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SPORTING LIFE

Electric cricketer Virat Kohli's nerveless skills give India competitive edge

This is how we know an athlete is extraordinary.

Not just because people from the nation he's just beaten in the World T20 are so overcome that they tweet a picture of him, as the Australians did about Virat Kohli yesterday, with one word:

"Freak."

Not just because a giddy, cheerleading Indian commentator feels so overcome he has to invent a word to describe Kohli's blood pressure-raising 82 runs in 51 balls to beat Australia on Sunday night:

"Superfantabulous."

Not just because even in India, where everything cricketing is exaggerated, a newspaper and a magazine both coincidentally ask: Is Virat Kohli a better cricketer than Sachin Tendulkar?

No, we know an athlete is special when other athletes, who've tasted greatness, played against it, understood it, stop to watch not just a tournament, or a match, but one player.

Tiger Woods once said, "the ball has absolutely no options. It will go in," and maybe Virat Kohli's force of will sends the ball into gaps and across ropes. People have faith in him because they can see his faith in himself.

In Bangalore on Sunday, Rahul Dravid, who played alongside Kohli for India and captained him at the Royal Challengers Bangalore, is watching "partly because of" Kohli.

Why?

"I like the skill level he brings and the intensity he brings."

Kohli isn't elegant or beautiful, he's more like a triple shot of tequila. Dravid doesn't like the word 'passion' for him, it's too obvious, so he says instead, "there's this feeling Kohli gives that he's always being competitive". Not so much an athlete as an electric charge.

Kohli doesn't offer performances, he - like with his 55 off 37 balls against Pakistan - takes you on wild rides. Best you hold on. On Sunday he walks in quickly. First ball, no run. Second ball, four on the leg side. Third ball, four on the off side. He makes you think the bowling is average, the pitch is perfect and that rival captains are using nine fielders.

He stands erect, his body has less fat than a dieting Djokovic and he runs like a teenager late for curfew. He unfastens the velcro strap on his glove, refastens it and then rests a bat on his shoulder like a contemplative lumberjack. Why he has a beard and tattoos is unknown because he is intimidating enough. His look is plain: Are you ready because I am.

Twenty-one years ago, Tendulkar tells me: "I'm very happy the team is expecting something from me, I wouldn't like to be considered one of those players who might get runs once in a blue moon. I hate to be like that. The team expects things from me because I'm capable of doing it. And I have to do it."

This is Kohli now. He craves challenge, covets responsibility and knows he can't be exceptional unless he's tested for it in front of the world. So he's like Michael Jordan, wanting the ball with two seconds left; he's like Tiger Woods, happy to let the planet see if he can sink a last 12-foot putt. He wants to be in that place where you have to find the right shot at the hardest time and where only two choices are left: choke or clutch?

Woods once said, "the ball has absolutely no options. It will go in," and maybe Kohli's force of will sends the ball into gaps and across ropes. People have faith in him because they can see his faith in himself.

On Sunday, a friend calls Dravid when India need 12-plus an over, but the retired pro is calm: "If Kohli stays to the end, we win the game." Next day, Dravid considers that Kohli has only hit two sixes. "Most shots were along the ground," he says. "It didn't look like high-risk cricket. That's total control."

Kohli is cricket's finest batsman and he is also, says Dravid, its "best chaser". But he's not a freak because that was Tendulkar, 16, bloodied, brilliant. Tendulkar was born to be a cricketer, Kohli has made himself into one.

"As a young man Virat looked talented but he was not a finished article," says Dravid. "But I love the way he's kept improving and now you can't bowl to him because he doesn't have an apparent weakness. He always finds answers and he's a very good learner. He understands what needs to be done to succeed."

On Sunday, there seems no time but Kohli takes his time. In a hurried game he is never rushed. At one point, he scores 11 runs in nine balls. Then he follows it with 27 runs in his next 10 balls. Momentum shifts. It seems like nerveless mathematics till he leaps in the air and you understand how finely he has controlled and camouflaged his emotion. There is to Kohli an edge of brilliant madness.

Before the match, TV pundits discuss previous hostilities between Indian and Australian players and replay three incidents involving the aggressive Kohli. He's always going to be a high-strung hero but his abrasiveness seems sandpapered. A friend speaks of a visit by Kohli to his office: The cricketer is viewed by some as conceited but all they got was a decorous, decent young man.

On Sunday, what I remember most, was the grand illusion he cast. When he was batting, it did not seem he could get out. He simply would not allow it.

So he stood at the crease and just played. Moths flew around him in the night. Flocking like his nation to his flame.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 29, 2016, with the headline 'Electric Kohli's nerveless skills give India competitive edge'. Print Edition | Subscribe