If he had the choice, Raj Kumar Sharma would be among the first to make a beeline to the PCA Stadium in Mohali on 4 March, to herald his most celebrated ward breaking into the 100-Test club. Instead, Sharma will have to make do with sending his best wishes and blessings from afar, busy as he is marshalling Delhi’s floundering fortunes in distant Guwahati in his capacity as the coach of the Ranji Trophy team.
Sharma’s most celebrated ward, of course, answers to the name of Virat Kohli. Come Friday, Kohli will become just the 12th Indian to make 100 Test appearances, joining an illustrious club that includes eight other former captains. Kohli might have fallen on difficult times, especially in Test cricket, in the last couple of years, but it’s a tribute to his longevity, perseverance, staying power and unquestioned skills that, in an era where it is becoming increasingly challenging to manage workloads and stay mentally fresh, he already has 100 Test caps when still only 33.
Kohli was earmarked for spectacular success from his late teens, his exploits at the age-group level for state and country earning him a call-up to a star-studded senior Delhi one-day side as a 17-year-old. The following season, in 2006-07, he broke into a power-packed Ranji top-order that included Gautam Gambhir, Aakash Chopra, Shikhar Dhawan, Rajat Bhatia and skipper Mithun Manhas. That was to mark the start of a spectacularly upward career graph which received a fillip when he led India to the Under-19 World Cup in 2008 and earned a spot to the Indian 50-over set-up in August that year.
Kohli was taken to Sharma’s West Delhi Cricket Academy as a nine-year-old by his father Prem. “He was a very gifted boy, very God-gifted,” Sharma says, his voice reflecting his admiration but also a certain tiredness that perhaps has as much to do with his team’s stuttering Ranji campaign as the fact that he is so much in demand – ‘I just finished a television interview,’ he offers. “He had a lot of talent and the kind of power at that age was exemplary.”
Sharma was a hard taskmaster, unafraid to use the stick even if the carrot was his preferred option; that was a time when it was OK for the student to receive a well-intentioned smack from the teacher. Sharma was a stickler for orthodoxy and correctness. Kohli was all that, but he couldn’t resist the temptation to play the flick – very well, needless to add – which didn’t outwardly thrill Sharma too much.
It’s a sign of the close bond that exists between the guru and the shishya that even now, nearly a quarter of a century on, they discuss Kohli’s batting on a consistent basis. “We are in touch — every match, every series. 100 percent, we talk to each other,” Sharma insists, quickly adding, “When he steps on the field on Friday, it will be the proudest moment of my life, seeing him grow from a nine-year-old child to playing 100 Tests for India. I am really honoured, I feel proud and blessed. I would have loved to go (to Mohali), but my mind, my heart would be there only.”
Kohli’s diminishing returns have been the topic of much all-round debate and great concern in specific quarters, but Sharma remains unfazed. “If you look at the period between, say, the end of 2014 and the end of 2019, nobody in the world has ever been that consistent in all three formats, no one else batted with such authority. That was remarkable, that was the golden period of Virat.
“It’s not that he is not batting well now,” he sprung to his protégé’s defence. “He has set the bar so high that every time he walks in, everybody expects him to get a hundred and win the match for India. Unfortunately, those hundreds are not coming so frequently now. Actually, It’s been a pretty long time since he has hit a hundred, but that is due. I am happy he is playing well, that is important. He is in good shape, he is in a positive frame of mind and he is very relaxed. Every player has a phase where he doesn’t score as many runs as are expected out of him. But since Virat is playing well, he will bounce back, I am not worried about that.”
Bouncing back is a Kohli specialty. His first taste of disappointment came in the early 2000s when he was overlooked for the Delhi Under-14 side despite coming up with eye-catching performances. Downcast as he was, he was still able to summon his inner fire to make it to the Under-15 squad the following year. His progress was so stunning that he was representing India Under-19 when he was just 17.
His comrade-in-arms during the early days of age-group cricket was Ruushill Bhaskar, an opening batsman who swapped the bat for a shot at a career in finance but branched out into sports marketing and is now with Adidas in Singapore. Ruushill has a solid cricketing background – his father, KP Bhaskar, was distinctly unlucky not to have played for the country – so there was so much about Kohli even at that age he couldn’t quite comprehend. We’ll eventually get there.
