“Because I am a guy who likes to play with intensity. Once that is gone, I don’t know what I am going to do on the field.” – Virat Kohli, after scoring 160 not out and leading India to a 3-0 scoreline in their six-match One-Day International series against South Africa.
That Virat Kohli has revolutionised how Indian cricket, or even Indian sport, looks at fitness is not up for debate anymore. His ruthless culling in diet that involved cutting out several of the tastiest dishes on offer in North India is the stuff of legend now, and on Wednesday (February 7), the full effects of his fitness regimen were on display as he batted for 220 minutes under a harsh Cape Town sun, through cramps mid-way, still running hard in the 50th over and still with the energy to hit the big shots till the last ball.
“Look I am going to be 30 this year,” said Kohli. “The decision (to focus on fitness) was in terms of extending the quality of cricket that you want to play at an older age as well. I want to play this kind of cricket even when I am 34-35. That’s why I train so much. Because I am a guy who likes to play with intensity. Once that is gone, I don’t know what I am going to do on the field. I try to protect that, I try to train as much as I can, keep a check on my diet. Those things pay off on days like these when the team needs it, and you stand up, and you are able to pull through. Amazing things happen when you are thinking of the team throughout. As an athlete you crave for days like these. These are the days that give you satisfaction. As a batsman as an India player, I am really happy I was able to contribute to the current mood in the change room.”
The mood Kohli was speaking of is particularly upbeat in the Indian team at the moment, being 3-0 up against a South African side that whose bowlers have not found a way past Kohli’s bat, and whose batsmen have been deer caught in the headlights of wrist-spin courtesy Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal. And the intensity he spoke of has transferred from captain to team, with Kohli emphasising that with the series not yet won, India would not be letting their guard down.
“I feel really happy for all the boys in the team, because we work hard on a daily basis,” said Kohli. “You want to make sure you execute things you practice. We are doing those things in the match. When you do that, you feel good about it as a squad. The mood in the change room is very positive, and you enjoy everything and enjoy travelling together and enjoy moments on a daily basis. You earn it by working hard in the middle. So from that point of view, I am very, very happy for the team. But the intensity will be more in the next game. We’d like to close the series out and make sure we’re not letting our guard down because we worked really hard from that last Test to winning four games in a row on a tough tour of South Africa. We are really proud of ourselves as a team. But I think the job is not even half done yet. That’s the kind of thinking we’ve always had. Even when we are winning, we want to keep up the intensity all the more. I think that has been our biggest plus point.”
While India are flying high and aiming higher, the challenge for South Africa is to not let themselves be dragged down to the depths. Three ODIs have brought three crushing defeats, and unlike India in the Test series, South Africa haven’t looked like equal competitors at any point in the series.
“I think every cricketer has been through this at some point in their career,” reflected JP Duminy, one of the few bright spots for the home team in the third ODI with a 51. “It will take a day or two to get over the loss. The more you play, the more you realise that ups and downs come with the game. If you have a strong culture, that’s what you turn to when things are not going well. Making sure you don’t isolate yourself from the team, that you give to the team rather than taking for yourself.”
The injuries haven’t helped South Africa, and Aiden Markram, the new captain, is having a trial by fire. Though he does have the presence of seniors like Duminy and Hashim Amla to lean on, Markram is at the opposite end of the spectrum to Kohli, an established leader at the top of his game versus an inexperienced youngster in charge of a struggling team.
Duminy said Kohli was “up there with the world’s best” and was generous in praising the Indian skipper. “He’s in really good form at the moment. He’s had an unbelievable year and he’s just carried on. He oozes confidence. We’re going to have to come up with different plans for getting through him.”
For Markram on the other hand, the series so far has been about learning through difficult times.
“Quite a few guys have helped him out and he has confided in a few guys,” said Duminy of Markram. “This is the quickest way to learn, going through difficult times. The type of character he is, he will get through it. It’s a not a case of he needs to go through this alone, we’re a team. At the end of the day the team hasn’t played well, it’s not that he hasn’t led well. As a captain you can only do so much, say so much, motivate so much. We’ve got to stand up and put in those performances that we get paid to do.”