When you see Virat Kohli, you see confidence. His eyes reflect passion, his words ooze ambition. And when he walks in to bat for India, everything blends together and manifests into a fine display of batsmanship that leaves everyone in awe of his supreme talent.
What we see are the exquisite on-drives, the aggressive pulls and the incredible numbers they lead to on the scorecard. What we don’t see is the mind that has so astutely and carefully planned every shot, every movement and every run.
Here’s a sneak peek into Virat Kohli’s cricketing mind.
There are two types of sportsmen mainly – those who always knew they want to play the sport at the highest level and those who figured it out later in life. How has it been for you?
I always wanted to be a professional cricketer and play at the international level. I didn’t want to figure things out later. I had the belief in my abilities and knew that if I work hard, I will achieve what I want to. Yes, you tend to have doubts every now and then because performances are not going to be consistent all the time. As a youngster, growing up you sometimes feel, ‘what if I don’t?’ and that’s the kind of thoughts you need to fight against all the time. It happened for me, because deep down inside I was determined to become a successful international cricketer. I watched my idols win matches for India and I would imagine myself in the Indian jersey hitting the winning runs. I would imagine myself there and think what I would do in that situation. It’s all coming true now and it feels quite amazing when I sit and think about it. I always dreamt big and wanted to achieve big. That’s how you make your dreams come true.
Gary Kirsten once said that like in life, in cricket too there are more bad days than good ones. So, if you can handle cricket, you can handle life. Can you relate to it?
Absolutely! That’s very true. As a sportsperson, you’re so passionate about the sport you play, in our case, cricket, you’re so involved, mentally, physically and emotionally – winning matches for your team becomes the best feeling in the world and getting out on a string of low scores or losing a close game is the worst. To handle both those emotions is a very big challenge and he’s right when he says that you have more bad days than good ones in cricket. It’s you who sets the standards that you’ll be measured against. No one expects you to start scoring runs the moment you come to the team. It’s only when you perform well over a period of time consistently, they expect you to score every time you step out to bat. And after a while you start seeing yourself from the perspective of those people. When you don’t score runs, you get frustrated. That’s when you realize the difference between reality and the fairytale phase when you were scoring runs continuously. It is very difficult to accept that reality check. It comes with time and with experience.
Is the emotional and mental drain more prominent for batsmen?
As a batsman I can certainly tell you that it can get very annoying at times because you only have one chance. No matter how well you bat in the nets, you might still get out first ball in the match and you’ll be sitting outside and clapping for three days. That’s a hard pill to swallow – it’s the reality of Test cricket. And in any format, once you’re out, that’s it. There’s nothing you can do about it. So yes, this sport does take a lot out of you, especially when you’re not playing well because you don’t have a second chance. In most other sports, when you don’t perform well, the game is over and you have all the time in the world to analyze what went wrong. In our sport, even if you don’t do well, you have to focus on what the team is doing next. After getting out on a duck, you still have to go out and field.
Are you still very hard on yourself? We have heard that you used to break down if you got out on a bad shot or made a mistake in shot selection.
I’m not that hard on myself anymore. It used to happen in junior cricket. I expect a lot from myself. I want to set an example for people younger than me and win the respect of the seniors. I want to play in such a way that people around me gain confidence from it and my team wins. There are many things I set out to achieve and when those things don’t happen, I do tend to get very annoyed with myself. I understand that it is not such a good thing all the time and I am still learning to change that. It works for me in the way that it keeps me away from complacency when I am doing well. It keeps me hungry. But again, being too harsh on myself is not a good thing. It is very important to be realistic and keep my expectations and emotions under control when I am not doing well.
You’ve spoken a lot about how you went on the wrong track after your father’s demise and how you had to find your own way back without any solid direct guidance. Was that phase the time when you became a man from a boy?
That’s right. Because it happened so early in my career – it was my first Ranji Trophy season – I didn’t know how to react. I was only 16-17 and I don’t think I was emotionally evolved. I couldn’t even react to it emotionally. And on top of that, there were the pressures of playing my first season of first-class cricket. But when that incident happened, I don’t know how but automatically my mindset changed. I didn’t want to focus on anything else and just wanted to work hard on my cricket. That phase lasted for a couple of years and after that I again lost my way, in 2008. But what that incident did was it made me strongly motivated and determined that no matter what happens, I have to play for India. Yes, I did go off track and got carried away but I kept pulling myself back because of how determined that incident had made me. I had to play for India.
Is it fair to say that sportspersons in general, attain emotional and mental maturity earlier than the rest of us, because of the extreme highs and lows you guys experience at a very young age?
In a way, you can say that. But it’s very different as well. Being a sportsperson may make you more mature in certain aspects of your life, say coping with pressure, talking with someone who is low in life, organising stuff, being on time or being particular about your schedule and the things you do. So, while overall you do become mature as a person, unless you experience things and go through difficult times in your personal life, I don’t think you can relate the two much. As sportspeople we don’t go through a lot of troubles in life that other people do and those difficulties mature people as much as sports does us.
