Have you ever witnessed the ‘Well of Death’ stunt? The one where someone drives a motorcycle or a car round and round on the walls of a makeshift circular structure? A long time ago, one had the chance to watch that act of daredevilry at some festival or the other back in India. ‘Why would anyone want to do this?’ was the obvious question, even as the eyes witnessed a dumbfounding trick.
Well, there is some physics behind how it works and yet it takes some steely resolve to drive a machine in such manner. Fearless is an apt word to describe it. And whatever the motivation of concerned stuntman, there is some silliness involved as well. You need to boast an element of insanity to pull off a stunt like this.
So, where is this going? Pick out the adjectives aforementioned – fearless/brave, steely resolve, motivation, silliness, and insanity. Each of them, every one, can be used to describe Virat Kohli — the batsman, the captain, the cricketer — in what he has achieved during this recent three-Test series against South Africa.
He was brave in opting to bat first on a rank green-top at the Wanderers. He was fearless in scoring 54 and 41 in two innings there, a marker for anyone who wants to ever criticise him again for being a flat-track bully. There was steely resolve in the immaculate hundred to single-handedly keep India afloat at the Centurion. There has been immense motivation to do well in tough foreign conditions on his first overseas tour as the skipper. It is something that — a lot of people will argue — has driven Kohli to make some silly selection calls (like dropping Ajinkya Rahane in the first two Tests), or some confounding ones (like playing five pacers in the third Test).
Then, there is also the calm fortitude of the death-defying stuntman, even in the heat of the moment. “It’s very important for me to have belief in the team, at all stages. I was thinking if we were in this position, and if we lose wickets, that suddenly makes things difficult for the next batsman coming in to bat,” Kohli replied, when asked about the steady Dean Elgar-Hashim Amla partnership on day four of the Wanderers’ Test. It was a stand that threatened to take the game away from India, or so thought those watching from outside the boundary rope.
“I don’t think like people on the outside,” he further said.
Of course, Kohli doesn’t. When faced with such a situation, he has to make quick-thinking decisions — bold ones — and later explain them to a billion people (no pressure!). In comparison, we — mere mortals — can only chew on our fingernails, or fidget about. The underlying point here is of conviction, of seeing merit in the way you play the game, backing the decisions you take, and not pondering over what has happened or could have happened.
And Kohli has only ever known this way to play cricket, nay, live this life. From the time he was jousting to etch a career inside the boundary ropes, to defending his lifestyle choices away from the field, to becoming the world-beating batsman he is today, and to leading this Indian team in the singular way he does. It is an unapologetic manner, replete with in-your-face bravado, and guts to back up his word. It doesn’t matter what the world thinks of him.
Look at the team selection for this Test series, the keenest example of this ‘shrug and move on’ attitude. At Cape Town, he picked Shikhar Dhawan ahead of KL Rahul, Rohit Sharma ahead of Ajinkya Rahane and Jasprit Bumrah ahead of Umesh Yadav. At Centurion, he dropped Bhuvneshwar Kumar and had Rahane on the bench still. At Johannesburg, he persisted with Hardik Pandya.
35 Tests — that’s a lot of chopping and changing. There is method in this madness, mostly to do with conditions, opposition and the phrase ‘horses for courses’. At times, it is tough to identify with his methodology. Yet, it is underlined in conviction, in saying that ‘we don’t pick teams based on results’.
Then, there is intent, a word that your brain just cannot comprehend. What does it imply? Does it even hold the same meaning for every player?
“For me intent is something where you defend well, you leave well, and you play on the merit of the ball.” That is not Kohli, but Cheteshwar Pujara, whose strike-rate in this series has been a subject of intense discussion.
“I didn’t mention strike-rate. Intent can be leaving the ball or defending the ball too. With your body language, you can get to know how a person is feeling,” explained Kohli.
Intent thus doesn’t have much to do with runs, or wickets for that matter. It hasn’t got to do with talent either, or ability in certain conditions even. Instead, it is about portrayal, about putting yourself out there when the going gets tough, when the opposition unleashes four pacers on tailor-made green-tops.
It is about staying at the wicket when the ball is flying dangerously off length. It is about sticking to your lines when the pitch eases out and there’s a 119-run partnership going on. It is about waiting for your chance, sometimes a whole session as the captain juggles his bowling options, and then returning to blow away the opposition with your best Test figures. Most of all though, it is about the desire to win, bordering on the insane — a voracious hunger for victory, in every single game, across formats, home or abroad.
Yes, for all purposes, Kohli is that stuntman driving a bike/car vertically in a ‘well of death’. From the outside, it looks like he is out of control. Unknown to those watching however, there is a clear understanding of what he is doing, and more importantly, why so.