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Track­ing down a mod­ern-day cricket star can be a night­mare. When the in­di­vid­ual in ques­tion is In­dian cricket’s mil­len­nial icon, it be­comes that much tougher. Mov­ing from one game to another in an end­less whirl of com­pet­i­tive sport, en­cir­cled by pro­tec­tive agents and pushy spon­sors, the 21st cen­tury sportsper­son is liv­ing life in a bub­ble. En­ter­ing that hal­lowed space is not easy.

To be fair, Vi­rat Kohli does oc­ca­sion­ally an­swer my What­sApp mes­sages, promis­ing to do an in­ter­view for my new book on In­dian cricket, but of­fers no firm date. “You know, my fa­ther Dilip Sarde­sai played for In­dia, it will be great if you can give me some time,” I plead. “Don’t worry, it will hap­pen,” is the short an­swer. Fi­nally, six months and dozens of phone calls later, I get a mes­sage from his agent: “Vi­rat will meet you at 1 pm at his Gur­gaon res­i­dence.”

So on a warm sum­mer day, I make my way to Vi­rat’s new home. It’s a two-storey house in one of Gur­gaon’s more quiet, leafy cor­ners, al­most another uni­verse from the ca­cophonous and con­gested by­lanes of Vikaspuri in west Delhi where a young man first nur­tured his cricket dream in a small mid­dle-class self-fi­nanc­ing colony flat.

As I en­ter the plush house, a cutelook­ing bea­gle greets me. I have a bea­gle too, so I sense an in­stant con­nect. I also smell food be­ing cooked in the kitchen. This is, af­ter all, a tra­di­tional Pun­jabi house­hold, and at lunch time, the whiff of fresh­ly­cooked chhole wafts through the air.

I am taken to the base­ment where I wait for my star in­ter­vie­wee to ar­rive. On the ta­ble be­fore me is a bowl of fresh-cut fruit and al­monds. Min­utes later, Vi­rat comes strid­ing in, wear­ing a loose T-shirt, track pants and slip­pers. He seems to have just come from his home gym­na­sium, his well-toned mus­cles lend­ing a ma­cho edge to his gait. He is a lit­tle shorter than I have al­ways imag­ined, but then I should have known bet­ter: In­dia’s finest bats­men have al­ways been well un­der six feet. His rimmed spec­ta­cles give him a slightly un­fa­mil­iar se­ri­ous look, his welltrimmed beard and neatly cropped hair a more recog­nis­able im­age. He munches on the al­monds, peels a ba­nana and then asks for a pro­tein shake. “Will you have some­thing?” he in­quires help­fully. I am happy to munch on the al­monds, while won­der­ing if the chhole will be part of the lunch menu too.

“This pro­tein shake is ex­cel­lent,” he tells me. I would have pre­ferred the

chhole some­how, but quickly re­alise that I am in the com­pany of a supremely fit sportsper­son who is com­mit­ted to a gluten-free, low carb, high-pro­tein diet.


When the his­tory of In­dian cricket is writ­ten, Vi­rat’s runs and cen­turies will daz­zle us. What will be con­cealed amidst the raw statis­tics is the man­ner in which Vi­rat has trans­formed the no­tion of fit­ness in In­dian cricket. My fa­ther’s era in the 1960s and ’70s where crick­eters never stepped into a gym, where the size of the midriff didn’t re­ally mat­ter, where play­ers ac­tu­ally had tan­doori chicken-eat­ing com­pe­ti­tions in the mid­dle of test matches, where a light jog and a few stretch­ing ex­er­cises were par for the course, is well and truly over.

As for­mer In­dia strength and con­di­tion­ing trainer, Shankar Basu tells me, “You should view In­dian cricket now in terms of the pe­riod be­fore Vi­rat and then af­ter Vi­rat. He is not just a great bats­man, he is a cham­pion ath­lete who is pow­er­ful and sup­ple like a leop­ard!”

