MUMBAI: God filters everyone, says Virat Kohli. At 30 going on 31, the young man’s career, at this very moment, is the essential personification of India’s sporting culture busy taking that massive leap of faith. Determined to walk into the realm of greatness, he set his sights on the big picture seven years ago, and that is when he decided who would be individuals helping him get there.
Right on top of that list is Ravi Shastri, the coach of the Indian team, Kohli’s go-to man, and more particularly someone who approaches life and cricket just like the India captain. In their hands lie the prospects of an approaching World Cup. Looking back at one of the most demanding years for Indian cricket that 2018 turned out to be, and looking ahead to claim the game’s biggest prize, there’s much that has been playing on their minds. Kohli and Shastri sat down with TOI to put all of it in perspective and more.
2018-19 has been a demanding season. It culminates now with the biggest trophy that’s at stake. What’s going on in your mind?
Virat: It’s been a challenging year and one that has left us very proud of the way we carried ourselves. To head to the toughest of destinations with a young but fiercely proud bunch was amazing. That’s precisely how we have approached every big series that we played between January 2018 and now – South Africa, England, Australia. We were very clear about what we wanted to do as a team and where we want to head.
Personally, for you, what was the most rewarding factor?
Virat: It was always about what can you do for the team at that particular time. So, from that point of view, it was about leading a young but competitive side that was only beginning to come together at the start of 2018 for what was going to be a long journey. Just playing the game alone wouldn’t do. There had to be an equal amount of focus on all factors surrounding the game and as captain, the onus was on me to throw the first hat in the ring.
The last two or three years have seen you take your batting to a different level. Add that to your personality – one that’s all about batting on the front foot in all walks of life. Clearly, there’s been too much focus around you. How do you see it?
Virat: I never thought that one day so many people will get inspired by what I do. My priority was to play for the Indian team for as long as possible. That stays my priority even today and shall continue to be. Honestly, these things are very organic. The one fact which continues to remain is that everything about my career, my life, on the field, off it, my heart has been in the right place.
So, that – heart in the right place – is an indicator of why you like to speak your mind at all times …
Virat: I can never be a person who is calculated in what I want to do. My intent, always, is to do what I’m supposed to do at a given point in time – the right thing. I’m not going to be the guy who spends time thinking what others are thinking about me. I’m not saying this in a way where I offend anyone. That’s not how I’d like to convey this. There are people who’re going to like what I’m doing, and others who’re not going to like what I’m doing. As much as I can’t make everyone happy, it’s not like everybody in this world is against me either. So, it’s all a part and parcel of what you do.
Ravi … you will know better than the rest how he (Virat) thinks …
Ravi: You asked Virat about all the focus that’s there with him and how he deals with it from time to time. I’d say, just the way a batsman does when facing a delivery. Play the ball on merit – depending on what the bowler is bowling. Reaction has to be based on the action. So similarly, it’s what you have done in the five years, all the good bit, those are the things you take away into a World Cup and then address it one game at a time, without taking anything for granted.
Virat, you say you can’t be calculated in your approach. You’ve got a coach with you who’s never been seen as one over the last 25 years and more. It makes for a combination that thinks alike …
Virat: If your heart’s at the right place, words begin to convey what you believe in. The intentions have to be there, the right ones, and if they’re there, along with the commitment, somewhere they’ll begin to show. Ravi bhai will agree here, that there’s not much hiding one can do. I can say one thing about myself: I have never done anything which I may have to sit down and say I did it for my own interest. So, when your intent is right and when you’re doing things with the right motivation, God will also give you things back in a certain manner. Believe it, that’s been the case in my life over the last few years.
But given the responsibility you carry, questions will keep coming …
Virat: Fair enough. You asked me if it bothers me that people talk about me all the time – good, bad whatever. Honestly, none of that makes a difference. I don’t want to be the centre of everything. Nobody wants that. But when your intent is to make the team win, eventually you end up doing things which are always going to be seen. Because I would always put my body on the line for the team. I’ll do all it takes when I’m batting, I would run as hard as I can … So, once you’re committed and giving all that you can for one single cause, you’re obviously going to end up being noticed. And that has to be fine with me, I have to live with it – because that’s how I want to play my game, that’s how I want to live my life. That, I think, is a blessing God has given me and I want to continue doing that as long as I’m playing the sport.
Can you talk more about the Virat Kohli-Ravi Shastri combination?
Virat: It’s gone into a sort of an auto-mode now and the reason is because of the work that’s been put in over the last 15-odd months. Culture management has been the calling card and that’s something the team management has been particularly convinced about … The guys have responded to it beautifully. It’s a different picture that’s been pasted outside. Within the team we know the mindset we carry. We’re going with a group of people and this is not about individuals. This is everybody’s effort.
