Sunil Chhetri & Virat Kohli – Destined To Fail. Fated To Fall. Still, They Rose.

Sunil Chhetri & Virat Kohli, India's prized sporting icons, were never expected to succeed. Except, they did.

5 min read

In 2015, Virat Kohli found himself facing a daunting predicament. A few months had passed since MS Dhoni retired from Test cricket. India arrived in Sri Lanka for a three-match Test series, and surprisingly, were defeated in the first Test, failing to chase 176 runs.

Despite having played international cricket for seven years, Kohli was stepping into uncharted territory. He not only had to navigate the team through the turbulence left by Dhoni's departure, but also fortify it to new heights of invincibility.

Prior to embarking on this endeavour, did Virat Kohli seek counsel from his dear friend, Sunil Chhetri?

The Indian football team’s captain found himself in a similar situation in 2012. Bhaichung Bhutia – the most capped player then – had retired, and Chhetri had to lead the team in the Nehru Cup – a tournament he won twice previously, but never as a leader.

The start was far from ideal. India played to a dispiriting draw against Nepal and then lost to Cameroon. The Blue Tigers could still qualify for the final, but the opposition, yet again, was a much stronger Cameroon. Trailing 1-2 till the 78th minute, the outcome seemed to be a foregone conclusion. Until, Chhetri equalised, enforcing penalties, and then, India won.

Fast forward to 2015, after the initial Test loss to Sri Lanka, the Indian cricket team rallied magnificently. The team’s dominance was highlighted by the margin of victory in the two subsequent matches – 278 runs and 117 runs.

In 2012, Indian football fans were reassured that although the Bhutia era had ended, the sport was in safe hands with Chhetri. Three years later, Indian cricket enthusiasts celebrated the dawn of the Virat Kohli era.

Beyond the thousands of runs, hundreds of goals and tens of accolades, Virat Kohli and Sunil Chhetri are two unflinching, audaciously determined athletes, who were thrown at the deep end and expected to fail, except every time they had their backs to the wall, they won.

Chhetri-Kohli Rule 1: Don’t Accept What You Are Given, Fight for What You Deserve

We are talking about the early 2000s.

This was when Virat Kohli was honing his skills under coach Rajkumar Sharma’s tutelage, at the West Delhi Cricket Academy. That, the kid was talented, was known by all. Byt talent alone could not earn him a place in the Delhi Under-14 team.

Around the same time, Chhetri – four years older than Kohli – was representing Delhi in age-level football, but no club would sign him.

Kohli was adviced to enrol his one of those coaching centres the administrators frequent. Chhetri was told he perhaps was not good enough to sign for a professional club.

Neither accepted what they were offered, but worked to achieve what they deserved – Kohli would soon be selected for the U-15 state team, and Chhetri would sign his first contract for City Club.


Chhetri-Kohli Rule 2: Never Settle For the Good, Strive for the Best

An impressive Durand Cup campaign in 2001 earned Chhetri a move to Mohun Bagan – one of India’s oldest, and most successful clubs. Though not quite the showstopper for the Mariners, he was far from an insignificant footnote, scoring 28 goals in 72 matches.

There was, still, a missing element which could unlock his true potential. He had a couple of options – either remain content with what he was doing, or move heaven and earth to find the missing element.

A senior suggested what it could be – physicality. For all the trickery and wizardry he possessed, his nimble footwork would often not be adequate to beat strong defenders. He needed to add brawniness to complement his brain, and on cue, an offer arrived from among the more physically potent teams of the nation – JCT. Chhetri left the comfort of the East – the adulation of fans and admiration of teammates – to the harsh, severe Westlands.

Parallels could be drawn to Kohli’s career, as after winning cricket’s pinnacle event – the ICC Cricket World Cup – at only 22 years of age, Kohli could have taken his feet off the pedal. Yet, he went in exactly the opposite direction, by further intensifying his training regime and making his dietary habits more disciplined than ever before.

On being asked about why he was doing so, Kohli stated he aims to play with the same intensity till 35. Now, at 35, he is as vigorous and unwavering as he was at his debut, if not more.

Two boys from Delhi, with a seemingly ineradicable love for food, had eradicated all deleterious eating habits, and they are reaping the rewards of the decision to date.


Chhetri-Kohli Rule 3: Don’t Let Others Decide What You Can’t Do, Show Them What You Can

Kohli led the Indian team to the celebrated 2008 U-19 World Cup triumph, was swiftly called up to the senior team, scored a century on his ODI World Cup debut, and eventually lifted the trophy. So, was he always destined to succeed, right?

Quite the opposite – he was destined to fail, thrown at the deep end and left to fend for himself. With a long line of players eager to seize any opportunity from his mistakes, Kohli knew that failure was not an option.

Consider 2011 for evidence. Kohli had a disastrous debut Test series against the West Indies, scoring only 76 runs in three matches. He was subsequently dropped for the Tests against England, but his exemplary white-ball form earned him a recall. Many were miffed, and the displeasure was voiced vehemently.

Even more so, when in the first match of the 2012 Border Gavaskar Trophy, Kohli accumulated merely 32 runs across both innings.

Former cricketer Sanjay Manjrekar was certain Kohli did not belong at the biggest stage, for he tweeted “I would still drop VVS & get rohit in for next test.Makes long term sense. give virat 1 more test..just to be sure he does not belong here.(sic)”
Sunil Chhetri & Virat Kohli, India's prized sporting icons, were never expected to succeed. Except, they did.

What happened next?

A fighting 44, followed by an even better 75 in the second Test. Then a century in the third Test – his first-ever. Followed by two half-centuries and another century in his next Test series, against New Zealand.

Around the time Kohli was carving his identity amid the enormity of Indian cricket, Chhetri was already a superstar. English club Coventry City invited him for a trial, and given his form, Chhetri had every reason to be confident. Despite performing well, finishing second in a shooting drill among 30 participants, Chhetri was told by coach Chris Coleman that he was nowhere near the level required to earn a Coventry City shift.

One would expect a youngster to wilt after transitioning from being an undisputed champion to the unacceptably mediocre, and seek solace in the comfort of home soil.

Except, Chhetri ventured abroad on two more occasions – first in the United States of America to play for Kansas City Wizards, and then in Portugal to play for Sporting Clube de Portugal. The experience from both stints had an undeniably crucial role in making him the player he was.


Chhetri-Kohli Rule 4: Till the Curtains Are Drawn, Commitment Is Non-Negotiable

Virat Kohli's unwavering commitment to the sport, which once saw him score 90 runs in a Ranji Trophy match just hours after his father passed away, continues to drive him to uncharted heights, even as his career nears its twilight.

Soon, the dwindling rays of his career will wane into complete darkness when Kohli decides it's time to hang up his boots, just as Chhetri did on 6 June. Soon, their names will feature only on the pages of sporting annals, not on team sheets. But when those annals are revisited, future fans will learn about two icons who refused to settle for mediocrity.

Until then, cherish them while you still can.

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