About a year ago, around the T20 World Cup in Australia, some important conversations took place in the Indian dressing room. Back then, the present day leadership — captain Rohit Sharma, coach Rahul Dravid and his assistants — was relatively new to the job. The team’s superstar Virat Kohli, fresh out of captaincy, had publicly been angsty about his unceremonious exit. He was also out of form.
The team needed to talk and just for that, Dravid had coaxed the Indian board to hire cricket’s most famous sounding board – mental guru Paddy Upton. An avid surfer, one-time backpacker, first-class cricketer, Upton was with M S Dhoni’s team when India won the 2011 World Cup. Now, he was returning to the team and to a country that seemed burdened with a worrying question: So used to being King Kohli, will Virat adjust to the life of a commoner?
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Cut to 2023. Just a few weeks ago, while in the middle of his dream World Cup run, Virat acknowledged Upton’s role in his turnaround. He said it was the South African sports psychologist who woke him up to the harsh realities of a long career and the inevitability of the ups and downs that keep dropping by. He also shared a simple Upton advice that had stayed with him: “Keep doing things that you did when you were playing good cricket.”
This realisation would prove to be Virat’s transformative eureka moment. It would also be the turning point for Rohit and Dravid’s Team India. Chances are history could well register it as the moment when the first seed of India’s most-commanding World Cup triumph ever was sown. With 711 runs, Virat is this World Cup’s highest run-getter. The man searching for a glimmer of light in the dark tunnel a year ago is now a step away from the sparkling Cup and the glittering open-bus parade, and is being hailed as the perennially shining Sun on the Indian cricket horizon.
It all changed when Virat, to be his old self, didn’t do anything new. This wasn’t just about going back to his time-tested batting rhythm. It was also about not restricting his swagger, not quitting from being the team’s cheerleader, chief protestor and bugle-blowing frontline warrior. This was about being a leader despite losing the captaincy. Virat might not have the ownership of the team but he did retain the power of attorney.
And giving him the space, authority and the luxury to be himself were Indian cricket’s two most accommodative, pragmatic and low-key leaders — captain Rohit and coach Dravid.
Behind India’s 2023 World Cup success is a beautiful story of two pals — teen prodigies once, fathers of young daughters now — not letting rumours, misunderstandings and professional upheavals erode the mutual respect they had maintained for each other for about a decade and a half. It is also about another batting great from the previous generation, never a World Cup winner, wiser after learning from his own mistakes in handling a star-studded team of the past, playing the sagacious sherpa and guiding the two weather-hardened summit challengers.
Rohit: ‘An incredible man manager’
Upton has a reputation that goes beyond cricket. His latest employers were Hockey India — and the boys he worked had ended up with the gold at the Asian Games. He is now back in Cape Town, following the World Cup in India from a distance. He agrees for an interview on the day India is playing New Zealand in the semi-final at Wankhede. When he takes the call, Rohit is on the central square of his home but he comes across as a kamikaze fighter in the middle of a sortie. Upton has an eye on the game as he talks.
The articulate Upton, now in his mid-50s, has seen cricket’s biggest stars at their weakest worst. A thorough professional, he avoids specifics. But he does share the overview of the leadership group he worked closely with during his stint in 2022 — the time when the Indian team was a slow-crawling caterpillar and not the delightfully fluttering butterfly of the present.
“At present, India has a leadership that allows each individual to be unique people themselves. Rohit and Rahul are very empowering leaders… They create the opportunity for people to be themselves… for Virat to be himself. Virat’s energy in itself is a powerful leadership ingredient within the team,” says Upton.
With six IPL titles for Mumbai Indians, Rohit is truly a modern-day leader. Having led teams with super stars from around the world he understands that the ancient leadership rule of treating everybody the same doesn’t work.
“Very seldom will you have 11 cricketers who all require the same thing. And yet, for some reason, we still have coaches prescribing one way for everyone,” says Upton. He calls Rohit an “incredible man manager” who is able to “connect with the most junior player as comfortably as he can with the most senior player”. More importantly for the Indian team, Rohit can connect and be comfortable with his only real peer in the team — his old friend Virat.
Two different personalities, yet friends
Within months of India’s 2007 World T20 triumph in South Africa, Rohit was in Delhi for a Ranji Trophy game at Karnail Singh Stadium, the home ground of the Indian Railways cricket team where the blaring horns of the trains entering the New Delhi station can be heard. On a wintry evening, with darkness engulfing the stadium within minutes of stumps, Rohit kept his word for a long-promised interview but he also had to follow the cool-down routine.
Rohit would eventually sit down for the chat but would keep looking over his back. Not too far, in the top stands, with his kit bag over his shoulder, stood Virat. The two had plans for the evening and the Delhi boy was waiting for his Mumbai mate. The interaction got dragged with light further fading. Restless by now, Virat started walking towards Rohit. It was the perfect cue to ask a question about the relationship between the country’s two most talented young batsmen who at times fought for the same spot in the playing XI and later in life, became India captaincy contenders.
Rohit would react with a half chuckle, the trademark Rohit shrug and the truly Bambaiya “nahi re” denial. He would wave at Virat, flex his fingers, asking him to wait for five minutes. He would praise Virat the batsman and, as a memorable parting remark, would say, “Such things have never impacted my friendships.”