There needs to be a good working relationship, in every sphere …
Ravi: Yes, the hallmark of any successful team, or a great team – and term this team with both those adjectives – is the relationship between the captain, the coach and the support system working around it. It becomes extremely important, because when two individuals are on the same page – and luckily, Virat and me are pretty similar in the way we think, aggressive in the way we think – that’s the time when you got to take your chances. That’s precisely what we’ve tried to do over the last three-four years. And if you look at what we’ve done in the last three, four years as a team, you know, the performances speak for themselves across all formats. So now, that should hold us in good stead going into this World Cup more than anything else, more than thinking of it as a World Cup.
Virat: The beauty is you know what you’ve done over a period of time. You know you’re not going to do anything different but just that – go out there and give your best.
Ravi, you’d know best where this journey started for Virat … when he became so determined and focused in what he wanted to achieve and how he went about things
Ravi: Australia, four seasons ago. When he (Virat) got those four hundreds. You could see a sudden desire in him to strive for absolute perfection. Without cutting any corners. The idea was simple, there was going to be no room for excuses, nothing at all. You could see him telling himself out there, “I want to be the best in the world. But for me to be the best in the world across all formats, I have to do this, no compromise. If it means I have to be the fittest, if I have to sacrifice certain things, I’ll do it. That’s how he set himself on the path. And over the course of time, I think that is exactly what rubbed off on the team.
Team culture and creating a value base are some of the terms one keeps hearing. This is a young squad. Can you speak about what exactly has this team managed to put together?
Virat: I think what we’re focused on is not literally telling the guys: ‘OK, when the crunch situation arrives, you need to show us who you are’. That’s not the culture we’ve tried to imbibe. I always felt that as a high performance, international sporting team, and, in the most anticipated or most played or popular sport in our country for years, we have to – in terms of professionalism – set the right example. You may have different personalities or characters and all of that needs to be respected. The only thing is ‘not working hard’ is not an option. The game has changed so much.
And so have you, over the last six-seven years. No more the Virat who’d let his hair down and have the occasional fun …
Soon after 2012. That’s the year when the transition began. It began more with the idea of inculcating a stricter sense of discipline and need for fitness. When I started my own transition in fitness the simple realisation was that if I don’t keep up with the demands of the game, I’m going to be an average cricketer. People will remember me as someone who did well for three or four years and then, kind of, was one among the many. I knew that I had to change everything about my life, about myself, to be able to be at the top of my game, to be in sync where the world (of sport) is heading.
And then, as captain, you tried to drive the same philosophy within your team …
Virat: If we did not do that, as a group, India would not have been dominating in world cricket. So, we recognised pretty early that you need people who are willing to work hard on a daily basis, not just physically but mentally as well. And honestly, when you have a process, when you have a routine that you have one throughout the week, when you turn up for that game, irrespective of the situation, you believe in that process. You believe that you’ve done all the work that’s required. And I certainly experienced that in the last three, four years of my career that (fitness) has literally changed the way I think about the game.
It’s nice to expect some sort of synch where all players understand each other. Top-level fitness – mental and physical – are extremely crucial in today’s sport. But cricket is still a game of intricate skill …
Virat: Look at it this way: I know I can play 49 overs and still run 10, 12 in the last over to win a game. So, you open up so many options for yourself, and definitely become more confident because you’re not a one dimensional player any more. You can do everything if you’re working hard. Now, look at it this way. When you have 11 such guys stepping out on the field and the first thing that the opposition begins to think that we have to get past each of those eleven to make it count, then you become a strong team. That’s what has happened to us now. That’s why when teams face India now, they acknowledge that they literally have to be at their best to beat us. That’s where we want to be as a team, not just another team that has been good on their day. That’s the idea of a dressing room we had conjured up, that’s the kind of dressing room we have now and it’s such a beautiful thing to be part of it as we head into the World Cup.
This is as much the team management’s role. This is something the support staff should be monitoring …
Virat: Yes. That’s where the management plays such a massive role in adding muscle to that thought and building that culture – to help guys realise that this is a responsibility that needs to be taken up and that too in right earnest. You can’t pressurise someone to start taking responsibility and drive it forward senselessly that it makes the guy feel suffocated. The atmosphere of the dressing room has to be such that there are a bunch of guys hanging there, bonding, having fun together and when it comes to professionalism, doing their work and making everything count.
Ravi: When you relate that passion to team culture, and that culture makes way for a collectively single mindset prevailing in the dressing room, that’s half the job done. Any opposition coming into a game knows, it’s going to be tough getting past this unit.
