keep scoring a lot of runs, but unless the whole squad or the whole team does well the joy is not complete. I was delighted with the way the whole team played in the Australian Test series.
"I remember about two months before the tour, I started building the kind of mindset I wanted to have in Australia: it was all-out aggressive"
You have singled out visualisation as one of the key aspects during the build-up. Can you expand?
It was all instinct before that. I would go out there, start playing. I would figure, "Okay, fine, I am hitting the ball today so I can go for the shots." But what I found out was, I was not able to play all kinds of shots against the quick bowlers of the world that I wanted to. There would be something that the other good batsmen must be doing since they had so much time to play, say, the pull shot. Everyone knows how to pull the ball but not everyone is able to do it.
I remember speaking to Sachin paaji and he was telling me about the century he hit in Cape Town in 2011. He referred specifically to a shot he hit off Morne Morkel. He said that he had visualised that shot two days back in his mind, that this will happen. And when it came, his mind was so strongly thinking positive, his body just followed automatically. These sort of things people do not understand.
I have seen and experienced the same myself. I always wanted to take on the best bowler in the opposition, because as a batsman I knew that these guys would come after me and there is no better way of defence than to counterattack. For the South Africa series in 2013 I would be positive against Dale [Steyn], and I will be positive against [Mitchell] Johnson in Australia no matter what. If I start pulling these guys then I am winning these battles and staying on top.
In the Johannesburg Test, Dale was bowling a few bouncers when I was in my 30s. He kept urging me to pull. Then I saw that one ball for which I had visualised a proper pull shot, playing it down, and I beat deep square leg four feet to his left. I hit it that hard. That clean. So I felt: this is exactly what I had imagined and this is exactly what happened.
"If I start pulling these guys then I am winning the battles": Kohli told himself he would be positive against the Steyns and Johnsons, no matter what
© Associated Press
"If I start pulling these guys then I am winning the battles": Kohli told himself he would be positive against the Steyns and Johnsons, no matter what © Associated Press
You were successful against Steyn and Morkel, and Johnson and Co, but not against James Anderson. What was different against Anderson?
It was more of me not having a counter-plan for whatever he or the England team was planning for me. It was more a matter of that than me thinking he was one particular bowler I was not comfortable facing. Obviously he is a world-class bowler. He swings the ball both ways and has troubled a lot of batsmen in the past. I feel I should have had a different plan. I kept standing in the same position. I kept getting out the same way.
That is why when I went to Australia I decided to bat outside my crease. I decided to stand on middle stump and shuffle on to off stump because I am cutting any sort of advantage to the bowler if he pitches in the good-length area. I was able to drive balls on the up because I was already in the position to do so. So I thought I did not do anything about the way I was getting out in England, and that was what was disappointing for me.
Is there a possibility that a player can get stubborn in his approach during such a phase?
In international sport there are a lot of chances of you having a mental shutdown totally. It was more a case of that rather than me being stubborn. It is a case where you are not able to think of a plan B. Even if someone gives you a suggestion you are not able to connect to that suggestion. That is a complete mental shutdown.
That is also something I have learned from a lot of senior players: do not fight the feeling. Appreciate it, accept it. Don't fight the feeling of being confused. Don't fight the feeling of being unable to figure out a plan because that keeps growing and eventually you will suffer much more. In a five-match series if you get off to a good start then you are on a roll, but if you are failing then things stack up.
"It is not as if I have said something in a press conference and then I will go out to bat thinking, 'Oh, I have said something, now what if I don't do well?'"
Watching you and reading about you, it seemed like you went into that Australia series like you were building up to a boxing match: the shop talk started from the weigh-in and carried on till the end of the series. Why was this necessary?
