Before Virat Kohli, 174 cricketers managed to don the ODI jersey for India. After him, there have been 41 more. It has just been eight years since he first took guard for India. Only one person has scored more ODI centuries than him for the nation.
For Vijay Lokapally, Kohli’s international arrival in 2008, and the 28-year old’s astounding rise over the years hasn’t come as a surprise. While the world has stuck to his last name, Vijay Lokapally addresses him as ‘Virat’. He is one of the countless cricketers that Lokapally has seen come and go by during his illustrious career as one of India’s top sports journalists. Yet, the Delhi-lad has managed to make a special mark, not just as a cricketer, but as a well-rounded individual with a sound mind.
An extremely well-read personality with a stocked-up library at his home, Lokapally has dug deep into the careers of cricketers for well over three decades, right from the great Donald Bradman to the game’s present stars.
Entrusted with the mantle of writing on a contemporary great by noted journalist Gulu Ezekiel, The Hindu’s Vijay Lokapally recently came out with ‘Driven: The Virat Kohli Story’, a book that covers the journey of the Indian Test captain right from his days at West Delhi. And, he’s managed to assemble a crisp compilation of Kohli’s crests and troughs over the years.
“The book is my gift to him because it brings out the real Virat”, says Lokapally. “Recently, one of his childhood friends gave me feedback on the book, saying that he really enjoyed because it brings out the REAL Virat. His family has loved the book as well.”
“It brings out the Virat which the world has rarely seen - because you don’t have access to him. You don't see him off the field: that’s where he is very down to earth. He appears brash on the field which is not his true image. He doesn’t like to lose, at all. No one likes to lose, but this man just doesn’t want to lose.”
Also having authored ‘Multan Ka Sultan’, Virender Sehwag’s biography, Lokapally knows both Delhi boys inside out, who are different from each other on the field in varying degrees.
“Sehwag’s batting reflects his personality. Viru loves his freedom at the crease, bats on his terms, is happy go lucky, is very humble. Yet, if you get to speak to Virat, Virender Sehwag, Anil Kumble and VVS Laxman, you will feel privileged. They are all very down to earth.”
Lokapally has managed to interact with cricketers across generations, covering their careers and forging a special bond with them, a relationship that exists beyond pen and paper.
“Communication is very important. I was very fortunate, because in my time, access to players was far more comfortable and easy. Today, BCCI stands between the players and media for several reasons. With the number of journalists around, it would be difficult to manage for the BCCI.
“You can be friends, but not at the cost of the profession. I was fortunate I could criticise the players, and yet go to dinner with them.”
Having interviewed distinguished personalities over the years, Lokapally recalls the names who were the easiest to tap and get stories out of.
“There have been many. Virat Kohli, and I am saying this not because I wrote a book, is an amazing subject. He questions you, goes deep into the matter and knows you have a job to do. You know that the job will be well done if you get answers from him.”
As you listen in amazement, he takes the name of Indian cricket’s who’s who, recalling his conversations with them.
“VVS Laxman is very forthright and has amazing clarity. Virender Sehwag is very honest. Sunil Gavaskar, well, it is an education in itself, talking to him. Anil Kumble is a brilliant student of the game. His vision is really exemplary. Sourav Ganguly is a fantastic subject because he won’t hold himself back. Rahul Dravid is very guarded and a very intelligent cricketer.
“I have had so many interviews with Sachin, and I have enjoyed them so much. He has to be little cautious when he makes his views public, because what he says can make a lot of impact. If you are looking for a very good interview, Ravi Shastri will give you a no-holds-barred one. He can laugh at himself and accept criticism sportingly, which is a fantastic quality.
“Even Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra can be very good subjects because they show a lot of interest. MS Dhoni can’t be obliging everyone. If you see his press conferences, he comes across as a very decent guy, but he’ll dismiss you, and rightly so, if you ask him a stupid question. I have always loved cricket conversations with Abbas Ali Baig, Chetan Chauhan, Madan Lal, Aunshuman Gaekwad, Ravi Shastri, Maninder Singh, Vikram Rathour, Saba Karim, Ajay Jadeja, WV Raman and Kartik Murali. They have a superb perspective about the game. Talking to Harbhajan Singh and Yuvraj Singh is great fun. They read the game very well. And there is an unsung hero who continues to guide me – veteran coach Tarak Sinha of Sonnet Club in Delhi. He is a true cricket guru in India.”
But if one talks of modern cricket, “Virat is amazing, he’s absolutely brilliant.”
Even some of the Australian cricketers are really good subjects: “When they give you time, they give you quality time, they’ll take interest and answer your questions.”