India’s pace attack – something that the team can be proud of – gets spoken of as the best ever now. Others have compared it to some of the legendary pace attacks ever … That must be a great feeling. A different culture from the one that India has ever seen in the past …
Virat: Well, from the top to the bottom of any team set-up, if everyone’s speaking the same language – which is team, team, team – all the time, then everyone has to work hard with the same vision, for the same goal. So, how can that happen? It happens when you imbibe that message at an individual level, strive to be the best in the world, challenge yourself to go the distance. Any player should ask himself or herself this question: ‘What do I need to do in order to be the best in the world? Am I happy to be getting that 30-odd and in the evening celebrating a win I managed to scrape off? Or, is it about not earned an 80 or a 90 that could’ve helped me finish the game? Find answers to those questions. And then work your way back from there. If there are 11 players in the team who want to be the best in the world, then collectively you become the best team in the world.
Yes. But can’t remember the last time when India played a Test match at the Wanderers or the MCG and it was their attack doing all the threatening …
That’s precisely what the bowlers did. They asked themselves a question: “Why can’t the Indian pace bowlers be the best in the world?” They simply knew they had it in them to realise their potential and be among the best. They set a goal for themselves and worked for it. Sticking to line and lengths in all walks. Outperforming the opposition and not each other in a game. Bit by bit, piece by piece, constructing those magical performances. Nothing happens overnight and they’ve worked hard for it. “Why can’t …?” gradually turned into “why not …?” South Africa happened, then England, Australia – This team never believed that it couldn’t go out there and give it to the opposition. Results didn’t go our way on occasions the way they should have but there was no question about not believing in ourselves. You can ask anyone in the team and you’ll get the same answer.
These pacers were always around. Just that they seem to have a fresh outlook …
Look at Ishant Sharma in the IPL right now, he’s looking like a different bowler in the T20 format. That’s because of the immense confidence he’s gained from the set up that he’s been part of over the last year. He’s been on tour for eight months and been part of a very positive working unit. Look at Shami. I’ve never seen him bowl with that sort of a conviction or confidence that one can see now. He runs in and you can tell. Bumrah has always been that guy, bringing in raw, fresh energy. Hardik is at the top of his game now. There’s Umesh. Khaleel Ahmed is doing well. The one common factor binding these guys is confidence. They all believe that they can be the best. There’s no set rule for anything – like Indian spinners have to be the best in the world. No. We can be the best fast bowlers in the world, the best batsmen or whatever. The thing is, if you believe it, you can achieve it.
From someone like Ishant who debuted in 2007 to Shami, who came in 2013, and now Bumrah who debuted last year – it’s an unusual combination. How was this put together? Some thought process must have gone into identifying how to go about …
To put all of this in perspective, I think the belief that’s there in the system is massive and a lot of that stems from how the team management has driven it in a big manner. Guys who are coming in initially in their careers and making impactful performances, they’re making themselves count. Whether you’ve played 80 Tests or eight, it doesn’t matter. If you’re in a better head space than the most experienced guy in the team, then you will do well. You don’t have to do this the old-fashioned way of having to wait for three / four years to go by, to gain experience and then wait to be given bigger responsibilities.
Bumrah. The name has begun to instill fear of sorts …
Virat: He’s been amazing. His focus on fitness, clarity of thought – all of it is a package. Where the team management did its role was in ensuring how he’s being used – allowing him to be most effective and yet ensuring there’s no burnout. A small example is the Nottingham Test, England’s second innings (with Stokes and Butler at the crease). We waited before handing him the second new ball and he just got through. Keeping him fresh was the key. That’s what won us passages of play in Australia as well (Melbourne, in particular), because we were fitter, we were stronger and our bodies supported what we wanted to do.
So, what this journey also conveys is that there is no particular ‘home comfort’.
Ravi: Yes, give us the pitch and we’ll play.
Virat: Ravi bhai has made a lot of difference there. He’s played a massive role. When we travel now, the communication from him is simple – wherever you’re playing is your home condition. If we had to take a look at the Johannesburg pitch and go “there’s no way we can bat first on this pitch”, you’ve lost the Test. Simple as that. We decided if we win the toss, we’re going to bat first, come what may. As a batsman as well, when you’re walking out to bat on a green pitch, it’s that moment where you decide whether you want this or you don’t want this. It’s all about that moment, all about that confidence if you have what it takes. It’s that mental switch telling you whether you’re up for it or you’re not. I think it’s that one statement we wanted to make and that’s what we did. It also simplified things for us in a lot of ways.