I knew it was going to be difficult. I knew there would be a lot of mental games fought, a lot of words, a lot of talk. As a subcontinent player, as an Indian player, the general feeling has been that we are not supposed to talk like this. I do not connect to that, because if an opposition is doing it and they are still performing, there has to be a disconnect between talking and doing. It is not as if I have said something in a press conference and then I will go out to bat thinking, "Oh, I have said something, now what if I don't do well?" Eventually I have a bat in hand and the guy is running in with a ball in hand. He is not running in to smash that statement in my face. So if a team is willing to play the mental battle, you should be good enough to tackle that. And eventually it is a battle of skills when you go in the field. I don't mix the two. Off the field I am countering what is being said. Why should we succumb to the mental pressure or mental games the opposition plays with us?
At the press conference in Mumbai before departing for Australia, as stand-in captain for the first Test, you had said that India will play aggressive cricket. Why was it important to make that statement?
There is nothing wrong in saying we would play aggressive cricket. I never said we are going to target this guy or going to be hostile to them. It was important to make that statement because what it does is give the feeling in the group that we want to do what we want to do and the management and the captain will back us in any situation or scenario. It was very important for us to make it clear we were going there with a mindset of winning the series. I did not want to say in the media that we will go and see what happens. If you are good enough and have the skills, you are out there in a competition to win or lose. Draw is the last resort. I don't mind risking a loss to win a game. I wanted us to play aggressive cricket.
When was the first time you addressed the team as Test captain?
It was in the manager's room at the team hotel before we flew to Australia. I told the guys that we are not going there for personal achievements. I told the guys if anyone sitting in the room is thinking I am going to Australia to get two hundreds, I am going to Australia to get three five-wicket hauls, he can be open about it now and he needs to change the mindset. We are going to Australia to win the series. Even the smallest contribution that helps us win a Test match, for me that guy is the Man of the Match. That is the sort of feeling we wanted to spread across the team, where the team feels united, feels together. We played in that way. That was pretty evident with the way we played the whole series. We were aggressive together. That was the most pleasing thing for me because guys never backed out from the challenge. Eventually you enjoy playing like that. People love watching cricket like that. The opposition enjoys playing like that. What happens is, you gain a lot of mutual respect. You gain a lot of respect worldwide in the cricket community and you know that these guys mean business. And once they gain more experience they will be a force to reckon with.
Dhoni "believes in the youngsters, believes in giving them opportunities. He has played a massive role in grooming all of us initially in our careers"
Dhoni "believes in the youngsters, believes in giving them opportunities. He has played a massive role in grooming all of us initially in our careers" © AFP
How ready were you to take over the captaincy mentally?
Oh, yeah, I was absolutely excited. I was told by the selectors that MS is struggling with a thumb injury and you will be leading in the first Test. I admit I was taken by surprise, so it took a while for the message to sink in. Then I started figuring out combinations, guys who would be the best in Australia and who should play in what position and who should be the bowlers and such. I was pretty excited because it was a young squad and to lead the guys was an exciting feeling for me.
Is it true that you broke down when Dhoni retired from Test cricket after the third Test?
We were all taken by surprise. My first feeling was: We played under him all this time. He has groomed all the young guys in the team. He has given them opportunities. And now he is not going to be the Test captain. Honestly, I was not able to think that I am going to be the Test captain now, at that very moment. After things calmed down a bit, after about an hour and a half, I went to my room. Anushka [Sharma], who had come to watch that series, was there and I told her about the news. Her feelings were also mixed as to how did this happen so suddenly. Why did he do this?
After a while for both of us it sunk in that I am going to be Test captain of India, not just for one or two games but permanently. And that is when I broke down, because I never expected this to happen. Honestly, if you told me when I started playing cricket that at 26 I will be Test captain of India... no chance. My only dream was to play Test cricket for India. It is amazing how all those feelings as a young kid, playing club cricket, playing school cricket, playing state cricket, all those memories start flashing in your head. How many games you played. How you came up through the ranks. How you came up at different levels in cricket in India. And this day and this moment is in front of you. It was surreal. It was a special sort of emotional feeling that I experienced.
