For the world today, Virat Kohli might be the chest-thumping monarch of world cricket, scoring daddy hundreds for fun. Just over a decade ago, however, he was a little-known chubby boy, thrust with the responsibility of leading a bunch of teenagers at the U-19 World Cup in 2008.
Dav Whatmore, coach of the Indian U-19 team back then, recalls how even a plump 18-year-old Kohli stood out for the sheer tenacity he showed as a leader and the unflinching resolve that he exhibited while rising up the ranks as a batsman.
On Sportskeeda's #MindVoice, Whatmore speaks about the evolution of the Delhi lad into King Kohli, recalling interesting tales from his U-19 days.
How do you recall the experience of winning the U-19 World Cup in 2008 with an 18-year-old Virat Kohli?
That was a very good experience. I was fortunate to get an opportunity to work with the team. BCCI asked me, as the head of NCA, to do what I did and I was more than happy.
We had a brief time, a week and a half at the NCA, before the trip to Malaysia and I felt that the boys in the team had enough skill.
But, everyone knows that skill isn't the only thing that is going to win you a game. After all, it is played in the head too. Once you cross the ropes and walk into the competition, a lot of it is played in the head.
I was particularly interested to see how they (the team) would approach competition. I was there to assist in a few ways, introduce a couple of strategies to relieve stress and help them perform.
And boy did they perform! They did not lose a single game.
Did you see greatness in Kohli back then?
No. I saw a player who was absolutely determined. I saw a player who would not leave any stone unturned. Physically, he would lead the team from the front. At practice, he would be the last one to leave. He wouldn't mind diving and grazing some skin off. That was not a problem.
From a batting point of view, he was a good contributor. He failed a couple of times - I specifically recall agreeing with him that, for him to have more of an influence on our total, he should be batting well into the 40s.
There were a couple of instances before that when he got off to a start but departed. After that, his goal was to keep batting and stay at the crease even beyond the 40th over.
I saw a player who was a little plump but had a very confident outlook and was a leader of men at that stage.
You recently termed him a diplomatic leader, but people think of him differently. Was he the same back then?
As a leader, in the U-19 days, he was one of 11 guys and relied on others to perform and win games. Nothing has changed. He is an extremely talented leader in the sense of performing. Leadership has not done any harm to Virat Kohli. He has responded in a very positive way and is relishing the extra responsibility.
Along the way, you need the support of everyone else. I am not privy to whatever happens in the dressing rooms, but I can assume that he is able to get the best out of the players, whoever they are, with one common purpose: to improve your performance so that the team ultimately has the right result.
You've seen Kohli grow and evolve. Looking back, at which exact moment did you feel that he could be the next big thing in Indian cricket?
To me, it was clearly when Kohli decided that fitness mattered.
The U-19 World Cup was only a matter of a couple of weeks before the first IPL season. And there was a lot of talk, amongst the group, about the possibility of some or most of them being part of franchises that were going to play in the inaugural IPL.
The BCCI allowed one/two members of the U19 squad to be part of the franchises. We had a few of the boys that represented their respective teams.
The talk was that financially there would be a lot to gain. I knew that Kohli was planning to buy a motorcar. Later, he did go on record and say that it made it easier for him to afford his first motorcar. That was a long time ago.
That was the point where he decided on his fitness regime and understood the relationship between fitness and performance. That was, to me, when it all changed.
Was Virat Kohli, the fierce competitor that he is now, the same even back then?
He was. I think so. Not specifically (in terms of any incident) - but even now, when those eyebrows get joined to become a monobrow, you know that this guy is unhappy with the situation.
Virat doesn't care, he is so singularly focused on what he is doing. He's singularly focussed on supporting his team that he will protect, no matter what. That is a very warm feeling to have if you are part of that team. You have a leader who is prepared to get right out there and do things that have never been done before.
Did you find it strange as a coach to see that attitude in a young Indian cricketer?
It was strange, I have to be very honest. The captain that they had before him in the other U19 matches leading up to the World Cup was Tanmay Srivastava from UP. A very good left-hand opening batsman, but poles apart in terms of personality.
Virat entered leadership at that young age with a very positive and demanding approach and a little understanding of democracy, because it is the rest of the boys who really have to pull their weight in order to win the World Cup, even it is only the U-19 World Cup.
Did you ever go to Kohli and ask him to tone himself down?
He came up to me and said he was a little concerned that he was getting out after getting a start. One of the things we agreed on was that he should be batting when that 40-over mark came along; he has to be at the crease.
As a leader, and the ability he has with the bat, it would be a huge advantage for us if he was batting at this point.
Are you surprised with the way he's been scoring hundreds, again and again?
At that time yes, not so much afterward. The change was when he got fitter. And that is not easy to do, to drop weight and have the discipline. Your intake has a big role in that, the food that you eat, the effort that you put in to lose weight and become stronger. All these things matter, they are not easy to achieve.
Once that happened, it didn't surprise me.
Now you have a guy who is totally focussed on the ability to concentrate for long periods and be fitter. Coupled with the skill and the single-mindedness that he possesses, it is truly a beautiful mix.
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