Bangalore: Virat Kohli is a remarkable young man, symbolic of brave new India which not only knows what it wants, but also how to get there.
Long before he captured the imagination by leading the country to the Under-19 World Cup crown in Kuala Lumpur in 2008, Kohli had made a telling statement of intent and character. Then only 18 and in his first first-class season, Kohli lost his father during a Ranji Trophy game against Karnataka at the Feroz Shah Kotla, in December 2006. He came back out to bat the following day, speechless and clearly in mourning, but made a sparkling 90 to haul his side out of the woods.
Just to bat out time and help his team avoid defeat was a commendable accomplishment for somebody in his first season. To do so under mitigating circumstances suggested that here was one for the future, worth investing in, worth nurturing.
Kohli hasn't proved his backers wrong. He has blossomed into a wonderful batsman at the highest level, already has ten One-Day International hundreds and, after an iffy start to his Test career, has proved that he has what it takes to succeed at the Test level, too. His century in Adelaide was one of the few bright spots for India during a disastrous Test tour of Australia, though Kohli was to outdo himself a month later at Hobart, in a mesmeric batting exhibition against Sri Lanka in the most extraordinary run chase.
The rewards were almost instantaneous. As India stumbled from the Australian summer to the Asia Cup in Dhaka, Kohli was named Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s deputy. Admittedly, Virender Sehwag was missing through injury but Gautam Gambhir, the vice-captain during the tri-series in Australia who made two 90s during that campaign was very much a certain starter in the Asia Cup.
Kohli's elevation to the vice-captaincy was a seminal moment in Indian cricket history. For the first time, India's selectors were sticking their necks out and proclaiming to those who cared to listen that they were grooming a young man for the job. Yes, Anil Kumble was deputy to Sachin Tendullkar and Sourav Ganguly, but Kumble was a peer, indeed senior to both Ganguly and Rahul Dravid. Yes, Sehwag was Dravid's vice-captain on numerous occasions and did lead the team in both Tests and one-dayers when Dravid was unavailable, but he missed numerous tournaments through injury and once Dhoni was dramatically thrust into the hot seat, time had passed Sehwag by.
Kohli's, though, is a different case. Injuries aside, he will play for India for a long, long time and, as of now, has done enough to nail down a Test spot. He is a sure starter in all three formats, will have a couple of years to learn the ropes from watching Dhoni, interacting with other captains both within and without, and should be ready for the Indian leadership role as and when it comes his way.
Kohli couldn't have asked for a better set-up in which to hone his captaincy skills than at Royal Challengers Bangalore. A tactical call meant Daniel Vettori, the regular skipper, was benched for all of the second part of IPL V. Kohli led a team replete with glamorous international stars, many of whom – Chris Gayle, Tillakaratne Dilshan, AB de Villiers – have led or are leading their countries. He had the wisdom of Vettori and the guiding hand of Kumble to fall back on and, from all accounts, he did an excellent job even if the Challengers failed, narrowly, to make the knockout stages.
As the tournament progressed, so did Kohli's stature as a leader grow. It would have been easy for a 23-year-old to be intimidated at having to make the tough decisions when men such as Gayle, Dilshan, De Villiers and Muttiah Muralitharan, not to mention Zaheer Khan, were in the mix. If Kohli was intimidated, it was evident neither in his words nor his deeds. No one had any doubts who the captain was; Kohli commanded respect and conducted himself with tremendous poise.
It was at once amusing and heartwarming to see Kohli attempt to broker peace between an uncouth Ambati Rayudu and a shell-shocked Harshal Patel after the Mumbai Indians conjured a dramatic victory at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium. Rayudu let loose a foul-mouthed, unprovoked rant that eventually riled Patel. Kohli stepped in to try and defuse the pressure-cooker situation; while it is debatable if he succeeded, what was not was that he had grown into the captaincy role.
It hasn't always been so. Young, hot-headed and brash, Kohli has for long given the impression of thirsting for a fight. His aggression has been naked and unapologetic, and more than occasionally, he has allowed it to get the better of him. By his own admission, he lost his way somewhat after IPL I, swept away by the good life, the adulation, the burgeoning bank balance and the sudden fan following, especially from the opposite sex.
To his eternal credit, Kohli quickly got his act together. Astonishingly, he did so on his own steam, realising that fame, money and endorsements were a direct fallout of his successes on the field. A few well-meaning individuals did point the way, but essentially, it was about self-realisation and self-awareness, qualities that singled him out as a special individual in a sea of unproven talent.
Krishnamachari Srikkanth and his panel must be complimented for sticking with Kohli as the vice-captain for the limited-overs tour of Sri Lanka. The temptation to replace him with Gambhir, who led Kolkata Knight Riders to the IPL title a month and a half back, must have been overwhelming; to not yield to that temptation but to continue Kohli's grooming could yet be one of the more significant decisions Srikkanth's panel has made.
Srikkanth and his team will make way for a new set-up in a couple of months. The successors would do well to buy into the vision of the previous team because Kohli has done nothing to suggest that he doesn't deserve the vice-captaincy. Or that, going forward, he isn't captaincy material.