Is Virat Kohli burning the candle at both ends?
Cricket aficionados would tend to believe so. Kapil Dev, the legendary former all-rounder and World Cup winning skipper, did not mince his words at a recent function in New Delhi when he wondered if the intensity displayed by Kohli — on and off the field — would last long enough for him to become an all-time great. He said that he was thoroughly impressed by his aggression and passion in everything that he did. In his opinion, if Kohli manages not to burn himself out, he would someday be regarded as the greatest batsman ever, even ahead of Sachin Tendulkar and Sir Donald Bradman.
‘Cheeku’ — as he is known in cricketing circles — who has just taken over as India’s skipper in all three formats of the game, seems to be in sublime batting form at present. Besides scoring four double hundreds in four consecutive series, he has amassed more than 1200 runs in the nine Tests played so far in the 2016-17. In his six-year international career he has scored a hundred in every six visits to the crease, in both Tests and One-Day Internationals. In T20s, he has an astounding average of 53.40.
On the field, Kohli gives off more than a hundred percent, thanks to his new diet and fitness regime. As a skipper, he believes in leading by example — from the front — and is on the ball, every delivery. He has brought a new sort of aggression into Indian cricket and therefore it’s no wonder that opponents find Team India to be intimidating adversaries.
Brand Kohli’s estimated worth is in excess of US$ 60 million. He is said to be one of the most marketable athletes in the world and endorses more than a dozen products. He also owns a football team, a tennis team, a chain of gymnasiums all over India and of course, a clothing brand. To give back to society, he has launched the Virat Kohli Foundation (VKF) that looks after the needs of underprivileged kids.
Team India’s schedule for the rest of 2017 is chock-a-block with Tests, ODIs and T20 matches. There’s hardly any respite for players like Kohli who play all three formats. The hectic and energy sapping Indian Premier League (IPL) will follow close on the heels of the India-Australia Test series. The Indians then take on Sri Lanka in three Tests, five ODIs and a couple of T20s, to be probably preceded by a World Test Championship in England. The Champions’ League comes up in September, followed by a series of ODIs and T20 matches against the Aussies. The Indian team then departs for South Africa on a grueling three-month tour at the end of the year.
That Kohli is at present handling this demanding schedule well is apparent from the fact that he is scoring runs in a heap. And he is notching up some important series wins for India as skipper too. On the personal front, despite being hounded by the paparazzi, he has made no bones about his relationship with Bollywood star, Anushka Sharma. He also flits around the country, fulfilling his commercial commitments and spending hours before the camera. So far, so good. But for how long?
The sporting world has seen hundreds of superstars abdicating their thrones, out of the blue, fed up of constant media attention and pesky fans. In most cases, the quest for excellence and the daily grind of staying fit, mentally, physically and in spirit gets to them and they just can’t take it any longer.
Bjorn Borg, who fought some epic battles with the likes of John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and a few others was an introvert and a baseline ‘retriever’. He was said to be mentally stronger than most players of that period. But then, one day in 1981, after his defeat to ‘Mac the Brat’ in the US Open final, he just walked off the court — even before the presentation ceremony — never to return as a ‘superstar’ again.
Another superstar, Novak Djokovic is the first man since Rod Laver to hold four Grand Slams in one year. But the 12-time Grand Slam champ now looks jaded and doesn’t seem keen enough to win. He lost in the third round at Wimbledon, had a first round exit in the Olympics, did badly in two successive Masters Series tournaments and lost to Andy Murray in the ATP World Tour finals. Of course, his astonishing second round exit in the Australian Open this year to a player who was ranked 117 in the world established the fact that his ‘inner game’ had hit a low.
One of the cricketers who fell prey to burn out in recent times was the very talented SA-born English batsman, Jonathon Trott. He averaged 44.08 in Tests and 51.25 in ODIs but during the Ashes series of 2013 decided that he just couldn’t take it anymore. He made a brief comeback and then called it a day in 2015. “It was difficult for me to operate at even fifty percent of my capability. I simply didn’t have the emotional and mental energy to get there,” he said later.
Another cricketer who succumbed to stress — the media called him a ‘nut case’ — was the exceptionally brilliant batsman, Marcus Trescothick. He retired from international cricket in 2008 but continues to play first-class cricket in England.
Sports psychologists believe that the main causes of ‘burn out’ are the lack of rest, too much pressure and stress, and tying of sporting performances to one’s self-worth. In today’s sporting world, when athletes aren’t playing, they are either shooting for a commercial or attending events to endorse products. They hardly have the time to recharge their minds and bodies. Rest for top level athletes, it is said, isn’t an option; it is an integral part of training.
Pressure is part of ‘growing up’ for an athlete. But too much of it can drain him or her of the enjoyment of sport. The burn out process begins where enjoyment ends. When the fun factor goes out of sport, the intensity and the desire goes too. The athlete is then well on his/her way to being cooked.
Another mistake that athletes, coaches and even parents make is to link sporting performances with one’s self-worth. If you perform well you are a worthwhile person, if you fail you are worthless! Under these circumstances, every time there is an event, the athlete puts his/her ego at stake. This is a surefire way of eroding one’s enjoyment of sport.
A world class athlete doesn’t burn out all of a sudden. There are always tell-tale signs of its coming. The earlier the athlete or his/her coach recognises these signals the better for the athlete in terms of longevity.
Fatigue, lack of energy and low endurance are very early signs of being jaded in sports. Athletes who are on course to burn out also fall ill frequently and suffer from chronic injuries. These factors usually lead to loss of fun, loss of meaning and difficulty in focusing, leading to a loss of form and a performance slump.
In the final stages of burn out, athletes are usually frustrated and have behavioural problems. These outward problems actually mask the athlete’s inner struggles with burn out.
The rule of thumb for longevity in professional sport is to go slower; arrive sooner. Sachin Tendulkar (1989 – 2013) and Rahul Dravid (1996 – 2012) did this so well and had long, successful careers. Kapil Dev (1978 – 1994) too, in times when cricket was less intense, played for an extended period despite conditions on the sub-continent not being pace bowler-friendly.
Can Virat Kohli play for another 10 years without burning himself out? He can. Not by cutting off his intensity or for that matter his aggression. But by judiciously taking time off to rest.
The author is a cricket and mental toughness coach, having mentored several first class cricketers including the present Mumbai Ranji captain. He is also a cartoonist.