Ruushill and Kohli first came face-to-face at a Delhi and Districts Cricket Association Under-14 camp. “We had 300-400 kids from all academies and schools coming for the trials, we had 2-3 days of trials and then the group got shorter and shorter until the final 40 or so were selected, which was the precursor to trial games,” Ruushill recalls.
“We were playing against each other and Virat had got a 48 or a 50. Typically, in games like this, the moment you get to a 40-50, you are called out of the field because the selectors want to look at other kids. He was one of the guys who did well in the trial games. Yet, he wasn’t selected in the 16-member squad. That was a major disappointment for him.
“We met again the following year for the Under-15s. Virat had had really strong performances in club cricket and school cricket and was one of the strongest batsmen within the group. Even though he was in the junior batch — he had one more year of Under-15 cricket left in him — he stood out as a key contender that year and as a potential mainstay the next year, of that there was little doubt. We kept bumping into each other during club and inter-school games. The last year of Under-15 for both of us was when he captained the Delhi side. We were quite thick, a smaller group within the team used to hang out together.”
Ruushill got to see the fun and the serious side of Kohli in equal measure. “He was quite a fun guy as a 15-year-old, he loved eating food. I don’t think fitness was something that he was really into at that time. He was quite chubby, we have all seen the pictures and seen him live through that during his Under-19 days as well. He wasn’t as demanding of himself as he is now or he became of himself and of his teammates. But even then, he was very conscious, he had high expectations of himself in terms of scoring runs and playing for the team but not so much from everyone else. I guess at that age, you are still trying a place for yourself within the side, especially in a state like Delhi.
“We were playing an Under-15 game against Punjab in Patiala, and the match between Delhi and Punjab was always the hardest, most demanding because these were the strongest teams in North Zone. Virat had made a good start to the season but in this match, he only scored 5. Back in the dressing room and at the hotel, he was super upset and emotional,” Ruushill says. “I remember talking to him and telling him not to be that hard on himself because we still had games to play. But he pointed out that this was the game that mattered, and he hadn’t delivered. Even then, he paced himself for the big occasion, for the big matches. He wanted to do his best in those moments from an early age.”
The streaks of aggression in his persona weren’t visible in the Under-15 days, Ruushill reveals, though that trait was present in his batting. “As a kid, naughty is perhaps not the right word but in the Under-15 days, he was a little cheeky, quite carefree. He liked having a little fun here and there, even teasing some of his friends for a quick joke. I definitely wouldn’t call him aggressive at that stage. For the next few years, we didn’t play a lot together because I moved to Haryana and he broke into the India Under-19 side when he was still 16 or 17.
“But we played together again in the North Zone Under-19 team, this was just before the 2008 Malaysia Under-19 World Cup. That’s when we had long, close interactions in Dharamsala, where we had the North Zone camp. I met him as a different person altogether after those three years. He had had that Under-19 exposure, there was a lot more confidence in him. He had played with the best talent from across the country, not just within his age-group but even people who were 2-3 years senior than us because he had started playing for the Delhi senior team as well. He had already come into the limelight.”
It was at that camp that the first signs of Kohli, the demanding leader, became apparent to Ruushill. “That was the biggest difference I saw — there was a lot of aggression in him. The self-confidence had always been there, the aggression was now a lot more visible and he was also demanding a lot from everyone else around him, from his teammates. He became that leader within the group who expected a lot not just from a fitness perspective nut also in terms of how involved everyone is within the game. I remember us playing the inter-ZCA tournament in Bengaluru, we had some really tough games against East and West Zones. He would tell his short-leg, silly-point and slip fielders to continuously be in the batsman’s ears and not let go, be relentless. I wasn’t that guy who would like to be rude or call out words, but he still expected that from everyone. He wanted everyone to have that super-high aggression. That was a big change within those three years.”
