Vodafone Test Series v India
In the zone: Smith, Kohli in conversation
The world's best two batters sit down for an enthralling chat on cricket, life, loss and getting in the elusive 'zone'
Sam Ferris is a Sydney-based journalist for cricket.com.au. He is the host of The Unplayable Podcast and co-creator of the hit web series In Case You Played And Missed It.
For half an hour on Monday afternoon, living legends Steve Smith and Virat Kohli let down their guard for a fascinating conversation, sharing rare insights into the careers of the two best Test batters in the world.
Organised to promote the start of the Vodafone Test Series, which begins in Adelaide tomorrow, the two genius-level batters discussed their origin stories, what it's like being in the 'zone', and dealing with expectation.
Smith arrived 15 minutes early and had perused the set of questions sent to each player in the days prior. Kohli, having just landed from Sydney, was right on time and hadn't bothered checking.
When asked if he wanted a quick glance, he declined, welcoming the surprise of each question card.
Smith, sitting bolt upright in his chair, asked the first question, about where it all began. Kohli, stretching out with an arm dangling over the back of his chair, was up next as they went back and forth discussing careers that have run parallel from youth cricket right through to the international stage.
Both players found cricket through their fathers. Kohli's dad would throw balls for his son to smash with a plastic cricket bat, while Smith's "old man" did the same.
Kohli said he always dreamed of donning the Indian shirt and winning games of cricket for his country but it wasn't until his father, Prem, died when he was 18 that he focused all his energy into his cricket aspirations.
"It was tough but it somehow put things into perspective," Kohli said.
"I just became single-minded from then on, focused to play for a long time, I didn't think I was going to get dropped from the team.
"It was pure motivation and the will to move forward."
Determined to succeed, Kohli revealed he thought his days playing for India were done after just seven matches having failed against Pakistan in the 2009 Champions Trophy.
"I remember getting out for 16 trying to hit Shahid Afridi over his head for six. I was caught at long off and we lost the game and until 5am in the morning I was looking at the ceiling I was like 'I'm done. That's it, I'm gone'," he recalled.
But four days later, he won his first player of the match award for navigating his side to a win over the West Indies. From there on out, he felt as though he belonged.
Kohli was always a batter, unlike Smith who made his way into the Australian side as a "blonde little pudgy leg-spinner". But like Kohli, he always wanted to bat, which led to make the unpopular decision to forgo the leggies.
"It was 2012 when I got dropped," Smith said. "I played two Tests as a spinner, three as an allrounder, I was batting at six and I got dropped so I thought 'What was the best way to get back into Australian side and have a successful career?'
"So I thought 'Right, it's time to let go of spin'. I had so many people saying 'Don't do it, you need to keep focusing on different parts of your game.'
"I was like, 'This is my decision and I want to be the best batsman I can be.'"
Eight-and-a-half minutes in, the conversation moved to the batting nirvana of being in the 'zone', that place where movements become automatic, gaps are hit and one feels close to invincible.
Kohli recalls one innings, one he regards as his favourite, when he crashed a breath-taking 82no against Smith's Australians in Mohali in a must-win match at the 2016 ICC World T20.
Just at the mention of the innings you could see Smith's mind dig into the vault of his memories and when he found it he could not help but say 'Geez, that was some knock'.
The performance propelled India into the semi-finals and eliminated Australia, but Kohli still doesn't know how he did it.
"I went into a trance mode," he said.
"You feel like things are looking difficult and you just think about committing to what the team needs.
"I still don't know how it happened, it was like everything I was hitting was going into gaps.
"I went into a zone that not even I could break down after.
"I felt that was so special because it's getting into that space while you're batting where you're under pressure and everything is coming off.
"That is probably my most favourite limited-overs innings."
Kohli said he doesn't write anything down – he does not want to live in the past so his game keeps evolving – but will recall certain match situations to help him solve different challenges.
Smith's game evolved dramatically during the Perth Test of the 2013-14 Ashes series. It was during that Test that Smith debuted his now customary crab across the crease, a pre-ball trigger which had Kohli interested to know how it came about.
"(England) were bowling some short stuff and I was struggling to get out of the way of it," said Smith.
"(Stuart) Broad and (Ben) Stokes in particular. I thought I need to get myself in a better position to one, play the pull shot or two, get out of the way of the ball.
"So I thought 'Why don’t I go to middle and leg, go back a bit and get myself in a good position'.
"I started doing it and they pitched a few up and I was able to get my weight through the ball, and when they bowled short I was pulling well and getting myself into good position.
