Virat Kohli: A legend with relatable struggles

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We admire athletes for the special things they can do.

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The six-foot-three Steph Curry, medium by basketball standards, brings joy to us when he squirrels about a court, makes space, and sinks a three-pointer with one hand.

We marvel at the effort and the physics involved when Jasprit Bumrah, with his long levers, short run-up and a grunt, extracts pace, bounce and movement from the ball and the pitch. We hold our breath as PV Sindhu bends her back, sometimes 70-odd times during a point, before arching it one final time to unleash a 200kmph smash.

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But there are times when we watch sport to see athletes fight common battles. Not easy battles, but fights that all of us fight, particularly in troubled times such as these.

It is fascinating to see an athlete trying to solve himself or herself, for example, because while not all of us can win championships, all of us, too, are trying to solve ourselves.

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That is why Virat Kohli’s journey has been compelling to follow. As extraordinary as his gifts are, he has also fought to slay inner demons, solve inner riddles, the way we all do. Very few of us are Kohli when it comes to athletic talent. Many of us are Kohli when it comes to our struggle to find ourselves, find the discipline to do justice to whatever talent we may have, to manage our frustrations and negative forces.

Discipline came easily to some legends. In some cases, it was because the athlete in question loved and respected their sport far too much to let anything interfere with it beyond a point, as was the case with Sachin Tendulkar.

In some cases, the athlete’s personality and background helped, as was the case with Rahul Dravid or Anil Kumble.

This is not to say that they were monks, just that they knew there was a place and time for work and play.

Always choosing the right path did not come easily to Kohli. While he was always aware of his cricketing potential, in the initial phase of his career, he was prone to other temptations. It must also be remembered that he made his India debut in 2008, the year the IPL started. Any 20-year-old would have found it difficult to not drink from the fountains of excess of those times.

Thus, due to a combination of reasons, single-minded focus came to Kohli a bit later in his ride. His famous commitment to fitness, for example, was triggered by the rude shock he received when he saw himself in the mirror in 2012.

“The 2012 season of the IPL was very bad for me,” Kohli once said in an interaction with teammate Mayank Agarwal. “My eating habits were horrible. I remember coming back home, coming out of the shower and looking at myself in the mirror and feeling disgusted.”

Kohli said that those days, there would be a bowl of Eclairs in his hotel room. He would finish all of them, every day.

“I thought to myself: ‘You can’t look like that if you’re an international cricketer’. And boom, from the next day itself, I changed everything about my diet,” Kohli told Agarwal. “I started hitting the gym two times a day. Within 8-10 months I lost six to seven kg and then it became such an addiction because I could see the results on the field.” 

It is such moments that make Kohli relatable to fans, even though in almost every other way he is unrelatable, an elite athlete who reportedly makes about $18 million a year, performs a high-pressure job and is married to a filmstar.

It is hard to imagine Tendulkar having a moment of such professional self-loathing during his peak years.

Kohli’s battles with his temper and mental health further connect with the masses.

The artist Bob Eckstein once made a cartoon in the New Yorker. It showed a man with an unsolved Rubik’s cube for a head climbing a mountain. On a clearing on the hill is a meditating man with a solved Rubik’s cube as his head.

It will be ten years since Kohli gave up his butter chicken and Eclairs diet. It’s also ten years since he had his first big tour, in Australia in 2011-12, when he finished top-scorer for India in Tests with 300 runs, ahead of Tendulkar, Dravid, VVS Laxman and Virender Sehwag.

Kohli is 33. He has done his bit as captain, having finished as India’s most successful leader in Tests. If Tendulkar and Dravid could play till 38 and 40, respectively, if Geoff Boycott all those years ago could play till 41, Kohli can hum along many more seasons, twirling his bat as he takes strike, shirt collar popped, the Rubik’s cube of his head solved.

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