"I can be myself around Anushka. These are things that people do not understand. What you do away from the field matters more than what you do during the game"
How much do you and Anushka talk cricket?
Well [laughs]… She likes to understand. She likes to learn. She wants to understand my psyche, what I was thinking at the moment. So if she likes a particular moment in the game she will ask what I was thinking at that point, because for us it looked like this, but for you what was it like? She has not followed cricket before she met me, but now she is very interested in knowing and learning about the game. We do talk a little bit, but the best part is, she does not force me to talk about cricket.
Which is good for you, right?
Which is amazing. I can be myself around her. Again, these are things that people do not understand, do not look into. What you do away from the cricket field matters more than what you do during the game. During the game you are absolutely focused on the game. You are just following or reacting to a ball, playing your shots, building a partnership, playing to a situation. But off the field you could be thinking too much about the game, you could be thinking about one particular bowler, you could be thinking about victory or loss. You need to switch off. You need to get away from it. And that is the best way to do it - when you have someone who can give you that emotional support.
Do you talk about Bollywood movies, her career?
I have started to understand and speak to her about her profession, her work. How difficult it is to get a whole movie together. It looks like an amazing piece of entertainment for two and a half to three hours in the end, but to make a film it takes ages. And that is the most amazing thing I found about her profession - how they work so hard and it gets done in two and a half hours when the viewer sees it. That is why they are so passionate about their work. It is like Usain Bolt training for four years for nine seconds of Olympics glory. Can you imagine the kind of happiness and emotions he gets winning that Olympic race which lasts 9.5 seconds, having worked for four years? As an outsider I would never understand how much effort goes into it, what kind of thinking professional people, actors, athletes, have. It is fascinating to actually get to know the person and his/her psyche and what actually goes through their head. It is very similar to a person not knowing someone in person and having an opinion on them or making a judgement on their character. But when you get to know the person it flips 360 degrees.
On people saying Anushka Sharma was responsible for India's World Cup semi-final loss: "It is how a certain set of people think in our country, and blame the woman for everything that goes wrong. That is the sad reality of our country"
© Associated Press
On people saying Anushka Sharma was responsible for India's World Cup semi-final loss: "It is how a certain set of people think in our country, and blame the woman for everything that goes wrong. That is the sad reality of our country" © Associated Press
It must be difficult for both of you living your lives without much privacy. Before the IPL you bared your feelings on the criticism you and Anushka received during the World Cup on social media. What prompted you to go public?
I do not want to force anyone to respect our lives or force anyone to behave in a certain way. That is not in our control. If you talk about a sporting culture, the support should be consistent. If you expect players to be consistent the support should be consistent as well. These kinds of incidents make you lose faith in most people, which might be a good thing as well, because you keep filtering people who matter to you in your life. You become mentally stronger. You have even more faith in yourself, in your relationships.
But why did you make that statement?
I made that statement because it is very important for people to understand how we feel. You spoke about a psyche of a cricketer when he is playing out there in the middle. No one knows what is happening. That cannot keep going on every phase of life. If someone asks me a question on my psyche when I am playing out in the middle I am happy to answer that. But that is a question, not an allegation, not someone accusing me of something. If people choose to behave in a manner where you are burning effigies, it is very important for people to understand that we have families, our families feel bad. We have people who are emotionally attached to us. We are not all alone in the world. We are human beings with emotions, feelings. I wanted to put out there how I feel.
The choice was for you to keep quiet or say it as it is...
Exactly. I choose to put it out there in the open because it is very important for a lot of people to understand. It might not necessarily be only in our case, where she [Anushka] was accused of everything. It was just sad to see that happening, the way people reacted. It is in every walk of life. It is how a certain set of people think in our country, and are ready and willing to blame the woman for everything that goes wrong. That is the sad reality of our country - some people do not want daughters to be born. In some states there is such a disparity between men and women. And that is why all these issues of women's empowerment are rising. It is very important for people to know that this is not the right behaviour. But when these things happen, they sadden you from inside.
