Growing up, Virat Kohli had just one dream and that was to represent his country at the top level of international cricket. Ambitions, goals and vision have always been a part of his cricketing vocabulary and it has only grown manifold over the years.
In his teens, Virat led the India U-19 team to a World Cup victory. He was just 22 when he brushed shoulders with the cream of Indian cricket that lifted the World Cup four years back at the Wankhede stadium, and since then, he has been one of the faces of Indian batting that is touted for only bigger and better things to come.
You were just 22 when you played your first 50-over World Cup. Four years hence, it’s the same stage. Do you still remember how it felt being a part of the 2011 World Cup team?
Yes, I do. Because it was my first World Cup and I was pretty new in the international circuit, it was a mixture of nerves and pressure since we were playing at home. When I saw all these people coming up to us all the time saying that we had to win the World Cup, it was pretty tough for me as a youngster. I had to cope with that and play around these big names in a World Cup where you knew that all of them desperately wanted to win. As a youngster you feel that you don’t want to mess up the situation or don’t want to play a bad shot in a very important game. So all those things go inside your mind as a young player and that is what happened to me then.
How did the 2011 World Cup victory change you as a cricketer?
I gained a lot of confidence from that World Cup. In my very first World Cup, I was part of the triumphant squad, and I was a World Champion already at the age of 22. It gave me confidence from the fact that we had achieved something special. When we ended up winning, it was a very special memory. I couldn’t really connect to the kind of emotion that all the other senior players had because they hadn’t won it for so long. To see all that emotion come out, I really understood the importance of a cricket World Cup. From that day on, maybe even before that, I always wanted to be the best player in the world. I wanted to be among the best players that people would speak about. I always wanted to be a player that will be known even when I finished my career as a cricketer. I never wanted to be on the sidelines or be one of the players in the side.
I had that vision of achieving that goal and play the way our former greats like Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid or VVS Laxman have played over the years. I always used to wonder and ask myself why can I not do that. They have been able to do it over a period of time and they had the vision. I told myself, if players before us can do it, we can achieve the same things. I thought in that direction and the World Cup victory gave me more assurance on that fact. I started working towards my goals with much more clarity and passion compared to before. As a cricketer you gain a lot from victories like those. I took that confidence forward into the IPL and in the years to follow it freed me up as a player.
Did it bring about changes in the way you approached your own game as well?
I certainly became very sure of my game at the international level and it has helped me be more consistent. I try and stick to the same routine and habits that I have developed in the last few years. I believe my game has improved over a period of time. It has been a constant process; it hasn’t been a flash in the pan. I admit that when I came early on, there were few shots that I could not play. I worked on my weaker areas and started developing the shots that I wasn’t able to play.
When you become successful in international cricket, sides want to get you out and you have to be a step ahead. That is what I kept figuring out in the last few years as to how I can be a step ahead of the opposition so that I can be consistent and win more games for the team.
Is there anything in particular that you do in the process of achieving that?
Well, there is nothing in particular that I do. I like to follow a routine in my daily life. I have started enjoying normal life much more than I used to. I used to put unnecessary pressure on myself. I know inside my heart that I cannot be just loyal to cricket and the sport. When I would not score many runs I always wanted to go out there and prove to people that I am good enough. I don’t think like that anymore. I know how passionately I play the sport and it is for me to know from inside how much I love the sport. The moment it ends, my normal life begins away from my profession which is what I have started to enjoy a lot more. It has given me more stability, composure and calmness as far as going on the field and performing again is concerned because I have more things to look forward to. In that case you are never going up and down with your mood, you are always staying on the same line at most times and that is something that you need as an international cricketer.
From 2011 to 2015, how would you sum up these four years in a capsule?
You want to perform as an international cricketer, but you can’t put a number to it; that you would reach a particular level in four years time. Since that World Cup campaign, I have played a lot of games be it ODIs or Tests. I never thought I would be at the position that I am in right now in the team. Playing the last World Cup, I didn’t think that in the next World Cup I would be Test captain of India. I didn’t expect myself to get the number of runs that I have been able to get. I can’t really complain about anything. I am grateful for whatever has happened in the last four years and I have cherished every moment of it.
Did you ever envision yourself as India’s Test captain at such a young age?
No, I never thought of it. I honestly always wanted to play Test cricket for India and it was my dream. But Test captaincy was something I never imagined. I never thought MS Dhoni would retire this early from Test cricket and especially not in between the series for sure. That came as a shock and it was indeed a very emotional day for me. I came back to the hotel and I just broke down in my room. It was a pretty sad moment watching a leader who groomed all of us over the last few years, not playing Test cricket anymore.
Looking back at the England tour, I was totally written off and was even claimed to not have the right kind of game to play Test cricket. It was a difficult time for me. But, I had tremendous self belief and knew once that phase went away good things are going to happen. They certainly happened in that Test series against Australia.
How has Test captaincy changed the way you have started looking at ODI cricket?
I have been vice-captain for the ODI side and I would always keep giving inputs to MS about the things that I felt he could use. Now, in recent times knowing the fact that I probably will have to lead the side in the ODIs as well in the future at some point of time, I see more of how Dhoni changes his bowlers, at what stages and situations of the game. I notice when he brings the spinners on, figuring out the strengths and weaknesses of the batsmen, the wicket condition and the field placement etc. That is something that I have started learning a lot more in recent times. I always used to be keen enough in figuring out what field placements we could use or the gut feeling that I have standing in the field that I am sure would work. I always try to keep thinking about the game. I never stand in the field and think the ball will come to me and I will throw it back to the keeper and I am done. I always keep thinking about what can, could or needs to be done or could have been done. I give my inputs as far as I can but it has increased after I was appointed captain in the Test series and especially now that I am Test captain as well.
Has your role as a batsman in the ODI side been any different to what it was four years back?
Not really. I have been given a role to control the innings in the middle, help the other guys express themselves more and play to their strengths and give that solidity that MS Dhoni has been giving in the lower middle order. Everyone has shared the load in the tournament so far and I have been happy playing the backstage role of helping bring that calmness and solidity into the batting. I am pretty happy doing that in the last two games as well.
2011 - Wankhede, 2015 - you reckon it is going to be MCG?
Absolutely. You couldn’t ask for two better places to play cricket. Wankhede was as loud as any cricket stadium I have ever experienced so far in my life and MCG against South Africa was unbelievable. I heard it was better than the grand final of the AFL; that was something very pleasing to hear. Once we reach the final, I can assure you there won’t be a seat empty in the stadium for sure.
This World Cup is a great opportunity for us to do something that has never been done in Indian cricket, which is to win it back to back. Especially in conditions away from home, not many people gave us a chance to even qualify. But we have won seven games in a row. People are looking at us as favorites now. The experience has been wonderful so far and if we end up winning it on that day, it will be a memory to cherish all my life.