On reaching Dhaka for the March 12-22 Asia Cup, Virat Kohli and teammate Rohit Sharma watched videos of Pakistan spinner Saeed Ajmal for hours, skipped lunch and nearly missed a team practice session.
Ahead of their clash on March 18, Pakistani cricketers huddled in the dressing room to remember former coach Bob Woolmer and vowed revenge for the loss to India in the 2011 World Cup. In the Indian dressing room, Kohli was cool as cucumber. "We have done our homework (for this match), don't worry," he told Sharma. Not many shared his optimism, especially after Pakistan put 323 runs on the board and Indian opener Gautam Gambhir walked back to the pavilion without the team opening its account.
But Kohli's 183, which included 23 boundaries, at the Sher-e-Bangla National Stadium-his fourth hundred in Bangladesh-tore apart a quality Pakistan attack, helped India scale its highest One-Day International (ODI) target and underlined his credentials as a master of the chase, a title given to him by the legendary Sachin Tendulkar. The master blaster, in fact, did not leave his seat in the dressing room throughout Kohli's innings. His faith in cricket's latest poster boy was a revelation to many in Mirpur, the venue of the explosive India-Pakistan clash.
Yet, India headed back home disappointed, failing to make it to the finals. The tournament, however, completed Kohli's transformation as a mature modern-day cricketer. The numbers are staggering for India's new ODI vice-captain. In 48 innings batting second, the baby-faced Kohli has averaged 58.40, hit seven hundreds and 13 half-centuries-earning the unofficial title of the world's best ODI player.
In an interview on the telephone from Mirpur, Kohli tells India Today Deputy Editor Shantanu Guha Ray that every time he goes out to bat, he splits his innings into targets of 30, 60 and 100. That way, he often gets a 50 or a ton. And he values the vice-captain's tag more than his life. Excerpts from the interview.
Q. Were your two tons in Australia and Bangladesh wasted because India could not make it to the finals?
A. Let us not read too much into the defeats in England, Australia and Dhaka. We had our moments and we have had some bad times. We have played a lot of cricket in the past one year. We played some great games in Dhaka, yet we could not make it to the final. It happens with every team. Win or loss is a part of the game. We only learn to win from defeats. I feel the team is slowly turning around from these defeats.
Q. What played on your mind when India lost a wicket with no runs on the board in response to Pakistan's huge total?
A. No cricket team in the world depends on one or two players. The team always plays to win. The Indian cricket team is full of top quality cricketers. Losing a wicket without a run on the board creates instant pressure but that is not the end of the world. Never did India, not even once, falter in the match and show any weakness for Pakistan to take advantage. We chased a big score and won in style.
Q. But the Indian bowlers did not impress, especially against Bangladesh and Pakistan.
A. If you noticed the pitch, you would realise it was a batsman's delight. The outfield was fast and it was difficult for the bowlers to pin down a side to less than 250-270. We had a bit of bad luck there. The bowlers didn't get the result they desired.
Q. The same pitch offered lot of advantage to you and other batsmen.
A. Yes. I have had some success in Dhaka. I got two centuries earlier and scored two more in the Asia Cup. It's like a typical subcontinental pitch with a fast outfield. Batsmen always flourish on such wickets.
Q. Experts have rated your innings better than Kapil Dev's knock of 175 against Zimbabwe at Tunbridge Wells in the 1983 World Cup.
A. Kapil Dev helped India remain in contention for the World Cup and eventually brought the Cup home.
Q. India-Pakistan matches were once special, high-voltage. Do tensions still run high?
A. Some matches, as in the World Cup, are very explosive. Even the last World Cup semi-final in Mohali was tense. This one was special because we had to win to keep the door open for the Asia Cup final, especially after our loss to Bangladesh.
Q. Why give vent to your emotions in public? Is that wise with so many people watching?
A. I do not abuse players, I talk to myself, I abuse myself. It's my way of letting off steam. I do it after every century, I do not do it always. I keep telling myself: Improve, improve from the previous match, the previous shot. You can do it.
Q. Cricket is now only about ODIs and T20s. Do you agree?
A. No, I don't. We play the entire quota of Test cricket as scheduled by the International Cricket Council.
Q. But Test matches don't attract the crowds anymore?
A. The fault lies with the crowds, not with the game, certainly not with the cricketers.
Q. You must be happy at being made the vice-captain. But the tag has its pressures. Do you think you could lose it if you do not shine with the bat?
A. If I do not shine, I will be out of the side. I try and keep my head down. I do not bask in the glory of a win and rarely talk. Everyone has seen me change after the U-19 World Cup win in Kuala Lumpur in 2008. I have not even read the newspapers that bestowed a hundred titles on me after the Pakistan match. I know the importance of the India shirt, and the vice-captain's tag.
Q. How did the transformation into a fluent off-side batsman occur?
A. My focus had always been the on-side. My coach wanted me to work on the off-side strokes since he was convinced of my ability and timing on the leg side. I worked hard and firmed up my defensive technique. I am happy getting runs all around the wicket now, and getting a lot of boundaries. No one calls me a "leggie batsman" anymore.
Q. You seem to enjoy the pressure, the chase.
A. I do not shy away from pressure. I have scored big runs while chasing huge totals in some recent matches. I set a good platform for myself so that I can get some big runs to help my team.
Q. You are being described as the world's best ODI cricketer.
A. If I do not perform, the title will change to the world's worst ODI player.
Q. How crucial is cricket to you?
A. It is life for me, it is everything. I delayed my father's funeral because of cricket. The guidance I get from seniors has helped me mature as a middle-order batsman and allowed me to retain my place in the Indian side.
Q. Tell me one lesson you learnt from skipper M.S. Dhoni.
A. To stick around in the middle, get runs and help your team gain a better position. He has taught me not to be in a hurry to score runs the moment I walk out into the field. I have learnt not to throw away my wicket.
Q. What kind of advice do you seek from seniors in the team? You wrote a letter to Sachin Tendulkar recently.
A. I did so to tell him to guide me through my moments of crisis. I grew up watching him, now I play alongside him. He offers invaluable advice. Cricket, after all, is a high-pressure game in India.
Q. But cricketers earn a lot these days from the game and brand endorsements, don't they?
A. Nothing extraordinary happens to a cricketer if you time his career-which is very short. Everyone loves a win in India. No one wants to lose a match. It is the cricketer who absorbs all the pressure.
Reproduced From India Today. © 2012. LMIL. All rights reserved.