Southampton, June 4: He walked in quietly, a pair of fashionable reading glasses perched on the bridge of his nose, the designer beard perfectly trimmed, not a hair out of place. His appearance was complemented by his demeanour – pleasant, calmly composed, no sign of the tsunami of emotions that must surely be running through his mind.
Virat Kohli is in his third 50-over World Cup. When he walks out for the toss at the Ageas Bowl on Wednesday morning, it will be his first time as captain. World Cups are notorious for shaping legacies of Indian skippers, especially. Kapil Dev’s stock sky-rocketed after he led the team to a shock triumph in 1983, Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s place in the pantheon was secured after he emulated Kapil 28 years later in Mumbai.
Rahul Dravid, under whom India won away Test series in the Caribbean (2006) and England (2007) will, unfortunately, be remembered as the man who oversaw first-stage elimination in 2007 when there was so much more to his captaincy and leadership skills. It’s unlikely that history will judge Kohli as harshly if he doesn’t bring the cup back home, given that he has already masterminded India’s return to the helm of the Test rankings and recently lorded over India’s maiden Test series success in Australia. But for Kohli himself, the World Cup must loom as the final frontier even though other lands remain to be conquered.
To be the captain at an event of this magnitude is something Kohli is seized of, given that only six men have previously led India at the World Cup. “Playing the 2015 World Cup, I never imagined this day because a World Cup is too far off to predict anything,” Kohli said on Tuesday afternoon, a day before India’s opening game against South Africa. “It's always going to be a time to remember and a very special feeling.”
A good laugh is the best medicine 😃 pic.twitter.com/enFnDofkwl— Virat Kohli (@imVkohli) June 4, 2019
The legacy theme would not disappear during the length of his 23-minute interaction, and Kohli wasn’t shy of discussing it with a larger audience as he reflected on the challenges of an all-play-all round-robin league format. “Looking at the length and format of the tournament, it will be tough for any captain, including myself, playing nine games,” he pointed out. “You are playing every side and you have to think on your feet and adapt very quickly. You have to be precise, make good decisions and stay ahead of the eight-ball. From that point of view yes, it will be a very, very challenging tournament.”
For Kohli, butterflies in the stomach are a must before any match, any competition. Once that sense of nervous anticipation starts to wane, so gradually does pride in performance. The tension is an indication that you care about what you do, about what part you play in the team’s success. “In 2011 and 2015, similar kind of butterflies in the stomach,” he smiled. “Even when you walk in to play a Test match at 10 for 2, you have the same butterflies in the stomach. That is a very consistent factor and when that starts going down, you know what comes next.”
It’s this clarity of thought, a clear understanding of his psyche, and the ability to verbalise his thinking with eloquence, that has highlighted Kohli’s progress from his Under-19 days. That, and the constant pressure of expectations that comes from not just being the best batsman in the team, arguably in the world, but also blessed with the ability to turn it on on the big stage, on the grandest of occasions.
Kohli has made centuries in India’s opening game of each of the two previous World Cups – against Bangladesh in Dhaka in 2011, and Pakistan in Adelaide four years later – so it was inevitable that attention would be drawn to the possibility of a hat-trick. “You don't go out there to prove anything to anyone, but you have to accept that expectations are going to be there,” he said, with perspicacity. “When I walk out to bat, people will say we need a hundred. For me, that's just a part of the process now.”
It’s a process that has worked quite beautifully till now. What do the next six weeks have in store?
(R Kaushik is a cricket writer who has followed the sport closely for nearly three decades, and is covering his seventh World Cup)