"I love the whole situation that comes with chasing. I like the challenge of testing myself, figuring out how to rotate strike, when to hit a boundary"
When chasing, you have 13 centuries already (from 56 innings) in ODIs India has won, just one behind Tendulkar, who had 14 in 124. That is phenomenal. Can you expand on your thought process in those circumstances?
It is a difficult thing to explain. Sometimes I have gone out and been positive from ball one, and sometimes I have taken a bit more time to get into the game. It is all about me setting myself up to begin with. Visualisation, as I had pointed out earlier, is a strong element, where I want to be there at the end of the game. It is always better if you know what you have to achieve. Not that I don't like playing in the first innings, but this just gives me a different sort of a challenge. When you have a goal to achieve is when your concentration is at your best. Same goes with my mindset in training. If you ask me if I like running laps in the ground, I don't. But if you put a football in front of me in warm-ups I can keep running for an hour and a half because I have a motive in front of me: of scoring a goal. That kind of mindset connects with chasing a total down because I have a goal in front of me - be it small or big. I love the whole situation that comes with chasing. I like the challenge of testing myself, figuring out how to rotate strike, when to hit a boundary. Eventually those are the sort of situations you play cricket for, when it tests you to the limit and you come out victorious or you end up playing a good knock and your team wins chasing a big total.
Is it about breaking up the target?
It is, definitely. It is about figuring out which bowler to attack when. For example, when a part-timer comes on it is very important not to let him settle down. Those are important moments in the game. That is where your awareness comes in, where you don't get carried away by pressure or the situation and forget what to do at that point of time. Chasing totals and achieving success makes you attain a lot more composure in your cricket, because you have to take important decisions in pressure situations and those have to be the right ones.
Can you pick a match and expand on that?
Take the ODI in Hobart in 2012. We took it as two T20 games. I always believe T20 or ODI cricket, you have to let yourself settle down and give yourself the best chance to start hitting later on. That was the most important aspect of that innings as well.
I started run a ball to begin with. Just because we had to score 321 did not mean we had to score 10 or 11 runs an over. Actually the asking rate never went beyond nine [seven]. By the time I walked in we were 87 for 1 [86 for 2] after a good start provided by Viru bhai and Sachin paaji. Gauti [Gambhir] was playing well when I joined him. Once I had settled in, it was calculated risk. Not that I was swinging from my bootlaces and slogging all over the place. It was proper cricketing shots.
The classicist: Test match or T20, "proper cricketing shots", especially the cover drive, are the way to go for Kohli
© Getty Images & Hindustan Times
The classicist: Test match or T20, "proper cricketing shots", especially the cover drive, are the way to go for Kohli © Getty Images & Hindustan Times
You don't really change your strokeplay across formats. In fact, Dhoni said after the World T20 final in 2014 that you can adjust to different conditions easily because you play the same way everywhere. Is it a conscious move to stick to your strengths and not try to be innovative?
I want to be consistent across all three formats. I back myself enough to play proper cricketing shots and still get a strike rate of 130-140 in T20 cricket, which is achievable. Sometimes holding your shape and playing a good cricketing shot is much better than a slog where the bat slices in your hand. Even if it goes for a six, you know that that was not convincing at all and you are not hitting the ball properly. Instead, if you hit a proper cover drive or hit a proper six over covers, that gives me the most pleasure. Then you know that, come the last seven, eight or ten balls of the innings you can really slog, but till then I really do not find the need to slog and upset the way I play. I would do that if I am not able to get runs or if I am not able to get off strike. But till the time I am rotating strike and getting runs easily I never change my game.
The core of my batting remains the same in the three formats. You just have to change your patience mode: in a Test match you need a bit more patience, you need to be a bit more sensible in your selection of shots. In one-day cricket you can still get away with a few. In T20 cricket you obviously have to take more risks, but those risks I would rather take with the full face of the bat than giving the bowler an unnecessary advantage by slogging it across. I like to play till the end of the innings so that it gives the team the best chance to succeed. I like the responsibility. So maybe because of that I play percentage cricket.
