London: In December 2006, an 18-year-old Virat Kohli was playing a Ranji Trophy match for Delhi. His team were in trouble at 105 for four against Karnataka and facing the follow-on the next day. Kohli was 40 not out at the close. That night, Kohli’s father died, aged just 54, from a stroke.
Rajkumar Sharma, Kohli’s coach from the age of nine, was away in Sydney and received a call from his tearful young protege, breaking the news.
“He called me, crying, saying, ‘My father is no more’,” Rajkumar tells The Daily Telegraph. “I was shocked because he had become a dear friend of mine. He asked, ‘What should I do? I am batting on 40-odd and Delhi are in big trouble. I want to bat.’ So I encouraged him to play. I said, this is the time to show your character. And he did.”
To the astonishment of his teammates, Kohli arrived at 7.30am at the start of the third day and declared himself ready to play. He went on to score 90, and Delhi saved the game.
“It was very tough for a young kid whose father’s body was lying in the family home and he had gone to play a cricket match. That shows how committed he was to cricket and his team. Virat matured very early because of his father’s death. I was always there for him, but he started taking his own responsibility and became mature from that time onwards.”
‘He was a ferocious competitor’
If Kohli’s reaction to his father’s death indicated an almost preternatural ability to compartmentalise — a trait which has served him well as he has attempted to cope with the pressure of captaining India and of being that country’s biggest sporting superstar — it was not actually the start of his remarkable sporting journey.
That began on May 30 1998, the day Rajkumar opened his West Delhi Cricket Academy. One of the first through the doors was the nine-year-old Virat, accompanied by his father and brother. Kohli would cycle the three miles from his family home with his kitbag on the handlebars. And even now, nearly 20 years later, Rajkumar can catch glimpses of the little boy when he is batting for India.
“He immediately looked different from the others,” says Rajkumar. “He had a lot of power for his age. He had that ambition to play with the bigger boys and not in his age group. He always used to say, ‘Let me play with the elders’. Because in his age group, nobody could get him out. He had a lot of self-belief from the beginning.
“He was strong as a fielder, also. He used to throw the ball from the deep to the wicketkeeper, which was not common at that age. He had a lot of physical strength.
“The best thing about him was he was never scared of any fast bowler — or any bowler for that matter. Even as a 14-year-old kid, facing bowlers who had played first-class cricket. He used to take them on.
“He has added a few changes for different conditions, but the style of his batting has remained the same since the beginning.
“As a young boy, the best strength in him was his cover drive — and he used to hit it very hard. He was a good driver of the ball, but played a lot of flick shots that I felt he should not play in the early part of his innings. Lots of times I had to tell him not to play that shot.
“But he worked very hard to master that stroke, and now it is his bread-and-butter shot.”
The West Delhi Academy now has 800 boys on its books travelling from all over India to work with Rajkumar. It is based at four sites around the city. But the main centre is in West Delhi, an area where people have to jostle for space and fight to get ahead.
Six Test cricketers have hailed from West Delhi in recent years: Virender Sehwag, Kohli, Gautam Gambhir, Shikhar Dhawan, Ishant Sharma and Amit Mishra. Of those, only Gambhir had the safety net of family money.
“Even as a junior cricketer Virat was a ferocious competitor,” says Vijay Lokapally, now the deputy editor of The Hindu newspaper and Kohli’s unofficial biographer, but back then a regular attendee at Rajkumar’s academy, where he would watch the young Kohli.
“He would take defeat to his heart and be upset with any loss. I remember he would wait for his turn to bat and if the target was short, he would like to go and open. Because his worry was that if he was slotted at four, he might not get an opportunity to bat. It is not that he did not have his flaws — he did, and he had some temperamental issues initially. But look how he has got over them and shaped his career.
“Today his mental strength is the best in the world, and it is because he comes from West Delhi, a very tough place. It is a very business-dominated region of Delhi where you are constantly competing with your neighbours or colleagues to find your place. Also the fact that there was such tough competition among the clubs in Delhi. He knew if he did not grab his chance, he would possibly never get it back.”
‘He sets standards for the whole country’
There were setbacks. Lokapally details in his book how Kohli was initially turned down by Delhi.
“At 2am — and this was the days before mobile phones — his coach got a phone call, and it was Virat wanting to know how he had got on at the trials,” he says. “He had to break his heart and tell him he had not made it. He said, ‘They are not convinced you are good’.
“Next year Virat came back and scored six or seven hundreds on the junior circuit and they could not keep him out.”
Kohli’s father told Rajkumar on his first day at the academy that the coach would be a surrogate parent, a mentor for the young Kohli.
He chuckles when asked if Virat has always been such a dedicated fitness freak. “Not exactly. Initially he was this chubby guy who loved eating non-veg food, especially mutton. But the standard he sets himself now started when he began playing for his country and then stepped up when he became the captain. He became so committed, and decided he had to lead from the front. He says he can only ask his teammates to do the fitness things if he has done them himself. He thinks he has to show them it is helping them. Which is why he sets standards for his teammates — and, I would say, the whole country.”
Kohli has not forgotten his roots. He presented a brand-new car to Rajkumar on India’s Teacher’s Day in 2014. Virat was in the United States on a photo shoot so he asked his brother to deliver the car. He knocked on Rajkumar’s door, passed him his mobile phone to speak to Virat and plonked a set of car keys in his hand.
“When he comes to the academy now, he brings two full kitbags. If anyone needs a bat, gloves, spikes or pads he gives them his stuff,” says Rajkumar. “He gives them to the boys who are doing well or are needy. Everybody gets inspired by his presence. He motivates them so much, and if any of them have a problem with batting or bowling they can approach him and he will give them a lot of time. Last time when he came he bowled a lot of throwdowns to a young boy named Rajesh Sharma, telling him how he should be playing short balls. He really helps youngsters.”
‘Some think he’s brash but he’s very down-to-earth’
Kohli still has the same circle of friends from school or his junior cricket teams.
“His upbringing was brilliant. His father, brother and mother always supported him — but never pampered him. They know the values of society, and they brought him up very well,” says Rajkumar.
“He has not added to his friends over the last few years just because he has become a superstar,” adds Lokapally. “He has a very close circle of friends whom he has known from his much younger days. Normally when they acquire fame, people tend to cut off connections with their roots — but in his case he has been very faithful to his friends.
“People wrongly portray him as brash. He is not brash, he is competitive and confident. People mistake that as arrogance. But he has never shown any disrespect. He has a lot of respect for former players and cares for them.
“Whenever he is in Delhi and there is a Ranji Trophy match on and he is not playing, he will make a point of going to sit with his team.
“I find he is down-to-earth, no matter what he has achieved,” he adds.
Every cricketer has a different life story to tell. Kohli’s — from riding his bike to the West Delhi Academy with his kitbag dangling on the handlebars to being the captain of India — reveals a lot about the sort of competitor England will have to overcome if they are to win this Test series.