Ravi: We talked about transition. Of Virat’s journey and of this team. This is part of that same journey. It rubbed off on the other players and that included the pacers as well. Fitness alone remained the focus at all times. If you look back three years ago, that remained the calling card. The bowlers got fitter. Then they realised the value of bowling as a unit. Those are the kind of instances that I can relate with when team brilliance began getting the better of individual brilliance. Today, you can talk of Virat Kohli or a MS Dhoni or a Shikhar, Rohit or Bumrah or anyone – the one thing you realise is that you talk of the value that the Indian team brings to the table. It has not happened a lot of times. West Indies of the 80s. Australia at the turn of the century. Great individuals. But legendary teams. Now it’s the Indian team that gets spoken about.
Virat, what’s been Ravi’s single biggest contribution?
Virat: Well, the single biggest contribution has been in allowing the team to play cricket the way it should be played. Work hard, give it all, cherish what you’ve achieved, work on what didn’t go your way. Repeat.
What you’re essentially saying is that it is the simplifying of the mind that has worked for this Indian team …
Virat: Absolutely. I think Ravi bhai would be able to elaborate more. Of what I know, back in the day, it was about being brave. You could not manipulate your way around a situation because the game was played in such a raw and fearless manner. There are so many rules today. So much protection. Players, I think, somehow try to manipulate or think too much to find their way out of a situation rather than just going out there and playing fearless cricket. What he’s trying to imbibe is that every essence of trying to play fearless cricket, playing the game the way it should be played. If you ask me in which way this Indian team has transformed, it is the belief that the game is not over until it is – regardless of the format – that has grown. What they’ve realised now is that you might lose a session or two but there’s nothing that can stop you from getting back into the game. If we won in Australia, it was this mindset. Johannesburg was the same. The self-belief, that’s there in abundance now.
Ravi: I think the big shift in mindset was when from individuals, the focus moved to team culture and they (the players) started relishing a challenge. Take up a challenge and treat it as an opportunity. Once you do that and succeed, all you want in life is more such opportunities. You keep seeking it with the same fearlessness and start playing a certain ‘brand of cricket’. Most of the times it’s a loosely used word. That’s why, as Virat says, the West Indies of the 80s, the Aussies later, were special. They played cricket the way it was supposed to be played.
The win in Australia was big. But you were part of the 2011 World Cup winning team too. Which is a bigger high?
Virat: I would put the win in Australia at par with the World Cup. Look, you cannot place a World Cup win below anything else. It is a global tournament and the significance and the charm of the tournament is something else. It is always going to be THE most important tournament in world cricket. But if you look at the challenges that Test cricket brings, if you look at the fact that we had never ever done something like this in Australia before, then this becomes supremely significant too. The very idea of you being the first ones to do it.
2018 was a demanding year …
Virat: Oh yes, it was. It was a challenging one and a highly satisfying one that ended with the Australia series. Some things didn’t go our way (England) series like we would have wished but in phases, we came very close. The guys learnt the ordeals of Test cricket the hard way and there were many takeaways. I’d say the journey was a relentless burst and hats off to how the players rose to the occasion.
Pujara was brilliant in Australia. A reminder of how valuable he is to Indian cricket …
Virat: Enough credit cannot be given to Pujara for what he accomplished in Australia. Any youngster watching the game can look back at that series and know what a champion cricketer is capable of. That’s how good Pujara was in that series. His performance speaks volumes of his conviction. He gave everyone a lesson in patience, held on to the team management’s beliefs and never questioned his own abilities.
But there were decisions taken – in South Africa, in England – that were debated. Not everybody agreed with how things worked out …
Virat: I guess that’s part of what comes along with my job and I’ve never been bothered about the so-called image. If I have to say something, I say it, because that’s who I am. I’m asked a question that may or may not go with somebody’s idea of what the ideal answer should be, and so be it. There was ample communication with the players on how the team management wanted to go about at that point in time and what I can tell you is the feedback from the players on this was exemplary. They fully understood what was required on their part and were soon back on board with the right answers.
But you did cop up your share of criticism …
I was judged on a daily basis. Let me put it this way: You ask me a question and expect an answer, right? Now, take the answer. Sometimes I get the feeling that in asking the question, you’ve also figured out a potential answer to it inside your mind. Now, you expect me to echo it. When that does not happen, things usually slide from what the line of discussion. Instead, what I feel is lacking is good, natural conversation. Be it media or anyone who has a responsibility towards the game outside of playing it – a flow of good, meaningful conversation always helps.
Ravi: Honesty is the catchword here. There are times when your hard work pays off and there are times when things don’t go your way.