It was Basu who first in­tro­duced Vi­rat to a high-level fit­ness reg­i­men in 2013. “I re­alised that if I wanted to com­pete with the best in the world, then I just had to be a top-class ath­lete. To­day, maybe I could take on a No­vak Djokovic in the gym!” smiles Vi­rat. It couldn’t have been easy. His coach Ra­jku­mar Sharma tells me how a young Vi­rat rel­ished his ke­babs, biryani and kheer. Early photos of Vi­rat show a boy with a pudgy face, star­ing at the cam­era.

“Well, I am a good Pun­jabi boy who used to love but­ter chicken and food in gen­eral, so the early days of a con­trolled diet weren’t easy,” ad­mits Vi­rat. Now, the diet is a life choice, as are the hours spent in a gym run­ning and lift­ing weights. The great Kapil Dev, ar­guably the fittest crick­eter of his gen­er­a­tion, con­sciously avoided weight-lift­ing, con­vinced that it would make his body stiff. Un­der Basu’s tule­tage, Vi­rat has a well-reg­u­lated lift­ing pro­gramme, es­pe­cially be­fore a T-20 game, one that he says helps give the body the ‘ex­plo­sive’ en­ergy re­quired in the short for­mat. By shar­ing his fit­ness videos on In­sta­gram, Vi­rat is hop­ing to in­spire the next gen­er­a­tion of crick­eters to fol­low his path. Most of them al­ready are: every In­dian in­ter­na­tional crick­eter to­day has fit­ness hard-wired into his DNA.


Un­like his idol Sachin Ten­dulkar, Vi­rat hasn’t had an easy ride to the top. Ten­dulkar, the ul­ti­mate teenage cricketing prodigy, made his de­but in the sport like a sparkling Fer­rari with scarcely an im­per­fec­tion, al­most as if he was born to play the game. Vi­rat, by con­trast, ini­tially strug­gled to find his bal­ance on and off the field. In the early IPL years, as star­dom was thrust on him at a young age, Vi­rat ad­mits to have been car­ried away with the sud­den adu­la­tion. Re­ports of late night par­ties and binge drink­ing led him to ac­quire a ‘bad boy’ im­age and even to be dropped from the In­dian team for al­most a year.

“Some of the sto­ries were ex­ag­ger­ated but, yes, I did make mis­takes,” he con­fesses. I like the can­dour with which he is will­ing to con­front the de­mons of the past: this isn’t your typ­i­cal celebrity liv­ing in de­nial.

Ten­dulkar was Mr In­dia through his ca­reer, some­one who prob­a­bly has contributed more to the Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness in­dex than any other In­dian of his gen­er­a­tion. We cel­e­brated his every cen­tury with the rous­ing echo of a ‘Sachin, Sachin’. Vi­rat doesn’t quite un­leash those ex­treme emo­tions even while he leaves us awestruck with the bril­liance of his stroke play. Maybe, that’s be­cause Vi­rat hasn’t al­ways tried to play the nice guy on the field. He has had tele­vised spats with col­leagues, fallen out with the team coach, dared op­po­si­tion cap­tains and um­pires. Does the ag­gres­sion come nat­u­rally to him?

“I guess it does, right from school matches, I al­ways wanted to play hard and be a win­ner,” Vi­rat claims.

Maybe the tran­si­tion from Sachin to Vi­rat mir­rors how In­dia and In­dian cricket have changed over the years. Sachin grew up in what I like to call ‘the pre-tat­too age’ when crick­eters were still def­er­en­tial to author­ity, when an ex­hi­bi­tion­ist life­style was frowned upon, when you didn’t an­grily vent over 140 char­ac­ters on Twit­ter. Vi­rat is a prod­uct of a more noisy, rum­bus­tious era, of an im­pa­tient start-up cul­ture that is con­stantly on the look­out for new op­por­tu­ni­ties of an In­dia where a youth­ful de­mo­graphic isn’t seek­ing brownie points for just be­ing ‘nice’ but wants to win at all costs.

“When the Aus­tralians try and in­tim­i­date us, no one tar­gets them. When we now give it back, no one seems to like it,” is Vi­rat’s firm de­fence.