"In international sport there are a lot of chances of you having a mental shutdown totally. Even if someone gives you a suggestion you are not able to connect to it"
Has T20 cricket had an effect on your batting?
It might have. If you see Rohit [Sharma], it is crazy. I have never seen a guy after he gets set be so dangerous. You take the best finishers in the game - [Kieron] Pollard, [James] Faulkner, [Eoin] Morgan - but when Rohit gets set it is almost impossible to stop him. I mean, it is ridiculous the kind of hitting he does after getting 50. You know if Rohit Sharma is on 50 with four overs to go, you are in troubled waters. Literally, save yourself. I'm not joking. Dot balls are absolutely impossible. And he has scored two double-hundreds in ODIs opening the innings. Could you have imagined all these things without gaining confidence from T20 cricket, where guys keep hitting so consistently that they build confidence to do it throughout 50 overs? Can you imagine, from 20 overs they are adding 30 more overs of the same kind of play? It is all about the mental set-up and confidence that guys are gaining from playing T20 cricket against the best bowlers. When you, as a young kid playing for India and growing up in his career, are hitting Dale Steyn, Morne Mokel, Mitchell Johnson or Mitchell Starc in the IPL, it gives you a massive boost.
I have got the same confidence from T20 cricket. Take that century off 52 balls against Australia in Jaipur, where we were chasing a huge target. I was so committed to playing positively, I did not have a second thought in my mind. No negatives. No doubts. And proper cricketing shots with conviction.
What is your favourite shot?
My favourite shot has to be the cover drive. There is no better feeling, especially against the quick bowlers, when you drive them with the full stride, on the rise, with a high elbow - that is just the most pleasing thing for a batsman. Obviously the flick shot comes naturally to me and it also gives me a good feeling, but I love playing the cover drive.
Did you pick up the cover drive from someone?
It is funny how your game evolves with time. Early on in my international career I did not have that much of a stride, but when I played this time in Australia I did not know myself that I could reach out so much to the ball against bowlers who were bowling close to 150kph and drive them on the rise. I used to see Ricky Ponting, Sachin Tendulkar, Jacques Kallis, Rahul Dravid and wonder how is it these guys have a massive stride against such good bowlers. Now I have figured out that it is all about confidence. It is all about how you are feeling at that particular time. So I did not pick it off anyone. I just visualised myself again in those situations to actually play those shots.
Batting outside the crease in Australia: "Before the opposition can bowl to you in those areas, you already stand there and make them bowl towards you rather than you fishing for the ball"
© Cricket Australia/Getty Images
Batting outside the crease in Australia: "Before the opposition can bowl to you in those areas, you already stand there and make them bowl towards you rather than you fishing for the ball" © Cricket Australia/Getty Images
Did you grow up playing more informal or organised cricket, and where did your bottom-hand grip come from?
The reason I play a lot with my bottom hand is because I grew up playing on matting wickets. There used to be a lot of bouncers. There used to be a lot of balls to cut and pull, where you use your bottom hand. And that is why it is helping me now to play the short deliveries with a bit of confidence. I never felt the need to change it because my game is based on power, my game is based on having a good pace, trusting my hands. I never changed my grip because that was the most comfortable one for me. Along the years you learn to switch which hand becomes dominant according to the ball.
And now I have started using a tapered handle - it is an oval handle which sticks in between your thumb and the index finger. You get a good feel and good grip. It gives me a better chance to play straighter early on and use my left hand more, because the right hand cannot come across the handle. With the round handle I used to get across too much, but now with the tapered handle when I pick up the bat it gives me extra space for my bottom hand to be loose. If I want to go after the bowling in the end overs I still use the bottom hand if need be.
You mentioned batting out of the crease during the Test series in Australia. Was it a completely new thing you brought into your game?
