Virat Kohli once called it “inhuman, impossible” to keep going without niggles. What if his back had troubled him in Melbourne, it shouldn’t be a big deal — he seemed to suggest. And to be fair, it hasn’t been a big deal for Kohli all these years. For, to play and perform in 100 Tests alongside two other international formats, ICC tournaments and IPLs despite living with a slipped disc since 2011, in fact, is inhuman, impossible.
Ashish Kaushik has had one of the best vantage points to Kohli’s journey through pain and regeneration. He was the India team physio on the 2011 tour of the West Indies when Kohli made his Test debut and first encountered problems with his back. He was only 23 then.
“The beauty of his journey is that he has continued to struggle with his back and he has continued to get better with his fitness. I’ve never seen anybody do that. I’ve never seen anybody struggle with a problem and parallely drive their fitness to where Kohli has taken it,” Kaushik tells Cricbuzz.
“Until that tour (of the West Indies), he had never really struggled with any injuries. Although he was super energetic, charged-up and ran well between the wickets, he hadn’t worked on his fitness much. It’s only when his back played up, he made the effort.”
In order to appreciate how Kohli has had to go above and beyond the usual fitness regimen to stay on the park, it’s important to know how a slipped disc can limit functionalities. According to NHS, slipped disc (or herniated disc) is “when a soft cushion of tissue between the bones in your spine pushes out.” It’s painful if it presses on nerves, and can cause back spasms (which ruled out Kohli from the 2022 Johannesburg Test) and even numbness in body parts. In an Instagram Live with Kevin Pietersen during lockdown days, Kohli had spoken about “barely being able to feel his little finger” while on tour to South Africa in 2018. “I could not sleep at night and it was hurting like mad.”
2018 was a particularly difficult season for Kohli vis-a-vis his back. A reappearance of his cervical spine issue early on had a domino effect all year long. He didn’t come out to bat at No.4 in the second innings at Lord’s and needed the services of Patrick Farhat on the field in Melbourne. He looked in pain.
That is why managing the back physically became crucial for Kohli as early as his Test debut. With it came the stability exercises, the mobility exercises and a whole gamut of strength and conditioning to-dos which he had to do to stay ahead of spasm injuries. Kaushik was particularly impressed by how Kohli had responded to the long-term injury curveball when he could have easily gotten into a pity party. At 23, you often don’t know any better.
“I remember he returned to India from the West Indies trip and didn’t go back home. He went straight to the NCA for his rehab and was ready for a call in case he was required in England (India were touring for four Tests). He had sorted himself out, made sure that he was fit. And that’s how he always dealt with his fitness issues.
“Unless something was really bothering him, he wouldn’t lie at the table at all. He is more of a doer. He doesn’t whinge, doesn’t complain. In fact, we had to ask him how he was and he would be almost nonchalant about some of his aches and pains.
“His pain tolerance is phenomenal. Some players get affected by pain more than others – pain being a subjective marker – but Kohli has got a tremendous ability to endure pain and look for solutions. I remember he had some neck and jaw pain before the 2011 World Cup semifinal in Mohali (Kaushik had joined Nitin Patel in order to help out) but he would take everything extremely, extremely lightly, and somehow know that he can work through it.”
The same self-awareness and self-belief also allowed Kohli to take his fitness to a different level.
“He would look up to Djokovic, Ronaldo. Those were the people he was comparing his fitness to. Not to the other players within the fraternity of cricket, but he was looking at the fittest guys in the field of sport. That’s where he wanted to see himself.”
“A cricketer would at best compare himself to another cricketer but he was a guy who was willing to put himself out there and be compared with the best athletes in the world. Sometimes we don’t realize how big that point is. That is not something that anybody does. Because then you’re setting yourself a bar which is bloody hard to achieve. Just the fact that you are willing to do that means that you are willing to go all the way.”
Kohli’s driving force to be the fittest version of himself had an inductive effect on other cricketers in the system too. It eventually translated into a culture in Indian cricket, which impacted national selections like never before.
Kaushik, who had moved on from the BCCI job in 2014, returned to its fold in 2017 as NCA’s head physio. This was a time when the BCCI was run by a Supreme Court-appointed Committee of Administrators, so Kaushik’s communication lines with Kohli and the coaching staff were straightforward and clear. It allowed all of them to be on the same page about how to go about things.
“At the time, there was a need for the NCA to function slightly differently and that’s when I came back at the behest of Virat and other boys,” Kaushik reveals. “The NCA of 2014 was more about managing injuries and the NCA 2017 was managing injuries as well as ensuring that minimal standard of fitness was achieved.”
