It was the morning after India had lost to Australia in the semi-final of the 2015 World Cup. With me on the flight back to Singapore was Virat Kohli. We had checked in for the flight standing next to each other at the Singapore Airlines counter. We had nodded at each other. I, in recognition. He, out of politeness.
Over the next hour or so I sat at a corner of the lounge observing him. He was with Anushka, but as often happens with Indian celebrities, privacy was at a premium. Every few minutes, someone would walk up to him to commiserate on the loss. He would shake their hand, acknowledge their words, and go back to conversing with his then fiancée.
Virat had walked in to bat the previous day at a stage from which India would on most days have won the match. Not this one. Chasing 328, India’s best batsman had come in at 76 for 1 in the thirteenth over. The Australian clients I had taken to watch the match were already shaking their heads in resignation. Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli coming together with India going along at over six runs an over was bad news. Then it happened.
Kohli had been tied down by some excellent bowling and with his score at 1 having faced 12 balls, he charged down the pitch at a Mitchell Johnson delivery. Johnson banged it short, it took the top of Kohli’s bat and went straight up in the air for Brad Hardin to take the catch. The floodgates opened as they often did on Kohli’s exit. Dhoni tried to do what he had done so often, but it was clear to everyone at the SCG that day that the Indian captain’s powers of carrying the team on his shoulders during a chase were on the wane. India lost by 95 runs. It was widely acknowledged in the press the next morning that the moment the match turned was when Kohli was dismissed.
Back in the Singapore Airlines lounge, as the hour passed, I could see the smile becoming forced and the agitation in Kohli rising as the well-wishers continued to hound him. Thankfully the flight was called and we proceeded to board.
The flight from Sydney to Singapore is a long one and an hour into the flight I realised Kohli was sitting across the aisle from me in Business Class. Anushka I assumed was in First class since he was alone. He saw me looking at him and smiled and said hello. I greeted him back but desisted from a conversation, respecting his right to privacy.
A couple of hours later we found ourselves standing next to each other waiting for the washroom to be free, and he smiled again. I knew he had just been appointed India’s new Test captain, so without alluding to the World Cup, I congratulated him, wished him well, and told him I was looking forward to his stint (which I genuinely was). His face lit up with a smile and he surprised me with a warm handshake and a ‘thank you so much, sir.’
Over the next few minutes we discussed Test cricket and he told me how much it means to him. His enthusiasm was infectious and it was obvious that the words came from the heart. As the restroom became available, I patted him on his rock hard shoulder and once again wished him well, and bid him to proceed.
The years have passed, and as I have seen him mature as a person and a cricketer and develop as a captain in the intervening years, that conversation has always brought a smile to my face.
Five years later as Kohli takes the flight back home on Tuesday almost to the day I had the conversation about Test cricket with him, it’s deja vu time.
He has spent five years building from the ground up a young team that has shown enormous promise, created and nurtured a pace attack of a quality and impact that has never before been seen in India, and introduced a level of fitness that is the envy of teams worldwide. As it so often happens in elite sport, it all came crashing down in the space of less than sixty minutes at Adelaide. The Sultans of Swing, as one wit wrote on social media, put India in Dire Straits.
The ghost of Winter of '36 will never leave Virat Kohli notwithstanding the great things he will undoubtedly achieve as a player and captain in the years to come, just as the infamous Summer of '42 haunted Ajit Wadekar for over 40-years until his untimely passing.
The team will recover, rejuvenate, and rebuild to touch the heights it deserves to. This is an exceptional bunch of talented youngsters who deserve far better than to be trolled as they have been the last couple of days. But they need to buckle down, come back fighting with resolve and result, and prove to their fellow countrymen and the world of cricket that what happened at Adelaide was an aberrational Six Sigma event.
On Tuesday morning as Virat Kohli boards the lonely flight back to Mumbai, I hope sitting next to him will be someone who empathizes with what Indian cricket’s most successful captain is going through. Perhaps a congratulatory pat on those rock hard shoulders and a positive conversation about the joys of impending fatherhood would be in order.
In these difficult times more than ever before, Kohli’s fellow passengers on the flight would do well to remember what I have always told my teams when the chips are down - no one has died.
Anindya Dutta is a cricket columnist and author of four bestselling books. His latest, Wizards: The Story of Indian Spin Bowling won India’s Cricket Book of the Year award for 2019 and is long-listed for the MCC Book of the Year.
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