Even so, Kohli was still one of the boys. “I remember sitting in his room through the night and we would finish two or three Rocky movies (featuring Sylvester Stallone) back-to-back. He was a big fan of the Rocky and Rambo movies. You had kids from Punjab, Haryana, Delhi sitting in his room and watching these movies in Dharamsala. The other thing with him is that he is a big fan of Punjabi music, and he loves dancing. Even now, when he is with his close of group of friends, along with all the banter they have, dance is a big piece of that get-together.”
Not only had Kohli’s persona changed by the time of the Dharamsala camp, he had taken his batting to a different level. “He stood above all of us by a big margin,” Ruushill concedes, easily. “In the Bengaluru tournament I spoke about, we were chasing around 300 in the final against West Zone in about 50 overs on a truly broken fifth-day wicket. West had Iqbal Abdullah, Ravindra Jadeja and Swapnil Singh, all left-arm spinners, and Dhawal Kulkarni and Shrikant Munde as the fast bowlers. Even though we had conceded the first-innings lead, many of us wanted to bat out the overs, get some runs under the belt. But he would have none of it. He was like, ‘We are going to go out and win this game. I don’t care if we lose but we need to play for a win’. He must have gotten 80 or so; the three left-armers were bowling with six fielders on the on-side and into the rough. He would just step out and hit them with complete ease over extra cover for sixes, at will. At the other end, we were all struggling to get a move on. From outside, we were entranced, we wondered what this man was made of. Not only in the final, he got 280-odd against a University side, an 80 and a 100 against East Zone. In three matches, he scored some 600-700 runs, which was unbelievable. We did lose that final, but Virat backed himself fully, he totally believed in himself. With Virat as a leader, he would always go for a win, he would not settle for a draw. The mentality was to play to win, not play to not lose.”
It was on that tour of Bengaluru that Kohli got the first of what was to be many tattoos – the one with two wheels, a 96 or a 69 depending on how one looks at it, on his forearm. “He was also very particular about his hairstyles,” Ruushill chuckles. “He would gel it up, he was wearing a diamond stud in one ear. For me, coming from a cricket family and with the kind of discipline dad wanted me to have with regard to cricket, it was very different to what I saw from Virat. For him to be out either getting tattoos, being so focused on his hair, the style and fashion side of things… He used to party as well in Bengaluru, he would be out even before games. He’d come back to the hotel slightly late and still go out and get a hundred the next day and I’d be like, ‘How the hell is this guy doing this? This is not how it’s supposed to be’.
“In a way, he broke the kind of norms that growing up were instilled in you from a discipline point of view. Virat was very clear – that cricket was the one thing that he needed to deliver in, but that there was a life outside of that which was not related to it. He decided to keep those things separate even when he was 18-19.”
Ruushill and Kohli’s cricketing relationship moved on to a professional one a couple of years later. “At 20, I stopped playing cricket and focused on a corporate career,” Ruushill says. “For 3-4 years, we would meet socially at parties in Delhi but we weren’t best buddies. Then in 2014, I joined Adidas as a brand marketer and he was one of my main athletes, he was a brand ambassador for Adidas. His style quotient had picked up even more, if that was possible! He had become a celebrity from the fashion point of things as well. His fashion choices right from the start were very good, to be honest. He loves his white sneakers, for instance, even while batting. Whenever, as a brand person, I’d tell him that the new shoe for the next season would have a lot of blue or orange, he wouldn’t be amused. ‘I don’t want to look down when I am tapping the bat and see so many colours which are not white’. He was very particular, he knew what he wanted and he’d make sure he got what he wanted.”
It was the same venue in Patiala, the Dhruve Pandove Stadium, where he had failed in the Under-15 game against Punjab that pitchforked Kohli into the limelight two years later. In an Under-17 game against Punjab, Kohli stacked up 227 in just under eight hours, an effort that made everyone in Delhi sit up and take notice. Among them was Amit Bhandari, the former India right-arm quick.
“I met him not long after that at the Ferozeshah Kotla and congratulated him,” Bhandari reminisces. “I told him that maybe in one year’s time or even that same season, he’d play the Ranji Trophy. I saw a spark in his eyes, I saw something different in his batting. Lots of people score hundreds in age-group cricket but only the special ones make a double. And to do so against Punjab was even more commendable. Punjab have always had a strong junior structure and there are many from Punjab in the junior Indian sides, so to have made 227 against them meant this kid was not ordinary.”