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At that point in time, Rohit was Indian cricket’s most promising junior. He had charmed the world with his unfeasibly beautiful batting during the 2006 U-19 World Cup at Sri Lanka. His rise was meteoric. Within months of his junior India outing, he was with the senior team that won the historic ODI tri-series in Australia and also Dhoni’s trusted middle-order batsman in the T20 World Cup. Greatness was thrust on Rohit quite early in life.
Like everyone, Virat too was besotted with Rohit’s batsmanship. Years later, in an interview, he recalled the days of Rohit mania. Speaking to host Gaurav Kapur on the popular Breakfast with Champions show, he spoke about his curiosity over the young batsman everyone was raving about. “I was curious because everyone was talking about this player called Rohit Sharma… I was also a young player, but nobody was talking about me. Then, during the T20 World Cup (2007) I saw him bat, I just slumped on the sofa. That shut my mouth forever.”
However, Rohit would fluff his first-mover advantage. He couldn’t keep pace with his rapidly changing life and the unrealistic expectations. Virat would soon go past him. He would lead India to the U-19 World Cup title and stake claim as Sachin Tendulkar’s heir apparent. On the Mumbai Maidans a few tears would have been shed as Borivali boy Rohit had failed to take the baton from the Shivaji Park legend.
Cricket would live up to its reputation as a great leveller. Rohit would soon rise again. IPL would put him on a pedestal. On the ultra-competitive franchise cricket stage, Rohit would showcase his ability to read the game, mentor match-winners like Hardik Pandya and Jasprit Bumrah and be the super sopper of pressure. He would get hailed as IPL’s winningest captain alongside Dhoni. Virat tried his best, did all he could but he could never take his Bangalore team to the top of the podium. Around the time he gave up India’s white-ball captaincy, he would also quit as the IPL skipper.
Their careers continued, following a script with the twists and turns of a daily soap. There were stories of rift and intrigue but the two remained respectfully silent. Rohit, while playing under Virat, found his true calling. After trying various positions in the top order, he settled as the opener. It would help him stabilise his place in the side. Then, with Virat feeling the pressure of the hot seat, Rohit, an all-format regular, ended up being the obvious challenger for the leadership role.
Finally, when Rohit got the reins, the square pegs and the round holes would finally get swapped. The jigsaw was finally in place. The greatest batsman was now playing under a great captain and at this World Cup, Indian cricket was just a step away from being great again. But how did the two super stars coexist despite entangled journeys and intrigue around them?
Back to Upton for interpreting the cricketers with temperaments that are poles apart. “Rohit and Virat are two mature individuals and they are two different personalities… They also realised that if they were to be immature, they would be squabbling about their own individual agendas. But their maturity has transcended that. They realise that both are actually competing for the same thing and it is something greater than each one of them individually. They are playing for an Indian team, and the team is playing for a nation,” he says.
Virat: ‘He brings that high energy’
In 2011 too, Dhoni’s team had men who had squabbles in the past but the maturity of that group had also doused the differences. Providing a helping hand to the skipper was Sachin Tendulkar. He too was a leader that didn’t need a captain’s band on his arm. Like Virat at present, Tendulkar was the tournament’s highest run-scorer but he was also a guiding light for the team’s younger bunch — primarily the eventual Player of the Tournament, Yuvraj Singh.
Virat too has taken it upon himself to be the team elder and the Big Brother. From addressing the team huddle, mentoring his Royal Challengers Bangalore team mate Mohammad Siraj and fooling around with young opener Shubhman Gill to help him settle his nerves in big games — Virat has made contributions that are beyond his runs. He is also the team’s ball polisher, he takes guard at the vital run-leaking areas as a fielder, celebrates more than the bowler when a wicket falls, is the loudest appealer and gives Rohit a bear hug when the plan they have set together works.
Upton sees similarities and differences in this Tendulkar-Virat parallel. “Both are able to play the leadership role with their own performance. There is an advantage, you have the official leader in Rohit and someone who is naturally a leader through his actions. Virat leads by his 100 per cent commitment to every single thing he does — batting, fielding. He brings that high energy,” he says.
But temperamentally, aren’t the two very different? “Sachin didn’t have the same intensity and aggression; it’s a different type of energy. He brought a more composed energy to the team,” shares Upton.
In the present set-up, Rohit brings the Tendulkar-type of energy to the team. In a team of varied talent and temperament, there are those who feed on Virat’s aggression and others on Rohit’s calmness.
A partnership for the ages
But could this be a marriage of convenience, a facade of bonhomie in the age of brand collaboration and cross-marketing? Is it an act for the cameras choreographed by agents? It’s a cynical query in this delirious season of Rohit-Virat frenzy where the Blue Brotherhood has swept the nation off its feet.
According to Upton, no one can be a team player first and put his personal performance second. “Champions put their personal performance and the team first at the same time. That’s what champions do,” he says.
The second indicator is how the players celebrate each other’s success.
There are a couple of memorable Rohit-Virat frames that in the years to come might get iconic status. There’s one of Rohit hugging Virat after the win against Australia and there’s this other one of Virat lifting Rohit after a fall of an England wicket. Zoom on the faces, look into their eyes to see the warmth. It’s a throwback to their teenage days, it’s a reminder of Rohit’s ‘nahi re’ on the inky wintery evening at Karnail Singh Stadium and Virat’s “slumping on the sofa” awe under the bright lights of the TV studio.
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