The foray into this field for Lokapally was made out of his penchant for writing, which was present even at a young age. When former India captain Bishan Singh Bedi retired in 1981, Lokapally felt that he could voice something more than what was already on offer.
“I realised that the reviews did not justify Mr. Bedi's career. I then decided to pen my thoughts, because I thought I backed myself to do a decent job. I sent my article to all the newspapers in Delhi. Two of them, the Patriot, the paper I eventually worked for, and the Indian Express, published it.”
What started as a one-off piece gave a platform for the youngster to take his writing to the next level.
“I was invited to the Patriot’s office by its Sports Editor, Mr. PVR Menon (who passed away recently), who asked me to write regularly. A week later, I got a letter from Mr. Bedi himself, thanking me and praising my work. That was the reason I took to journalism. Even today, I have that letter from Mr. Bedi.”
Internet didn’t make a mark for another fifteen years. Lokapally’s career took flight as technology progressed.
“When I began, we used to sent reports via telegram. That gave way to telex, then came STD: we used to ring up and dictate the reports to the office. Then came fax, and obviously internet. The internet is surely the biggest facility for journalists because communication became so easy. In pre-internet and television days, we (sports reporters and radio commentators) were the eyes and ears of the reader. There was a flip side to it in the sense there was no way to check if the reporters or commentators were right or wrong.”
That doesn’t mean that the current crop of journalists has it easy.
“Even though the youngsters today have information at the click of a mouse, it is far more challenging for them now. There is a big difference from what it used to be. The biggest issue when I began was communication. Today, you have to compete with so many contemporaries from different fields: there’s print, online, television and apps. You can see everything on the phone now.”
Having observed the game with eagle eyes for years, Lokapally has gathered the nuances of the game and perceived the trends. He comes out with a startling revelation on India’s current batting.
“The biggest myth in Indian cricket is that they can play spin very well. I don’t think this team can. I don’t want to run down anyone, but if you take away Virat, show me one cricketer who is good against spin, pace, swing and seam. There is not one.
“Earlier, greats like Sunil Gavaskar, Dilip Vengsarkar, GR Viswanath, Mohinder Amarnath, Mohammad Azharuddin, had amazing footwork against spinners. Kapil Dev would decimate the spinners with his electric footwork. We had players like Ajay Sharma, Brijesh Patel, Parthasarthy Sharma and Praveen Amre, to name a few, who could play spin fantastically. Amre used to compulsively step out to the spinners.”
He believes that the current inability to dominate spin has been caused by the poor standards of slow bowling on the domestic scene.
“The reason could be, and VVS Laxman pointed it out recently, they don’t get to play quality spin in domestic cricket. The emphasis is so much on paying pace. For example, Cheteshwar Pujara is concentrating on playing pace more than improving his technique against spin. For all their reputation, most of India's modern batsmen are not very confident they’ll be at their best playing against the best fast bowlers.”
For Kohli, Lokapally has special praise. He knows him like not many do, having observed the change in his attitude from an assertive teenager to a measured Test captain with a single-minded approach to win.
“He stays aggressive within the laws, within the parameters of behaviour. He won’t adopt unfair means to win the contest. He doesn’t over step that, apart from a few instances here and there when he looked over-aggressive and over-expressive on the field. However, it is not that Virat is the only brash player. Even Gavaskar once walked off the field in anger. Virat has become very mellowed and composed now”.
“Virat is very disciplined and respectful to seniors - his eyes are always glued to the ground while speaking to the seniors. He never raises his voice. It reflects on his upbringing - the way he has been taught to behave in public. As captain, he has become very responsible.”
While Virat Kohli’s rich run of form has etched his name in history books, he has also been the subject of unnecessary comparisons with his idol, Sachin Tendulkar, and the only person who has more ODI centuries for India than him. Understandably, Lokapally is not amused by it.
“It is really unfair to both. Both are distinct identities as cricketers. Sachin had enormous responsibilities on his shoulders, so has Kohli, who is intensely scrutinised. Sachin was kind of an introvert. Virat is extrovert: he loves to express his opinion.”
Sachin stays guarded, he is a very shy person who keeps to himself. He had a very select inner circle of close friends in the dressing room, and that was the case even in his childhood.
“Let us not take away credit from the respective careers and compare them. Sachin was a unique cricketer, is the reason why Virat and Sehwag became cricketers. Sachin is the man Laxman says he learned so much from. We have enjoyed Sachin for what he was. Let us enjoy Virat for what he is. Please stop comparing them.”
In his profession, there can sometimes be management pressures to write in a certain way, sending the writer’s freedom of speech for a toss.