True to Bhandari’s prediction, Kohli made his List A debut that same season and his Ranji debut the following year. “He was ready,” Bhandari proclaims. “We never felt he wasn’t mature, he was mature enough, believe me. In the first trial match to pick the senior Delhi side, he made an unbeaten 99. He didn’t go for his hundred, he just wanted the Delhi cap so early and so badly. He knew his game very well, he was not a shy kind of a person. He wasn’t the kind who would go to sleep at 9 pm with his bat by his side. There was no questioning his dedication and commitment, but he enjoyed himself off the field. He loved shopping, doing funky things, fussing about his hair. But when he came to the ground, he left everything else behind. That was amazing.”
Manhas was the captain when Kohli made his List A debut in February 2006 as well as his Ranji Trophy debut that same November. “He was bubbly and full of confidence,” Manhas observes. “But he was mentally very tough at that point in time as well. And he had a very compact game. He was very street-smart. I would say that’s how Delhi cricketers are because of the summer cricket we play.
“You could see that he had the ability from the very beginning. The benefit he had was that he was very adjustable. He knew what his game was, that’s very important for a batsman,” Manhas continues. “He knew how to tackle different bowlers, when to go after the bowling and where to defend. His calculations were very good back then as well. When he knew the opposition was strong, he wouldn’t get bogged down. He would take it up as a challenge. That was the plus he had. He was up for a fight, that was something uniquely different.”
Midway through his debut first-class season, Kohli lost his father in the middle of a Ranji game against Karnataka at the Kotla. The visitors had made 446 and at the end of the second day, Delhi were tottering at 103 for five with Kohli holding firm on 40. Early the next morning, his father passed away in his arms; Kohli had lost his mentor, his guide, his inspiration, his friend. Distraught but determined, Kohli turned up at the Kotla on the third morning, ready to resume battle.
“The call to play the morning after my father’s death came instinctively to me. For me, not completing a cricket game was equivalent to committing a sin. The importance that cricket holds in my life is above everything else,” Kohli has said in the past of how he summoned the fortitude to return to the ground. “My father’s death gave me the strength to fulfill my dreams, and that of my father’s also.”
Manhas recalls that day vividly. “As I was the captain, I had the habit of going early to the ground but when I reached the dressing-room, he was already there. He was sitting with his head down and I asked him what happened, why he was so early. The moment he looked at me, I noticed that his eyes were all red. Clearly, he hadn’t slept one wink, he had cried all night. He said his father had passed away, I was speechless. I told him that if he wanted to go home, that was perfectly understandable. But he said he wanted to play and that if he went back there, he would be in the same atmosphere which he had left. That’s why his brother and mother had told him to go out and play.
“That was something different, just leaving everything behind, all those memories, his grief. The way he batted that day, I don’t know what happened, maybe God was with him, he was batting superbly. He had no thought process going on but something was different. He batted so beautifully, he saved the game for us.”
Kohli made 90, Puneet Bisht weighed in with 156 and Delhi posted 308, not enough for a lead but more than sufficient to stave off defeat.
“By then, we knew he had the potential to make it big,” Manhas notes. “I had no idea what heights he would reach, of course, but to see where he has got to today is awesome. Over the years, his game has changed and that’s what happens when you play for a long time. But he was one guy who had all the shots in the armoury and he was prepared to play for India back then as well. Maybe after a year of Ranji Trophy, he was good to go. He had that special ability to adapt quickly because at that level, there is a lot of scrutiny. They examine you closely, they just bowl at your weaknesses but he had that confidence to adapt quickly. To reach a certain level is one thing but to dominate international cricket for a span of so many years is remarkable. That’s what separates him from the rest.”
Kohli’s leadership qualities expressed themselves from the off, Manhas says. “I was his first senior captain but when he started playing for North Zone, he was made the captain and I was still in the team,” Manhas points out. “And even in the games for Delhi where I led, he used to come up to me and give me suggestions without inhibition. That speaks volumes about his confidence, about the thinking cricketer he was even back then.”