What distracts you more a batsman – the verbal attack or a subtle change in the field or bowling tactic?
When I am not in a good mindset, it means that I am not mentally feeling well about what I am going to do in the match. When that happens, I’ll get riled up by anything that happens on the field. It might be verbal, or a change in the field or bowling. But when I am in that mindset, I don’t care what fields are set or what is being said to me, who is bowling, whether he’s coming over or around the wicket or is bowling a bouncer or whatever. That’s because in my head things are very clear. That’s all I need for my preparation. It’s very hard to attain that zone and you need to be very calm and relaxed in how you approach a game.
Every batsman has that one shot or sign that tells him he is in form, when he feels good out there in the middle. What is that sign for you?
Playing strokes has never been a challenge for me. I analyze the first 10 balls of my innings when I go out to bat in a Test match. I analyze how well I’ve left the ball, how comfortable I was leaving the ones that were close to the stumps and how comfortable I was blocking the balls. If I can block the ball well when it is swinging, that’s when I know I am in my zone. When you fish and get beaten, you’re not sure where your off-stump is and how much the ball is swinging.
Technically is there any one thing that you make sure is right and you know your game is right?
My batting routine is very important for me. I changed a bit of it in an under-16 camp. I started moving my feet inside the crease and began to shuffle. That brought a whole range to my shots and I was amazed by how it completely changed my batting. I have stuck to it since then and even today when I am not hitting the ball well, I know it’s that foot problem.
What is the most important part of your preparation?
For me it’s a lot about planning. When I go in to bat in a Test, I go in there with plans – I am going to leave the balls pitched in a particular line, I am going to hit the ball only between two certain points in the field and not play a certain shot till I score a set number of runs. If something is pitched short at me, I will go for the runs as it is my scoring area. And you need to focus on those plans throughout your innings for every ball you play, which is very difficult. If you don’t have a batting routine and a plan, it is very difficult to survive in international cricket.
What is 'zone' for you?
It’s the calmest feeling you can feel. For me, when I go in to bat, I would feel nervous for the first couple of balls. But instantly I get to know with the way my legs move – if the leg movement is smooth and fluent, I know I’m there. If they don’t, I’ll have an irritation in my body. When you’re in the zone, your feet move, you leave the ball well, middle it beautifully, and you’re not even thinking about the score. That’s the most beautiful thing. It’s the time when your body and your mind are in perfect sync with each other. It’s the calmest feeling in the world.
Can you work yourself into the zone or does it come on its own?
For me, being in the zone starts from my head. I tell myself that I am going to take these guys on. I am not just going out there to survive. I’ll respect if they bowl good balls but if they don’t, I am here to score runs. That’s how I train myself to get into the zone. But being in the zone is not only about how you practise or plan your game. It’s about doing the smallest things. For example, when I’m playing a Test series, everything in my room is proper. You won’t see anything just lying around randomly or any mess whatsoever. It’s all organized, piled up and folded. That makes a huge difference. When I come back, I know that I am doing all things right. I am stacking up everything neatly and it helps me keep a clear head. Look at Rafael Nadal for instance. During a game, he sits in his little corner in a chair and very carefully caps the water bottles and puts them in a certain way. People might find these things funny and brand them as superstition but these little things are important for us as sportspeople. And it keeps on changing. For me today it might be about being organized. Tomorrow I would want to read something or listen to a particular song 10 times before I go in to bat. It could be any crazy thing that makes me feel good and takes me away from what I don’t want to think. It’s not that if my room is spick and span I will score a hundred. It’s just about trying to give yourself the best chance to succeed by doing the things that make you happy.
How often do you feel like you’re in the zone?
When you go into a series or a tour, initially it is very difficult to analyze. But once you’ve played one game or even a tour game, and you start to bat the way you want to, you get a click in your head that ‘okay, now I am in the zone that I want to be in and it’s my responsibility to preserve it throughout the series’. Once you get there, the bigger challenge is to stay in that zone. You might attain it but it goes off very quickly. So it’s very important to protect it.
Is there a marked difference between how you approach the shorter formats and Test cricket?
Yes. There is a lot of planning that goes in my Test batting, but ODIs and T20Is are more spontaneous and instinctive. I go in to bat, see the scoreboard, assess the situation and figure out what needs to be done. I don’t sit the previous day and think that if this target comes up, I’ll bat like this. Once you do what your mind tells you to do, you’re going to be on the right side of the result. So, it’s very important to be confident in what you think and take your partner into confidence as well. There’s no pre-planning in the shorter formats, only reacting to the situations as they come.
You are very intense about your game but at the same time you stress on enjoying when you’re batting out there. How do you strike the balance between the two?
