The cricketing world’s eyes would be centered on Virat Kohli on 28 August, as the former national skipper plays his first match in over a month following a break. That too against Pakistan in India’s Asia Cup opener.
But equally, if not more, invested in his performance would be a small corner in the capital’s Paschim Vihar, where he had learnt the basics of cricket.
St Sophia’s is a small secondary school sans any pretensions. On either side of a large field are classrooms stretched in a row along a lengthy corridor. Beyond the trees is the turf on which one of India’s and world’s greatest batsmen, had spent his formative years.
Virat Kohli was part of the initial batch of players that coach Raj Kumar Sharma, a former Delhi first-class player, had taken in on 30 May 1998 when he had started the cricket academy.
At that time, the West Delhi Cricket Academy was part of another school, Saviour Convent. In 2003-04, it was shifted to its current location in the grounds behind St Sophia’s.
“About 500 kids came to enroll,” recalls Sharma. “I took 250 on the very first day and then stopped enrolling. Virat and his older brother Vikas were part of that group.”
Kohli’s climb to stardom has brought special attention to this academy as well as coach Sharma.
It reached its zenith over the last decade as Kohli smacked runs and led India as the biggest superstar of international cricket.
Many players, from not just Delhi but places like Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Uttarakhand, joined the academy to imbibe skills and learning that turned Kohli into what he is today.
Source of inspiration
Though the maestro, who has moved his base to Mumbai, hasn’t visited the academy since the start of Covid, the lessons he has imparted on his visits here, are remembered well.
More importantly, he gives feedback on the developments at the academy like when Sharma divided the four-days-a-week practice into two days with red ball and two days with white ball to cater to the growing demand of white ball cricket nowadays. Kohli was quick to appreciate the move.
As Sharma oversees the practice, he says, “Look, Virat is a big inspiration for them. Whenever he comes here, they all look at him [closely] — how he bats, how he behaves, what he does. He is very caring also. If he finds somebody good, then he will tell me, ‘Sir, this guy is batting well or that one is bowling well’.”
“He will give them something or the other, bat or gloves or whatever the kids need. He sends so many things. Like he’ll call me and say, ‘All the fast bowlers who are there, give all of them the spikes I am sending’. He sends lots of stuff and kits. He is very much attached to the academy. He says, ‘Please let me know if any kid faces any difficulty’. He takes care of a lot of kids,” adds Sharma.
More than that, it is his stature, his achievements as well as the manner in which he plays that attracts the wards.
Delhi first-class player Shivank Vashisht, 27, has been at the academy for about 15-16 years now. He joined the academy around the time Kohli had entered the Delhi Ranji Trophy team and had soon after led the India team to the under-19 World Cup win in Kuala Lumpur in 2008.
“I got inspired after seeing him. I have played under Virat Bhaiyya a number of times in the DDCA league. I got to learn so many things from him”, says Vashisht.
The off-spinner and left-handed batsman adds, “Whenever he comes for practice, he bats a lot. We enjoy watching him too. We like to bowl to him too. I also get to learn a lot from him. I often ask him what is the difference at that level and at the level I am playing. He explains that there is not much difference.”
“The main thing I have learnt from him is that whatever match you are playing, big or small, chadd ke khelna hai (you have to be aggressive and not get bogged down). Be positive while playing,” continues Vashisht.
Coach Sharma says that the day Kohli arrives at the academy, there is competition among the bowlers for his wicket.
“They are very excited to bowl to him when he is batting, everybody wants to bowl to him. There is a lot of excitement. They all want to get him out for the bragging rights. That is a very healthy competition,” he reveals.
Strength of character
Delhi Ranji wicketkeeper-batsman Anuj Rawat says that Kohli’s ability to sacrifice little things, meaning self-control, is what impresses him the most.
“Throughout the journey, how he has changed himself from the start, under-19 days till now, that is what has been most impressive. The little things that he has sacrificed – that is what I take as motivation. If you have to play at that level, you have to sacrifice something”, adds Rawat who has been training at this academy for 11 years now.
Having 22 first-class games under his belt, Rawat says,“When I first came here, I didn’t know this was the academy where Kohli trained. When I grew up, I started following what he used to do in his younger days. Sir (coach Sharma) always told us to play how he’d play in his teenage days or under-19 days — how he’d keep his focus and how he’d practice.”
Rawat, who was with Royal Challengers Bangalore this season, the team that Kohli represents, says, “Whenever he’d come here, whatever small or big problems I was facing, I would ask him and he’d explain. I was there with him in the Indian Premier League (IPL). Whatever problem was there, he would provide a solution. I took a lot of tips from him in the IPL. His determination and his mindset related to cricket, the way he stays on the field is commendable.”
The fitness mantra
An entire generation of cricketers swear by Kohli’s fitness regimen. Young players at the academy are no different.
Among the ardent fans are 22-year-old Satyam (from Varanasi), 17-year-old Sushant Patil (from Maharashtra) and 20-year-old Ritesh Joshi (from Nainital, joined just three months back) who have come from places afar. Then there are the likes of Tejas Malhotra and Tanishq Gupta, who’ve been brought up in the capital. They all admire Kohli the most for one thing: dedication and discipline, especially fitness.
Barring Joshi, all of them have seen Kohli training in the flesh, spending hours at the crease and have also followed his fitness regimen.
The impact is evident. Kids are called for the YoYo test about once a month – this month, on the Sunday before Kohli is set for his return to international cricket.
In a way, Sharma is reliving Kohli’s childhood all over again. Prancing and prowling with insouciance on the field is Ayush, the India batsman’s nephew i.e. his sister’s son. The tiny-tot looks exactly like Kohli, a miniature version of his uncle when he’d first broken into top-level cricket and had no beard or the pointed jawline.
He is least concerned about his uncle’s patchy form with the bat nowadays as he sports a smiling face and responds to the call of coach Sharma quickly. Virat’s brother Vikas’s son also trains at the academy.
In fact, none of the senior trainees are really that concerned about Kohli’s form. For them, it is just a matter of time before their idol regains his touch.
Kohli hasn’t scored an international century since November 2019. He is just six short of equalling Sachin Tendulkar’s ODI record of 49 tons. The wait for his 71st international ton – he has 27 in Tests and 43 in ODIs — has gotten way too long.
Since his last international ton, he has played 68 internationals – 6 in 2019, 22 in 2020, 24 in 2021 and 16 in 2022.
“Covid has hurt. The momentum that Kohli had was affected by the Covid break. He had a habit of scoring big but that hasn’t happened. The conversion rate has dropped too. That is a worry. Earlier, if he would get the first 30 runs, he would go on to score big. Unfortunately, he is getting out, either to good balls or due to lack of concentration. He is falling to one mistake,” adds Sharma who feels that this is just a phase that most batsmen go through and will soon pass.
“He was playing well in England too. He was batting well. I am not worried about his form. He was getting the runs. Since he has set such high benchmarks — that once he is on the pitch everybody, including me, expects him to score big,” adds Sharma.
Vashisht feels the same.
“Because people have got into the habit of seeing him score 100 runs that if he scores 50-60, it doesn’t seem like Kohli is playing well,” he adds.
Rawat says he remains among India’s top performers with the bat.
“He has set the bar so high that if he doesn’t score a century, we feel like he is having a bad time. If you see the statistics, you’d also see that he has been India’s top performer over the past two years.”