“That is sad. If you are the editor, you need to trust your reporter’s judgement. You have sent them on an appointment, be it a cricket match or a political speech, you have picked them from a staff of 50-100. You know the person will deliver. You should always have faith in your reporter and his judgement, and give them the freedom.
“Yet, you should not misuse this freedom. Just because you have a pen, you can’t just run down a player.”
He recalls an instance when his Sports Editor at The Hindu took him to task for going a tad too far with criticism.
“I was doing a domestic cricket (Ranji Trophy) match. There, I termed a leg-before decision as dubious. Late in the evening, I got a call from the Sports Editor (Mr. S Krishnan). I thought he had liked my report.
‘You thought the decision was dubious ?’, he asked. I replied in the affirmative.
‘Where were you sitting’, he asked me.
‘The press box Sir’, I replied.
‘Which means you had a better view than the umpire?’ was his beautiful way of pointing out my mistake.
“That made me realise that I must not be critical for the sake of it. One must understand the difference between a good shot and a bad shot. If a fielder fails in trying to convert a half-chance, it doesn’t necessarily mean he has dropped a catch: You have to be very careful in your criticism.”
Having dabbled in multiple forms of writing, he understands the distinction between the different forms. A book, therefore, can’t be written the same way as a cricket feature.
“It is very different. A book means you have to produce something that is much more than a feature or match report. It is a collection of your stories and ideas, entailing a lot of hard work and research. You have to hold the attention of the reader: you can’t just write five pages and let the writing meander aimlessly. You need to plan the chapters and develop the story. It is difficult.”
Yet, he finds books to be a window of opportunity for young writers, urging readers to look at the brighter side of each piece of literature, be it from a novice.
“Not all books are bad. Every book will have something in it that will appeal to the reader. I always appreciate positive book reviews of young people from my profession. I recently wrote about a book on Sarita Devi, written by a young NDTV journalist, Suprita Das. She has done a superb job, and every sports lover should read it. It is wonderful how she has written and developed the story, at no point does the story sag.”
Possessing an enviable list of experiences as a journalist, Lokapally listed down the most unforgettable moments from his career.
“There have been quite a few. Meeting and interacting with Garry Sobers, who has always been my hero, was an unbelievable experience. Then I met Nelson Mandela on my first tour to South Africa. Reporting from every cricket ground in the world has been a memory that will always stay. My first match at Lord’s in 1996 was thrilling as I met some of the greats of the game.
“As a journalist, doing an interview with Jagjit Singh was a fantastic experience. I have been a huge fan of Jagjit Singh. Another thrilling experience was meeting Indira Gandhi. I was able to interact with many great cricketers such as Mr. Gavaskar and Mr. Bedi. Every time I meet them or speak to them I learn. They possess unmatched cricket wisdom. It is an education talking to them.”
Lokapally's Twitter handle goes by the name of @bradsobers, a combination of two greats, Don Bradman and Garry Sobers. No prizes for guessing who his favourite cricketers were.
“There will never be anyone like Bradman. We didn’t see him bat, but I have read endless glowing accounts and many books on him, I have some of them at home as well. What a cricketer he must have been! Sobers was a champion cricketer who was loved by cricketers themselves. He could bowl, bat, field with rare flair. If there was an opportunity, he would even have loved to stand as an umpire.”
Those days I was told spectators, apart from enjoying his cricket, were fascinated by Sobers' walk to the middle, such majestic walk, such grace, as he would move from slip to slip. He was an amazing cricketer. Hence, bradsobers. No one can take the handle from me!”
Despite having experienced everything there is on offer in his field, Lokapally’s love for the game refuses to wane. He has simple advice to give to budding writers, asking them to not be overly critical in their opinion. He himself had an understanding teacher to look up to during his early days. “I was lucky to have a great guru in KP Mohan of The Hindu”.
“You have to read a lot, watch a lot, and, most important, be careful in criticism. You need to put yourself in the player’s position before judging him. I have done that. Suppose a team is not doing well. I put myself in the situation of the fielding captain or the batting captain. I have discovered many times that the batsman or the bowler would be giving his best. There are times when he could be in bad form, that is beyond him. A good ball might have got him. Similarly, a good ball would have been punished because of the batsman's skills. You have to understand that no one wants to be bad on the field.”
The current community of sports journalists is indebted to Lokapally for setting an example to follow. Few people manage to merge their passion with their career, making their feats stand-out above the rest with such excellence. Lokapally’s body of work has garnered praise and respect in equal measure, even as he continues to be a guiding light for the next generation.