As I said, I did not do anything when I was getting out in England. I knew the wickets would be bouncy in Australia, with a bit of pace as well. I knew that the Australian team is going to come and target me in that area. So I covered it beforehand. I don't mind pace. I don't mind bounce. I don't mind playing the pull shot. I like short bowling. I don't really worry about it. So that was the plan: before the opposition can bowl to you in those areas, you already stand there and make them bowl towards you rather than you fishing for the ball. That worked beautifully for me. I was able to get balls into the stumps. I could work them to the on side. I was able to hit boundaries on the rise because I was already in that area, in that position. I figured out 80% of bowlers bowl in that area 90% of the time, on that good-length, fourth-stump channel. So I said, "Why should I fish for the ball?" I would rather let them think, "We could hit him on the pad." I am strong in that area anyway. And that worked in my favour.
"We are taught to leave the ball outside off and play the correct way, and we end up scoring too slowly at times. Teams are moving on, scoring 150-plus runs in a session"
The first ball of that series, Mitchell Johnson hit you on the helmet. But thereafter you played your strokes fluently and with confidence, especially against the short deliveries.
I was pretty disappointed with myself that I got hit first ball of the series on the helmet [laughs]. It was because the dressing room was proper shade and outside it was very sunny and bright, and the wicket was shiny as well. I went in with an over or so to go for lunch. The first ball he banged in, I thought it was short. It was just in front of the halfway mark on the pitch. But the ball just did not bounce at all. It kept on sliding and came towards me and I just kept my head down. Luckily I did not sway away. And the ball got me bang on the badge on the helmet. I was stunned.
But I don't like that sort of comforting, where players are coming and asking me if I am okay or not. If I am not okay I would be lying on the ground. I am not going to show to someone that I am in pain. I don't like that sort of unnecessary pampering because you are going out there to bat alone eventually. You have to take a few hits.
I am glad I got hit on the helmet first ball. That literally opened my eyes and I was concentrating much better than probably I would have in that particular game. After that I decided that whenever he is going to bowl short, I am going to take him on. I am not going to back out.
How much does ego play a part in your thought process?
It is not ego. It is more of having the belief that you can do it. I knew for a fact if we take Johnson on collectively as a team it is going to be a massive boost for us as a unit, because he rattled the Englishmen when they went to Australia [in 2013-14]. He has really good backing in Australia, when he runs in to bowl the crowd really gets behind him. So all those things matter a lot for a cricketer, how you come across that line and how you overcome that challenge. Because I was leading in the first Test, if I decide to do that, it is going to be a boost for the team and the other guys can go out there and believe, "Yes, we can take him on, we should take him on." When we started doing that it was really a balanced series. We were able to get 400, 500 every match. One or two good sessions and those Test matches could have been a different story.
I figured out teams win Test matches because they dominate in certain sessions. We are taught to leave the ball outside off and play the correct way, and we end up scoring too slowly at times. Teams are moving on. Teams are playing aggressive cricket. Teams are dominating sessions. They give themselves more chances of bowling the opposition out because they are scoring 150-plus runs in a session. So I thought, why not go and play aggressively, and once it comes off that would set the tone for the series.
With Duncan Fletcher: "The small, little things he picks in your batting, your technique, it's amazing how he can point them out and they work for you in a massive way"
With Duncan Fletcher: "The small, little things he picks in your batting, your technique, it's amazing how he can point them out and they work for you in a massive way" © AFP
And that is what pretty much happened. You see the way Ajinkya [Rahane] went after Johnson in the Melbourne Test. He was literally just clearing his front leg and hitting like he does in the IPL for Rajasthan Royals. That was amazing. And I did not stop him at the time because I knew he was in a zone where, as a batsman, you feel you can hit every ball for a four or a six. And you should have no suggestions which might make you think otherwise. You should let the batsman be and dominate. That was a very calculated approach to his aggressive hitting. It was lovely to see him coming into his own in Test matches in Australia against their best bowler. I was really happy in that partnership, that we were able to do what we wanted to do against their best bowler. Those are a few things that can make a difference in a series or a Test match.
