Winning a cricket test away from home is one of the most difficult sporting feats. This is because cricket conditions are unique to each location. The nature of the batting wickets depends on local weather conditions, and the ball behaves differently in response to local weather particularly temperature, humidity and cloud cover. To put this perspective imagine if the soccer ball behaved differently in different countries – curving more in one country thereby making free kicks difficult to defend, for example, or sticking to the grass more in another country, making dribbling difficult. That is the challenge that faces cricket players when they play away from home. This makes the achievements of Virat Kohli on the current tour of England by India remarkable. He has scored twice as many runs as the highest English run scorer, and led India to only their 7th victory in England since 1932. Virat has risen from an arrogant and petulant talent to one of the greats of this era because of a focus on fundamentals: hard work, self-belief, and a selfless attitude in which he puts the team before individual achievements.
Whilst cricket is difficult to play well away from home, this is particularly so for Asian teams in England. Before this last test, India had won only 6 out 59 tests played in England a win ratio of only 10%. The most successful Asian team in England is Pakistan with 12 wins from 53 tests, a winning ratio of only 23%. This current tour of England by India was hyped-up by the press as Kohli’s greatest test. He had dominated everywhere else he had played, breaking record after record. Kohli is the joint fastest batsman to reach 50 centuries across all forms of international cricket. He is also the only batsman in history to average more than 50 in Tests, ODIs and T20Is simultaneously; he also possesses the highest combined average across all formats among Test players who have played in at least two formats. Despite this, Kohli had averaged only 14 runs per innings in his last tour of England in 2014, and the cricketing world had questions about his ability to handle English conditions. If he failed again in England, his position in cricket history would not be assured. Success in England, “the final frontier”, would make Kohli one of the greatest sportsmen of our age, and possibly the greatest Indian cricketer after Tendulkar.
Kohli’s talent was apparent from early in his career. He first played for India in 2008 when he was only 19. Despite his talent, he was criticised for his anger and unsportsmanly conduct. He often celebrated early centuries by hurling insults at the opposition. He became infamous for losing his temper and his wicket too easily. Indian great Rahul Dravid, who saw the young batsman from close quarters when playing for India and Royal Challengers Bangalore, once remarked that while Kohli had the talent, he wasn’t sure if he could channel his aggression properly. “His talent was never in question, but he didn’t have the mental discipline or cricket smarts to make that talent work,” Dravid said.
Kohli made a decision in 2010 to change his attitude, which was the first key to his subsequent success and consistency. He worked hard to control his temper and his emotion, putting a premium on his wicket and making the opposition work hard to get him out. One of his teammates, Rohit Sharma observed that “He (Kohli) has a lot of belief in himself and in his abilities, that’s probably the key for him. His instinct and aggression takes over after that.”In business, we are often told that the foundation for success is a positive mental attitude and healthy self-esteem. It’s interesting that those qualities laid the foundation for Kohli’s success.
Virat is known for his remarkable work ethic. His poor run in 2014 was attributed to poor footwork. Nimble feet allow batsmen to reach the pitch of the ball and negate any movement of the ball in the air off the pitch. This is especially important in England where the ball can swing. Also, strong legs are critical when it comes to running between the wickets. Converting ones to twos and twos to three takes pressure off batsmen and demoralises opposition. Kohli worked hard to sort out his footwork against the moving ball after his poor series in England in 2014. Kohli now looks in complete control at the crease. A confident press forward or back have become the hallmark of his batting. And there are very few players in the world who can match Kohli when it comes to running between the wickets, be it a T20 or in a Test late in the day. “Since the time he has joined the Indian team, I saw his work ethic and I wished and wondered why I didn’t have that work ethic when I was his age,” said Yuvraj Singh, one of Kohli’s teammates. “He was always a great player. But I think he is extremely hungry, extremely hardworking. So all that combination is paying off now,” remarked former Indian international Vikram.
Perhaps most remarkable is Kohli’s ability to focus on the pitch despite the extraordinary pressure he faces off the pitch. As Indian captain and anchor batsman, he carries the hopes of almost 1 billion cricket mad Indians on his shoulders. He is a demi-god in India, exalted above all else. Noted historian and writer Ramachandra Guha, a former member of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), has a first-hand account of Kohli’s power. “I was witness to the reach and range of Kohli’s dominating self in my four months in the [BCCI],” Guha wrote. “The BCCI’s officials worshipped him even more than the Indian cabinet worships [prime minister] Narendra Modi.” Kohli is married to one of the biggest bollywood stars – Anishka Sharma. India is obsessed with the power couple, which they affectionately call “Virushka”. They are hounded by reporters everywhere they go, every public embrace or assumed argument is shared on social media. Kohli’s life is lived in the public eye making it remarkable that with all that happens in his life, the money and the fame, he is able to stay grounded and focused on his game.
Kohli is also selfless, always putting the team ahead of personal milestones. Asked about his personal goals for the English tour, Kohli replied: “It doesn’t matter whether I get runs or don’t. What I want is the team to play well and win. You want to perform as an individual but I haven’t set any benchmarks or targets or come here to do certain things, which have to be special, just because the last tour here didn’t go well. That’s always my mindset for the time I have been captain.”
We would all do well to learn from Kohli. Talent requires focus, hard work and selflessness to manifest. Money and fame are only by-products of success, and should never take one’s focus away from their mission. The Indian test series resumes next week. No doubt another chapter will be added to Kohli’s remarkable story.