Virat Kohli and David Warner: One-time bad boys of cricket are now its leading lights
While Virat Kohli was always seen as a long term Test prospect, Warner had to fight not just the competition, but preconceived notions to realise his dream of playing Test cricket
The IPL final brought together two opponents who had little in common: One team had been a consistent performer throughout, always pushing for a place in the play-offs; he other was languishing at the bottom of the table at the mid-way point, before rising like the phoenix part of their opponent's logo. One had the best bowling attack in the league, the other had the worst. However, it was with their respective captains — David Warner of Sunrisers Hyderabad and Virat Kohli of Royal Challengers Bangalore — that the journeys became uncannily similar.
Warner and Kohli both dragged their teams into the IPL final almost singlehandedly. Fittingly, they finished as the top two run getters in the league. They led from the front, embodying the oldest captaincy cliché. Like Darren Sammy in the World T20, they both graduated as leaders of men this season. But unlike Sammy, they did it with both runs and presence. They were true captains.
But once upon a time, they were just boys. They came into their national teams in radically different ways. Kohli was precocious, a product of the system. He bossed every age group, went on to win the biggest title for Under-19s as captain, and cut his teeth in the Ranji trophy. Then he made the national team. It was a "lovely and natural process", words he used to describe his transition from limited overs player into Test cricketer. Warner, meanwhile, made a splash, cannonballing into a pool of artistic divers. Marketed as a limited overs specialist, he made his national debut in T20Is before even playing a single first class match.
While Kohli was always seen as a long term Test prospect, Warner had to fight not just the competition, but preconceived notions to realise his dream of playing Test cricket. But both had big impact starts to their respective Test careers. Kohli started his Adelaide love affair with a century on an ill-fated tour; Warner scored a century in his second Test, an uncharacteristic 123 off 170 balls.
But both had made their mark. Both were, and still are, among the best fielders in the world. Kohli is part of a generation that lifted the standards of Indian fielding. Warner is one of those who took specialisation to the outfield, routinely striding from long on to long on at the back end of limited over games. Both are also guys who would prefer to retaliate first. They love puerile confrontation, partly because they have the self-belief they can hold their own in a fight. Often they seek it out, especially Warner. One was labelled the spoiled brat who went against the team culture. The other, the team pitbull, whose owners seemed to take pleasure in watching him scare pedestrians. Choice words came easily to both, and still do, especially to Kohli. Warner's Test career was jeopardised by an ill-advised punch. The public called it passion. They loved it. They hated it. But the words were rarely empty.
Give Kohli a bat in his hand, and he rarely says a thing. The bat says plenty though. It's like he channels every syllable through those tattooed forearms, and through the grains on the bat. The willow shouts at the ball instead, and the ball in turn screams off the willow. Only the most short-sighted bowlers will sledge him, because he will target them first. Not with the mindless fury so prone to errors, but the calculated precision of a sniper. Ask James Faulkner. It would be "wasting your energy", as Kohli once said. No one will want to set off Warner either, in any format, for fear of not his words, but his strike rate.
But both have made very conscious efforts to take their games to levels where they can dominate all three formats. And this involves discipline off the field, along with the rigours of training on it. Kohli is known for avoiding heavy chicken gravy as part of a strict diet. A Punjabi giving up butter chicken is as incongruous as an Australian giving up alcohol. Yet, that is exactly what Warner has done since May 2015. Although he stopped drinking for non-cricketing reasons, since his wife was pregnant at the time, the effects on his game are plain to see. "It's not about drinking," he said. "It is about giving myself the best opportunity to recover and to play cricket."
It is this discipline has caused their stocks to rise. Or perhaps the rising stocks bring about the discipline. Either way, Kohli and Warner are no longer the boys they once were. They now don captaincy hats for different teams. And both are nigh unrecognisable. While Kohli was always a superlative talent, his batting has transcended mortal chains ever since he took up the role of India's Test skipper. With four hundreds this IPL — one in a 15-over game — he is redefining what a person with a bat in hand is potentially capable of.
Warner isn't far behind either. Having assumed charge of the Sunrisers, Warner claimed the Orange Cap in 2015. Although he came a (not so) close second this time, he scored a record nine 50s in the season. And he has grabbed the ultimate prize for his team.
Both have shown different sides to themselves as captains too. The Royal Challengers have had some atrocious fielding performances this season, and their effort in the final wasn't the best either. But throughout, Kohli has maintained a facade of relative control on the field, testament to his growth as a human being since assuming the captaincy. And while Kohli and Chris Gayle amassed a 100-run opening stand in the final, Warner could be seen prowling the boundary with a serene half-smile on his face. They are both displaying a measure of calm that would have been unimaginable a couple of years ago.
Warner is now vice-captain of the Australian ODI and Test teams. Kohli is captain of the Test team and will certainly take over from MS Dhoni the two other formats soon. Both have been given the responsibility, and have responded by growing into the roles organically. They have accepted that as role models, they need to change themselves first, and seem to be enjoying the challenges.
It is said that the higher you rise on the ladder, the easier it is to see the soles of your feet. Both players have worked hard to keep those feet clean.
Although I used the word facade earlier, both players have insisted that the change has been genuine. "It is not a mask," says Trent Woodhill, who has been closely associated with Warner on and off the field since 2007. And it is easy to believe. There is nowhere to hide your true self in sports, not least in today's day and age. Their honesty shines through their conduct, and makes them a little rough around the edges. It is also central to their success, for few can succeed without being themselves.
Both Kohli and Warner have laid everything bare, and yet have managed to paint a surprisingly pretty picture. The bad boys of the sport are now men. What's more, they are now leaders.
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