So all your players are on the same page?
Absolutely. We like playing the same brand of cricket. The thing that I want to do and I can do in Test matches is free them from any kind of doubt. Free them from any kind of insecurity. That is the biggest factor. Especially playing cricket in India, guys tend to get insecure because you know how many people are waiting for that slot. What I have experienced when I came into the team is that you tend to get insecure. Luckily at that time we had Paddy Upton, who was the mental conditioning coach, who used to talk to the youngsters a lot.
Unfortunately we do not have anyone like that in the team right now, so it is the responsibility of the management and myself now leading in Test matches that we free them from all those insecurities.
I really want to see all of us build our Test careers together. I really want to see we have the same sort of friendships, those bonds that the Australian teams have had in the past. On the field if you see them play, you feel like, "Damn, that's a unit, we really have to play our bloody best to beat these guys." I want that to happen to Indian cricket. In Test matches we want to be the team to beat. I know we have the capability. It is just the mindset, sometimes we tend to go into that zone where the thinking is not right, and that happens to everyone, including myself, a lot. We just need to stick together as a unit.
"Draw is the last resort. I believe in going for that victory even if it means that you have to literally struggle in the end to get a draw. But give yourself a chance at least"
Is this where Ravi Shastri played a role? He has been the cheerleader for this team in his time as the team director.
He is the one who suggested to me to stand in front of the crease and on off stump. I was not convinced to begin with. I was thinking in my head that it might expose my stumps. He said, "Just trust me, do it." I did not do it in England. But I went to Australia. I thought about it. I said, why not. I am playing international cricket. I can't be sitting in a comfort zone and let guys dominate me. It came off beautifully. I am thankful to him for sticking by me after England.
He is a guy who does not shy away from responsibility. He is someone who takes the blows on the chin. He keeps moving forward. There are no two ways about his thinking. There is no talk just for the sake of it. He is sensible and gives you a lot of confidence and a lot of assurance. That is what you need as young players: someone who has played for India for 10-11 years and has hundreds all over the world as an opener after starting as No. 11. You know the mindset the person has from the way he has played his cricket.
Would you be happy for him to continue in the present role?
We would love to have him on board even if he is doing the same job as right now. Just to have him around the group is a massive boost. It is all part of the discussion when we sit down. I would be involved since I am leading the Test side. It has to be a collective decision with the management, current coaches, selectors sitting together.
Could you talk about two coaches who played a key role in your development at the international level: Gary Kirsten and Duncan Fletcher?
Gary was instrumental in shaping my mindset for international cricket because he kept backing me all the way. I remember worrying about my front leg going too much across while flicking the ball from the stumps. I asked him if that was an issue. He said, "Your head is ahead of your feet and you never miss the ball, so why are you worried about it?" Even if he thought you had a weakness, he would make you believe that is your strength.
Then Duncan, the knowledge about the game he possesses, I haven't seen too many people have it. The small, little things he picks in your batting, your technique, it's amazing how he can point them out and they work for you in a massive way.
On Rohit Sharma: "It is ridiculous the kind of hitting he does after getting 50"
On Rohit Sharma: "It is ridiculous the kind of hitting he does after getting 50" © AFP
What was that little quirk he picked in your batting?
During the New Zealand Test series in 2014 I got out driving the ball on the up at short cover in the second Test in Wellington, in the first innings. I was really disappointed because I had missed a hundred in Auckland. Then I got out for 40  in the first innings of the second Test in Wellington. We were practising on the morning before we started our second innings. My shoulder alignment was too closed. I wanted to reach out to the ball, since I knew they were going to bowl outside off stump. So he corrected that. He said, "Stand on the middle stump and keep your shoulders in the same position because you don't want them to be closed and give them the option of hitting you on the pads." I did that. I got a hundred in the second innings. I felt really comfortable. Those sort of small things, his role would come in so handy. You would not really know how massive a difference those small points make, but when you end up getting runs and feeling good, that is when you realise these things actually worked.
