Virat Kohli has led Royal Challengers Bangalore, a side full of superstar cricketers, quite admirably. He has thrown himself around on the field, batted with the supreme confidence arising from a mountain of runs and kept his wits around him in pressure situations. He has also, however, exhibited a short fuse far too often for comfort, his innate aggression manifesting itself into behaviour less than acceptable.
Ray Jennings, the Bangalore coach and a Kohli mentor if ever there was one, acknowledged that Kohli had issues to work on, but hastened to add that the system needed to rally around the young man, especially if it had identified him as the one to lead India in future.
Kohli had taken over the captaincy from Daniel Vettori midway through the last season of the IPL once the New Zealander conceded ground to Muttiah Muralitharan and stepped aside. This year, he was named captain before the start of the season. Jennings was asked how he had seen Kohli grow as a leader. "We all know Virat Kohli is going to be a different captain for India one day. He is a real fighter, he needs to understand his strengths and his weaknesses and a fighter sometimes needs to quieten down to be the quiet fighter," said Jennings, a former South Africa coach, on Friday (April 19) night. "I think over time, he will learn that. I have seen a change in him in the last two weeks in certain issues, but nobody can take away his ability to fight and as a leader, you will find that the people around him will benefit from that fighting spirit.
"Five or six years ago, India - I sense as an international - never really had that fighting spirit. And then there was one or two tours where the Dravids and the Harbhajans and the Sachins got together and they started to show the world that fighting spirit. I think Virat is a younger generation coming through where he can compete with any opposition in the world. But having said that, that might probably be his downfall as well. He has to understand moving forward that what is his strength might be his downfall. But I have seen a change in Virat. Tactically he is very good, he is one of the better guys that I have actually seen around. He leads from the front, not only in the field but participation and energy and skills. I think you got something special here. I think the public needs to be patient with Virat."
Jennings took charge of the South African team when Graeme Smith was in his early days as captain, and he said he saw similarities between Kohli and Smith. "As much as I was national coach with Graeme Smith when he was 21-22, I see a lot of similarities between Kohli and Smith," he said. "They both lead from the front, they are both tough guys and they both take time to mature which Smith had the opportunity to do. He had three or four coaches in his first three years, Eric Simons being the one and I being the other and there was a third one (Mickey Arthur). I understand where Virat is. The public needs to understand and people that work with Virat need to mould the guy into something that is going to be very special for India in the next ten years."
Not long after he took over as Bangalore coach, Jennings had identified Kohli as the eventual successor to Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Jennings admitted that Kohli needed to tone his aggression down to acceptable standards. "I judge people by what the market says. You have many fans out there that really support cricket. If you don't have fans out there, you are not going to have a cricket-supporting system. And if the market does not accept certain behaviour, that basically is incorrect," he said. "Virat understands that he does have a hot head and he also understands that he needs to look at that. He is young enough to accept those issues and we have got to give him time to rectify those issues. If you behave like that as a player, you don't really get as much focussed on as if you behave like that as a captain. Virat's not a stupid cricketer, he is a smart guy and he has a vision to captain India. And if he knows people at home are not accepting certain things that he does consistently and he makes the same mistake consistently, he will find out that the system is not going to buy into his system of behaviour or character."
Warming to the theme, Jennings added, "You can go back and have a look at captains in Australia, even in India, that if the behaviour is not acceptable to the market, you are not going to have the full Indian public support that type of character. And if Virat wants the job, he has got to accept that and he has got to learn to change and maybe go through certain programmes. I don't think we are all perfect. He has got a special talent and we have got to say these are the areas and we need to work through those processes."
Jennings had a suggestion for Indian cricket, saying they needed to help Kohli emerge a more restrained, less hot-headed individual. "Indian cricket, if they are smart, they need to get a group of people around him and mentor him for period of time. In 3-4 years' time, you have got an unbelievable cricketer with a good cricket brain and he leads from the front," he said. "What more can you have? I don't think you can get leaders. He is a leader and I have seen him change. Last year, he didn't spend much time in the gym. He is a gym fanatic (now) and he leads from the front. Last week, I said what about having a rest day. He said no, I don't want to sit in my hotel room. I want to go to the nets. All those types of things are telling me that it is good for coach and good for the system where you have the leader."
Offering his own services if required, Jennings said, "When I came here in 2004 (as the South Africa coach), the culture sometimes was that the (Indian) guys didn't want to field. They didn't want to put their bodies on the line. They didn't actually lead from the fielding point of view and as a result, the fielding at that particular stage was really weak. You have a guy that's a fintess fanatic, he is brilliant and puts his body on the line from a fielding point of view, he is aggressive in his cricket and he has huge energies as well as good knowledge. There are one or two issues like we all have issues and I think the system needs to get together and say listen, we are focussing on this guy, let's get him right. If I could play a part... I have been with Virat for five years, hopefully I can sit back one day and watch Virat lead India to No. 1 in the world."