There was a sense that the team management and the captain could’ve shared more about the decisions that were being taken and the science behind it …
Virat: Here’s the thing, if you’re not being honest with yourself, you’re going to be found out. Sooner or later, that’ll be the case. You can’t mask your way to something and that’s where I’ll say this: I’ve never manipulated my way into something ever. I’ve always worked hard for it. That’s what I expect from everybody. Someone asking me a question often may develop the idea of an answer that he expects from me. What happens is when that answer does not conform to the idea that has already developed inside the mind of the person asking that question, because what I do understand is that engagement with media and playing a match are two separate moments. What I’ll say here rather is that I like to stay in the moment. God filters everyone. All that should matter is you walk the right path. Do your bit, with all honesty. Have the commitment. Everything else falls in place.
Ravi: Life is much like batting, treating every ball on merit.
The challenge out there (at the World Cup) is quite a handful. How do you see the oppositions in fray?
Ravi: There’s no special emphasis on any opposition. It’s about how we’re going to play our cricket. If we are confident of what we can do, then all opposition simply has to be treated as a whole.
What’s on your mind, Virat? Technically, this is your fourth World Cup (Under-19 included)…
Virat: You know what you’ve done over a period of time. You know you’re not going to do anything different but just that – go out there and give your best.
The No. 4 conundrum. You’ll have worked your way around it?
Virat: The team management has worked it out. We have our options ready. What we kept in mind at all times was to pick a flexible side, one that hasn’t merely been consistent in terms of performances but complements the ranks. There are plenty of opinions which I respect. But there are also certain plans in place.
Virat: In pressure situations, he’s shown composure. It was something that everybody on board was convinced about. He has the experience. If, god forbid, something happens to MS, Karthik can be immensely valuable behind the wickets. As a finisher, he’s done well. So, it was the overall exposure to a tournament of this magnitude that was taken into primary consideration.
Ravi: We can very well imagine there’s more than an opinion in place that some capable guys have missed out. Heart goes out to them. Picking 15 from an immensely talented pool is never easy. I’d say to these guys: Keep going the way you have. Be prepared, in case there’s an unforeseen requirement that pops up. But, what the selectors have zeroed in on: I’ll say, it’s the best combination that’s been put in place after factoring in all aspects.
MS Dhoni – the chatter around him is deafening. On his day, he’s never short of being miraculous. On other days, looks like he’s half the batsman he used to be …
Virat: What can I say about him. My career started under him and few have seen him from so close over the last few years as I have. There’s one thing about MS that’s far more important than anything else – and there’s a lot to him – for him, the team is always above everything else. It’s always about the team, no matter what. To top it, look at the experience he brings to the squad and we’re richer with it. Some of his dismissals behind the stumps, just recently too (in IPL), were match-changing.
He’s had to cope with a lot of criticism too …
Virat: That’s unfortunate. Honestly, I think people lack patience. An odd day here, a poor one there, and chatter becomes endless. But the fact is that MS Dhoni is among the smartest guys in the game. Behind the stumps, as I said, he’s priceless. It gives me the freedom to do my thing. Someone like MS is around with a wealth of experience. Those five-six extra years of experience he carries with him is phenomenal. He’s been part of a few World Cups himself … three with the senior teams. So there’s plenty to contribute out there.
A lot is being expected of MS from a leadership perspective too …
Virat & Ravi: MS and Rohit – both. The way they’ve gone about with their respective roles – as captains (in IPL) – speaks volumes of what they bring to the table. MS in particular has a legacy. So, it augurs so well for this team to have both of them in a leadership role. That’s why, the team management decided to have a strategy pool in place which MS and Rohit are part of along with us (Virat and Ravi).
Much of what India does with the bat, outside of Virat at No. 3, depends on how the openers contribute. In 2013 (Champions Trophy), that’s exactly what went India’s way …
Ravi: In the current scenario, Rohit and Shikhar don’t just make for the best opening combination that India can put forward, but they’re easily the best in the world right now. Their records in white ball cricket speak for them and I have no doubt they’re looking to make the most of it.
In 2011, soon after lifting the World Cup, you shared a wonderful quote. ‘For 25 years’, you said ‘Sachin has carried India on his shoulders. It’s now for us to carry it forward’. How do those words resonate with you today?
Honestly, nobody can plan how one’s career should or will exactly unfold. Nobody can plan that how the journey’s precisely going to be. That’s the beauty of it. You say things because you dream. You begin to wish and when life unfolds, it’s your commitment that eventually scripts the story. In hindsight, I just said because I felt like saying it. That was eight years ago. I couldn’t have been sure of everything I was saying, thinking back then. But I could sense a sort of a picture.
Source : timesofindia