You said Dhoni has always supported you. There is a perception among his critics that MS Dhoni the Test captain has left no legacy.
I don't know why people say he has not left a legacy. He is the most successful Indian captain ever. That in itself is a legacy. Most of the players in the team have been given ample opportunities by him. He believes in the youngsters. He believes in giving them opportunities. If you see the pattern he follows, he always likes to play the same XI for a while because he wants them to feel comfortable and naturally grow as cricketers. It is just a lovely transition and transformation that he follows, where he lets people play and then he lets the guys who are not playing get a chance in another series and gradually groom them along the way as we go ahead in our career. He has played a massive role in grooming all of us initially in our careers.
It is very hard to better or improve on what he has done for Indian cricket. It is amazing how composed he was leading the seniors during his early years of captaincy and how relaxed he is leading the youngsters. He has never been too assertive or shown authority on youngsters. He has understood what it takes to balance both - the guys who played before us and people who are playing in the team now - and that is a wonderful thing to do as a captain.
"I want to see us build our Test careers together. On the field if you see them play you feel like, 'Damn, that's a unit, we really have to play our bloody best to beat these guys'"
You have been a captain for less than a handful of matches and already people, including legends like Steve Waugh, are analysing your leadership. Waugh's advice for you is to wear a thick skin, like Dhoni, who never reacts to praise or criticism.
There is no point giving away what you are thinking to the opposition, who can gain unnecessary advantage. I understand that. One of the keys to being a good captain is not letting your emotions come on to your face when you are leading the side in the field. That is one of the most important things, which I want to improve on.
Now, if you talk about people making judgements, it is funny how comparisons are made just after two or three games. Even if you fail in the first two or three games when you come into international cricket [as a player], they say, "He is no good." I would not judge someone so early. This is how he is, and this is what the reality is, and that will not change. Why make comparisons? I am a different character. I am a different personality. But yes, there are some things that stay consistent in captaincy throughout the world. As you mentioned, not being too expressive, having a thick skin, absorbing what is going on in the game. But I will never change myself for anyone or because anyone wants me to change. It is just these small things that I need to improve on, but that instinct of being aggressive as a captain will remain.
Some of the people who have worked with you say that Virat has this vision of the kind of set-up he wants. Can you give us a sneak preview of your vision?
I want to create strong bonds. I want to create strong friendships in this unit. We live 250-280 days a year together, so I want to create such an atmosphere where in the next ten years watching it from outside you would get to know this team is a united team. This team is a strongly knit unit. They want to play for each other. They don't want to play for themselves. That is my vision.
I strongly want to see the Indian team dominate for at least five or six years. We certainly have the talent. We certainly have the ability. All that it will take is how you manage that and keep them together. What I want to see happening is all our Test careers growing together. When you talk about the camaraderie, the combinations, the unity and the energy you got looking at the successful Australian teams, most of them started together and by the time their careers finished there were seven or eight legends. Before that you had that in West Indies, where Viv Richards, Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall, who were all of similar age and ended up becoming legends. Those are the things you crave as a cricketer. You want to be the team which enjoys each other's company, which enjoys playing anywhere in the world, which enjoys success together, sticks around in failures together. I want that to happen. And I am really certain that will happen.
Is Test cricket in safe hands? There are so many young captains like you across the world.
Test cricket around the world is in safe hands as long as teams are willing to compete and have a result out of a game. It is as exciting as you want it to be. It is as boring as you want it be - you can score 80 runs in four hours but what is the point? I certainly believe in going for that victory, even if it means that you have to literally struggle in the end to get a draw. But give yourself a chance at least. That is when it gets exciting. In all four Test matches in Australia we had brilliant crowds because they knew we want to play a brand of cricket that is entertaining to them over a period of time.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
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