What followed was a sea of change in fitness levels all around and as much as it’s been spoken about, Kaushik gives a first-hand account of exactly how the change was being made. Or rather “forced upon” a system that had a lot of catching up to do.
“The NCA of 2017 was utilized very nicely by the Indian team. They used to refer players to special fitness camps; that wouldn’t happen before. Players earlier would only come for injury management, but 2017 onwards, they started coming especially for fitness work.
“The other big change was that now, fitness markers had come in and that was the big deal. And there was this understanding amongst the boys, no matter how skilled they are, if they don’t have a basic level of fitness they would be dropped. And that I had never seen before. It was the trio of Ravi bhai, Virat and (Shankar) Basu who drove it to a level where it became a policy for the first time in the BCCI. Now there was a minimally acceptable level of fitness that you had to achieve and maintain. And you had to get tested and retested and you were just not allowed to drop from that standard of fitness.”
Quite understandably, this new system featuring ruthless selections and zero compromises wasn’t exactly an instant hit among many cricketers. “Look, the players were clearly split down the middle and some of them were questioning whether this was really necessary. The younger ones were especially very excited, also because it was a cruise for them. It was easy, the ask was nothing but for the maturing ones, who had been around for some time and hadn’t been used to this kind of fitness training regime and overall focus on fitness, they obviously found it tough. They had to work doubly hard and it was a point of contention.
“Around that time, I remember KL Rahul and Kedar Jadhav being highly impressed with. Although Ishant Sharma had started his training by this time, when he saw how dedicated Kohli was, he started pushing for it. Bhuvi (Bhuvneshwar Kumar) started pushing for it. It was around 2015 when Bhuvi actually picked up his pace, that was on the back of all the training he was doing at the time and the amount of time that he was spending at it.”
As difficult as it was for some cricketers, they had no option but to hop on the ship. It was the captain after all who was leading the change, and more importantly at a time when he enjoyed more leverage than most Indian captains have had in the system over the years. It was just a good window to make a change. Kohli knew it.
“The guy was doing twice as much as he was asking everyone else to do!” points out Kaushik. “Coming back from the IPL, everybody’s yo-yo score except Virat Kohli’s!. So how was he doing it? Everybody was whinging, ‘oh the weather was this and that, we didn’t get any time, it was a very tight tournament’ and so on. And then the captain comes in and pans out the best score ever.”
So how does he do it?
“He just never misses a session. JUST NEVER MISSES A SESSION. And that’s why Shankar Basu loves him. Virat is very aware and very clear about the level of functionality he needs for his game and the so diligent with his strength and conditioning work. He ensures that he is in top shape at all times. For example, when he’s away on holidays or when it’s the offseason or during COVID when much wasn’t happening, his routine I don’t think changed much at all. So that kind of continuity of self-care allowed him to deal with his back better than anybody else in his position would have.”
Kaushik remembers how Kohli didn’t just inspire others with his fitness levels but also was the first one to put his name down for anything even remotely fitness-related.
“One day, RCB were practicing at the Chinnaswamy and I went to him and said, ‘Virat, I need you to just do this battery of tests…’. He said, ‘Bhai, can I do it just before the practice?’. I said okay, and he was dot on time. Bang bang bang, did his test and went to practice. It’s so easy to deal with him.
“His ability or his willingness to get himself tested, to lead from the front, in subjecting himself to any kind of testing is in itself motivational. There were some players who were shirking from being tested because one of the parameters wasn’t as good as the team average, and here was a guy who was happy to be tested for anything at any point.”
Kohli and the NCA, though, weren’t always on the same page. Come the days when yo-yo tests were made the sole qualifying standard to play for India, the then Strength & Conditioning coach Shankar Basu had raised the issue around the “practicality” of it all with Kohli.
“I know for a fact that Basu himself raised the issue about the practicality of that implementation. We were at the NCA at the time and we were actually doing the tests, and we asked him whether he was sure about using it as a criteria no matter what,” Kaushik says. “And Kohli had absolute clarity of thought in that. He thought that was the only way fitness would be taken seriously. And look where it’s taken Indian cricket to.
“I 100% credit him for what he’s done to Indian cricket. People can debate and argue but 100% it’s Virat Kohli, single-handedly. He’s become synonymous with the neo cricket culture that India was playing with. The energy that he brought onto the field is his greatest legacy and that energy led him to achieve the level of fitness that was unimaginable.”
Kohli has played the cards he was dealt. Even with a lumbar disc disease, he went on to break new grounds in fitness, scored all the runs he has, and remarkably continues to flourish in an era when cricket can feel like clockwork. There’s so much of it. There’s Kohli in so much of it. But it only makes his journey more human, although not necessarily possible for everyone.