Enjoyment for me is reaching a milestone. When I’m batting, I don’t tell myself, ‘okay, I’m going to enjoy my batting’. No, when I’m batting, all I think of is sticking to my plan. I enjoy it when I execute that plan properly and get the right result. It’s that satisfaction that I look forward to. To have that moment of enjoyment, I need to be intense about my game, it works for me. Once I start being casual about my game or relax a bit, that’s when I fall into the wrong spot. Being aggressive helps me. Even when I am defending the ball, I want to have a big stride forward and show the bowler, ‘I’ve defended it because you bowled a good ball. But if you bowl a bad one, I am here to hit you for a boundary’. Trust me, the bowler gets to know what message you’re conveying to him by the way you have defended or left the ball. So, it’s very important to be positive even when you’re defending or leaving a ball.
Is there a spiritual side to your batting?
I visualize a lot; that’s one of my strengths. I don’t know if that’s a spiritual side or not but I do talk to myself a lot. When I’m planning for my next innings, I visualize who’s going to bowl to me, what I am going to do against him. These are the shots I am going to play against this bowler. If he bowls an out-swinger, I play this shot. If he goes back of a length, this is my plan. Plan it, lock it and then don’t think about it. While batting, I just keep reminding myself, ‘stick to your plan, you’re not playing this shot. Play in this area, stick to your plan’. Visualising is a big part of my game. This is something I’ve started to do gradually. I’ve figured out that batting long hours in the nets is not something that works for me. I need to be fresh mentally.
You’ve been playing under MS Dhoni for quite a while now. Do you understand his moves as captain much better now – the unorthodox field placements, the unusual bowling changes?
Yes, I try to figure out why he has done a certain thing. I try to see things from his perspective and understand his reasoning behind a decision so that if in the future I am in a similar situation where I have to take a similar decision, I know the logic behind it. I keep learning about the game. For me standing in the field is not just about waiting for the ball to come to me, field it and throw it back. I keep noticing things. If for instance, I am standing at long-on, a leg spinner is bowling and the long-off fielder is standing a bit straight, I think why is he not standing wider, why is there a man at point and not at slip? I keep thinking and that’s how you learn about the game and it helps you in batting as well. If you can figure out how your captain thinks and why he is doing certain things in the field, you will be able to read what the opposition captain is planning against you as well. It adds so much to your game.
Has your input in the team strategies and on-field tactics increased gradually? How often do you give suggestions to the captain and how often does he take them?
It’s only recently that I have started to talk about what can be done on the field with MS Dhoni. As a captain it is difficult to notice everything that is going on in the field. So, if I feel something is wrong or it could be better, I feel I should convey it to the captain because he might not be focusing on it. It’s more about letting him know that this can be done as well. And most of the times, especially now that I have played under him a lot, he appreciates it and is happy to take it on board because he knows I am only thinking well for the team, that I am a responsible member of the team and what I say has some logic. Also, now I am more comfortable going up to him and telling him what I feel. As a youngster you can’t do that because you’re yourself not sure if what you are thinking makes sense. Now it’s different.
Although you are an attacking batsman by instincts, you score your runs with proper cricketing shots. Is that a conscious effort?
No, it’s just how it is. I don’t feel the need to play extravagant shots. The bowlers are bowling the same balls at me so I score my runs with the same shots. Why should I try to play a shot that is not my strength? For me it’s important to play low risk cricket for the team and yet maintaining my aggressive intent. It’s the balance I’ve always worked on.
You’re someone who cannot stand being good enough; you have to be the best. Does that make you a little more vulnerable to what people say or write about you?
Initially you try to prove it to your critics that you’re good enough to play at this level. Now I don’t feel the need to prove anything to people, not because I believe that I have achieved it all. It’s because I’ve realized that it is not important to prove anything to others. It’s important what I think of my performances and what I expect from myself. Playing a Test series in England is a big thing in my mind and I don’t need people to tell me that he needs to score big runs in England and that this is the big test for him. I know that I want to score runs here and in every other country because I want to be the best. Cricket critics in our country are strange. You may have scored runs everywhere but if you don’t do that in one country or series, they start doubting if you’re good enough. They did that to the seniors as well during the fag end of their careers. If you want someone to do well, you say positive things to and about them, not pull them down saying if they don’t prove themselves in certain conditions they will remain flat-track bullies. I have stopped paying attention to them. When I get out, I’m the first one who feels about it. Things are written after that.
You have been doing well for quite sometime now. Do you have to constantly guard yourself against complacency?
Complacency is something that strangely has never been in my system. You can say that I am addicted to feeling good about winning matches for the team. And it’s a very bad addiction. That feeling of scoring runs and winning a game for your team is the best feeling in the world. I can’t explain it. It’s blissful. When you come out and see smiles on the faces of your team-mates, that’s all I want. It’s something I crave for and always go after. So as of now, complacency doesn’t have a room in my system and I don’t see it creeping in anytime soon. I know where I want to be and I know what I want to achieve. I don’t want to be an average cricketer. I don’t want to be remembered just as someone who played for India. I want to set an example for the people who will play for India after us and I want to do something very special for my country.