Virat Kohli and Mohammad Azharuddin. These two names spring to mind when you think about Indian cricketers whose personalities underwent radical changes.
Azharuddin was a shy, unassuming boy from Hyderabad when he became a nationwide sensation after scoring three consecutive hundreds in his debut series against England in 1984-85. By most accounts, he remained so till the mid 1990s.
Azharuddin also had a quality not common among Indian cricketers. He was generous. Amol Muzumdar, the Rajasthan Royals batting coach and a former Mumbai player, once revealed that during his days as a promising youngster, Azhar privately gifted him a sizeable amount of cash one day. And this was from an untainted, pre-match-fixing Azhar.
Any Indian cricket captain, by default, becomes one of the most important people in the country. And over time, Azhar’s clout, his extra-marital romance with actress Sangeeta Bijlani, a fondness for the good life which earlier he couldn’t afford but now had access to, legitimately or otherwise, brought about a visible transformation in a man who once could barely mumble a few words in interviews.
Agreed, people do not change completely. It would be naïve to imagine that Old Azhar was all white and New Azhar was all black. People are not chess pieces. Or truffles. Humans, like the sea, are in a constant churn. New elements wash in but the core ingredients remain. It is undeniable, though, that New Azhar had an unexpected new dimension to him—flashy and entitled.
This was manifested in Azhar’s conduct in a press area in Rajkot in 1995 during a match between Board President XI and New Zealand. Those were pre-email, pre-mobile days. Press facilities would have a communication centre with STD lines and fax machines. Journalists would type their reports, fax them to their offices and then call to check if the document had landed and was legible. Phone conversations had to be to the point. That was the unwritten code.
In Rajkot, Azhar, in the throes of a new courtship, hogged the press phone, his feet up on a chair or a table, even as some reporters on deadline grew ulcers waiting for him to finish. This is something the Old Azhar wouldn’t have done.
Also read: Virat Kohli reveals he suffered depression; bats for professionals to deal with mental health issues
Choosing the right path
Kohli is India captain too. He is also married to a well-known filmstar. And like Azhar, his batting possesses elegance. But his transformation has been in the reverse direction.
Kohli started out as a cocky guy. Plus, he was from Delhi, where the insecure hide behind loud behaviour.
Now, Kohli has changed into a thoughtful, emotionally intelligent and disciplined man. External appearance may not mean much but it offers some clues. The chubby cheeks and spiky hair of the younger Virat have gone. In place are glasses (when not on the field) and a beard with an increasing number of grey strands (he used to count them once).
Kohli’s revelation in a podcast with Mark Nicholas that he suffered depression after a slump in 2014 is a proof of his maturity and the far places he has reached in his own mind, where there is no fear of making a personal revelation, one that is in contrast to his position and his image.
Once again, it would be naïve to believe that Old Kohli was all black and New Kohli is all white. Once again, however, the significant changes cannot be denied.
What did Kohli do that made this change possible? Fundamentally, he did one thing. A thing that is apparent to all of us in our lives yet difficult to do. He chose the right path.
In the ageless film Scent of a Woman, the blind and bitter Lt Col Frank Slade, played by Al Pacino, makes a stirring, foul-mouthed yet literary case for his young caretaker Charlie Simms, who is about to be expelled from school for no fault of his.
During his roast-cum-appeal to the pretentious Baird School, Slade says, “Now I have come to the crossroads in my life. I always knew what the right path was. Without exception, I knew. But I never took it. You know why? It was too damn hard. Now here’s Charlie. He’s come to the crossroads. He has chosen a path. It’s the right path.”
The right, difficult path that Kohli took was in choosing his game and body over superficial rewards. It meant sacrifice. No out of turn partying. No indulgent food. It meant leading by example. You can’t fake a fit body. You can’t fake runs.
At a talk in Mumbai in 2020, Ravi Shastri said how he suggested a dinner of spare ribs to Kohli in England once.
“Ravibhai, I have turned vegetarian,” Kohli told him.
IPL 2012 was among the turning points for Kohli’s career, when the sight of his unfit body came as a wake-up call.
“2012 IPL, I came back home and saw myself, was disgusted,” Kohli said in a show hosted by fellow India cricketer Mayank Agarwal. “ITC Gardenia, where we used to stay, they would have a packet of eclairs toffees in the minibar and they would refill it every time. I would finish a pack in 4-5 days’ time, and that was a pack of 40 toffees.”
Thereon, Kohli decided to respect his cricketing gifts and not take them for granted. Or have a convenient approach to them, where you do a certain amount of practice and gym work but also have fun. There are some who managed both. Most do not. Not even Diego Maradona, despite all his skill and exuberance.
“Do you know what kind of player I would’ve been if I had not used cocaine?,” Maradona once lamented in a documentary. “I have a sour taste in my mouth because I could have been a lot bigger. I knew who I was going to be, what I didn’t know was that I was going to take cocaine.”
There might be occasions when Kohli feels the rumbling avalanche of expectation again. His form may dip, like it did in 2014 and triggered his depressive phase. But unlike Maradona or Azharuddin, he will not have to bear the guilt of choosing the wrong path.