Dubai: India have a strong batting. Yet all eyes will be on Virat Kohli during Sunday’s Cricket World Cup final against Australia in Ahmedabad. The 35-year-old, Chikku to his friends and teammates, has been the pillar of India’s batting over the past decade.
He’s in sublime touch, scoring three centuries and five half-centuries to emerge as the leading run-getter in the World Cup with 711 runs from 10 innings. He has been anchoring the Indian batting, a role that assumes greater significance when chasing targets. His brilliance in the chases has come to India’s aid several times; the T20 World Cup match against Pakistan in Melbourne is the best example.
Now, a World Cup final is different. The pressure will be several notches higher. With 130,000 at the Narendra Modi Stadium and millions more glued to the television, the pressure of expectation on the Indian teams hasn’t been higher. How will Indian batters cope? Can Kohli deliver again?
Paddy Upton, former South African coach and India’s mental conditioning during the 2011 World Cup triumph, talks to Gulf News about why Kohli is the best player for high-pressure situations.
“I can say with confidence is you have the single greatest high-pressure player in the game playing the final in Virat Kohli. Fortunately, there are a number of other players within the Indian team who are also able to shoulder the burden of responsibility. The one just orange flag is as long as the players aren’t placing too much value on Virat delivering because if he gets a great ball and gets out early, one doesn’t want the [other] players to get nervous,” Upton said from Cape Town.
”We know the fans watching will be terrified if Kohli gets out early, particularly in a chase. But there are enough good players to be able to see the team home, but Virat is probably head and shoulders above anyone else on either team when it comes to being a high-pressure player,” he added.
Building on the foundations
The mental conditioning coach has been working with Kohli over the last one and a half years when Kohli’s form slumped. The Indian batter, in recent days, has acknowledged the role Upton played in resurrecting his career. The South African was thrilled to hear that.
“It’s not often that athletes do actually take the time to acknowledge the people that have helped them to get to the top, the people in the backroom. For me, it’s been an absolute privilege as Kohli has allowed me into his life, into his head and given me the real insights to have the conversations around what it takes to be the ultimate professional and deliver the results at the highest level repeatedly,” Upton said.
How Upton helped Kohli become mentally strong
“When I work with athletes, I don’t work and focus on performance. I focus on the athlete as a whole: build them as a person, build their character, build their self-esteem, their values, their morals, and what they actually want to accomplish in their life overall. Unless you have deeply dug those foundations or roots, which are character, values and ethics, you cannot achieve great heights or sustain those great heights. So we’ve worked on both Virat as a person initially and navigating his life on how things have changed as he’s gotten more mature and married and got a kid and being a father now, compared to being a young man in his early 20s. And based on that foundation, what does this mean when you walk out to bat against the opposition in different circumstances, different conditions and different scoreboard situations? Let’s prepare for every eventuality and have the right mindset of being able to focus purely on bringing your preparation, bringing your talents and bringing your gameplan of sticking to your strengths. Then you can trust playing one ball at a time. You play that from instinct rather than have any thinking to interfere with your performance,” Upton said.
Why is it so difficult to handle pressure?
This is what Upton says. “Very few people in the world actually embrace what it means to be fully human and love the potential we were born with. Not just as an athlete but as a whole person. So we are talking about a journey that very few people even reach anywhere near the peaks available to them. And every now and again, you get some cricketers, which I’ve been very lucky to work with, for example, a Sachin Tendulkar, who has also realised the value of being the best human being I could be and that is different to being the best cricketer I can be. Each complements and, underpins and supports the other. So it is very, very difficult.
“Life is very complicated, but the rules of life and the things that set us up for success in life and business and sports, the principles are all universal. We all know them, but it’s about how we smartly apply them to our lives. To be honest, many people are too lazy, and they cut corners. Virat is someone who doesn’t waste one moment on eating, sleeping and training. Everything he does is to move him forward as a person, as a cricketer, and he avoids things that keep him stagnant or holding back,” Upton said.
Who are the other cricketers who excel in high-pressure situations?
According to Upton, Kane Williamson is pretty solid, so is Steve Smith. Marnus Labuschagne is proving to be pretty good. “It’s more difficult to be a high-pressure player as a batsman as opposed to a bowler, so there are not many batsmen around. Every now and again, you get someone who is brilliant like Ricky Ponting and Graeme Smith and V.V.S. Laxman for India, particularly while chasing in the last innings of Test matches. At the moment, Virat is the best,” Upton said.
Similarities and differences between Dhoni and Kohli
“[Mahendra Singh] Dhoni is clearly one of the high-pressure players. The only difference between Dhoni and Kohli is Dhoni would deliver towards the back end of a T20 innings or the last 10 to 15 overs of a 50-over game, while Kohli does it from sometimes inside the tenth over, and he does it for 40-plus overs. Dhoni was never really asked to do it for 40-plus overs, and that makes Kohli particularly good. He’s not any better or worse than Dhoni, but Dhoni always had to do it for a shorter period of time,” Upton added.