The ag­gres­sion is al­most a part of Vi­rat’s ar­mory, his shield against crit­ics and ri­vals. If there is a mo­ment which


ex­em­pli­fies Vi­rat’s fear­less at­ti­tude to the sport, it came in the Ade­laide test in 2014 when the Aus­tralian fast bowler Mitchell John­son hit him flush on the hel­met with a bouncer off the very first ball. Just days ear­lier, Aus­tralian bats­man Phil Hughes had died af­ter be­ing hit on the head. Vi­rat could have been ex­cused for feel­ing a lit­tle daunted by the chal­lenge. In­stead, in his first test as In­dia cap­tain, he got up, dusted his shirt, ad­justed his hel­met, fo­cused his eyes with a steely gaze and smacked the next short ball for four. “Vi­rat will al­ways fight fire with fire, there is no sec­ond guess­ing or half mea­sures with him,” says an ad­mir­ing coach Ravi Shas­tri.

“Look, it’s not just me, I don’t want any­one in my team to ever back off. Back off from whom and for what?” ar­gues Vi­rat de­fi­antly.

As I am leav­ing the house, I see a por­trait on the wall of Prem Kohli, Vi­rat’s dot­ing fa­ther who took him on a scooter to play cricket as a nine-year-old for the first time at the West Delhi Cricket Academy. That his fa­ther passed away at night while Vi­rat was an 18-year-old play­ing only his fourth first class match is part of his early life tribu­la­tions. That he still went ahead and bat­ted su­perbly at the Feroze Shah Kotla ground the next morn­ing even as the cre­ma­tion was kept on hold is a story of sheer courage in ad­ver­sity that de­fines a man’s char­ac­ter.

Vi­rat’s on-field bel­liger­ence, you sense, was shaped in the tragedy that be­fell his fam­ily that chilly De­cem­ber night. It’s al­most as if he took a vow that day never to step back, to al­ways be on the top of his game, to take his pas­sion for the sport to another level where his fa­ther’s spirit would stay with him for­ever.

“I miss him but I know he is al­ways there for me, wish­ing me well, egging me on to do bet­ter,” he says, wist­fully.


Who is the real Vi­rat Kohli? Is he the cham­pion bats­man and tough cap­tain set to break al­most every record in the sport with a sin­gle-minded ob­ses­sion, or a spoilt su­per­star in love with him­self ? Is he the gen­tle soul who has adopted stray dogs, is en­vi­ron­ment-con­scious, and has now started his own char­ity foun­da­tion, or is he sim­ply a highly mar­ketable brand be­ing driven by cricket’s re­lent­less com­mer­cial tread­mill? Is he the eman­ci­pated new age man who stood firmly by his girl­friend, ac­tor Anushka Sharma, when she was vi­ciously trolled on so­cial me­dia, or a brash ma­cho hero who loves to pick a fight on the field?

“Look, I don’t go out much to par­ties or page 3 events. When I am not play­ing cricket, I hang around with a few friends, we play video games and do our own thing,” he says. He is well on the way to be­com­ing the rich­est sportsper­son the coun­try has seen, but the ma­te­rial ac­qui­si­tions – cars, houses, restau­rants and gyms – aren’t his mo­ti­va­tion.

“The money comes when you are suc­cess­ful, I don’t think about it too much. I just want to be in a space where ten years from now I will be seen as hav­ing helped take In­dian cricket for­ward, where every player in this team will leave a strong legacy be­hind,” he in­sists.

I’d like to be­lieve him be­cause, like all great sportsper­sons, there is a raging ‘ junoon’ in his soul that seeks to con­quer the world. He may never be as adored as a Ten­dulkar but the truth is, Vi­rat is a fiercely am­bi­tious and re­mark­ably suc­cess­ful young man who is still dis­cov­er­ing his full po­ten­tial, on and off the field, some­one who is re­defin­ing the sport in the 21st cen­tury by ex­celling in all its for­mats.

One of his lines has stayed with me: “I want to be at­tached, yet de­tached from all I do, like a monk in a civil world.” Vi­rat Kohli may seem an un­likely cricketing monk but then he is also the orig­i­nal

Pun­jab da Put­tar who gave up chhole for a pro­tein shake!


A news an­chor and se­nior jour­nal­ist, Sarde­sai is also the au­thor of ‘ Democ­racy’s XI: The Great In­dian Cricket Story ’, pub­lished by Jug­ger­naut Books and re­leased last week

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