"Everything sort of clicked into place. That was the start of my 'prelim' movement – it's got bigger and bigger over time but that was the start and I've been doing it ever since.
"Never practiced it in my life I just had an instinctive thing to do it out in the middle and it clicked into place."
The following summer, India toured in what was a landmark series for both Smith and Kohli.
The pair made four centuries each and captained their countries for the first time.
For Kohli it brings back fond memories despite the 2-0 series loss. Having arrived in Australia after a torrid tour of England, Kohli had visualised how it was all going to pan out. And it did, but not after a shocking start.
"It's funny because I visualised for two months and then we prepared so much to play the first Test and then I walk in four balls before lunch and Mitchell Johnson hit me first ball in the head," Kohli said.
"I just stood there thinking, 'I've prepared for two-and-a-half months, and the first ball hits me on the head. What the hell is going on?'
"But then you either go fight or flight. I was pissed off with myself that I prepared for so long how can I not even get bat on ball and get out of the way."
Kohli decided then and there to take the attack to the Australians and it paid off in glorious, brutal fashion.
As time was running out, the two master batters discussed the moment when Kohli asked the Indian fans to stop booing Smith during a World Cup match last year in England. Smith, and David Warner, had been copping abuse from crowds all over Britain in their comeback tournament from their 12-month bans for the events of Cape Town, but Kohli did not want to see it.
Virat Kohli was the winner of the 2019 ICC Spirit of Cricket award for asking his team's fans to stop booing Steve Smith during #CWC19 👏 Should this moment win the ICC Spirit of Cricket Award of the Decade? Cast your VOTE 🗳️ https://t.co/Ib6lqGqUOi pic.twitter.com/cJ5HP1hfWy— ICC (@ICC) December 15, 2020
"I feel like in life nothing can be that permanent that you carry it on for life," said Kohli.
"People make mistakes and they learn from it and I felt like it's not fair to target an individual personally, that's what I felt at that moment.
"Instinctively I told them not to boo you because you were fielding there (on the boundary) for quite a bit.
"As much as you play against each other there's a human side to things as well and at the end of the day we're here chatting now, we do have a chat a few times during the IPL as well.
"Yes, you're competitive on the field but you don't want to go nasty as such.
"Long term you do realise the importance of things from a larger perspective and I felt that wasn't right to do that at that moment."
Smith thanked Kohli again and explained how he sent him a message after the game for the kind gesture.
While the behaviour of the crowds for Smith's time in England was at times unpleasant, it did not bother the Australian, who revels playing in front of large audiences with the volume turned up.
"I just love the noise, regardless of what people are saying or doing, whether it's negative towards me, it's just noise," Smith said.
"I love that there's noise there and that people are watching you.
"There was a lot of negative stuff towards me when I first came back and I like to prove people wrong, so it's kind of like 'You guys are booing me, screw you. I'm going to try and do whatever I can to either keep you quiet or make you come at me even more'.
"I just want to perform and entertain."
Large crowds follow Kohli wherever he goes, and with a huge following comes huge expectation.
Kohli said it used to bother him, but now he knows what he needs to focus on to satisfy the expectations of his cricket-loving country.
"I've always felt if I focus on that too much then I won't be able to play one ball because then you're thinking of so many expectations," Kohli said.
"The reason why they expect things from me is because I can do good things on the field which eventually give them happiness if we win, so my job is to focus on the skill and the other stuff will take care of itself – the result, the adulation, the criticism, whatever, it's a later result.
"The expectation is not humanly possible to focus on."
Before time expired, Smith paid respect to Kohli for making the decision to head home after the first Test to be by his wife for the birth of their first child.
"It's a decision that was absolutely clear in my mind," said Kohli.
"As committed as you are to play for your country this is a very, very special moment in life that you want to be there for at any cost.
"It's a blessed time and we're very excited."
And that was it. Kohli had to run to a team meeting but before they parted ways, there was time for one last fist bump and a nod of acknowledgement from one master of his craft to another.
Vodafone Test Series v India 2020-21
Australia Test squad: Tim Paine (c), Joe Burns, Pat Cummins, Cameron Green, Marcus Harris, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Moises Henriques, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Michael Neser, James Pattinson, Will Pucovski, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Mitchell Swepson, Matthew Wade, David Warner
India Test squad: Virat Kohli (c) (first Test only), Ajinkya Rahane (vice-captain), Rohit Sharma, Mayank Agarwal, Prithvi Shaw, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Hanuma Vihari, Shubman Gill, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), Rishabh Pant (wk), Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, Navdeep Saini, Kuldeep Yadav, Ravindra Jadeja, Ravichandran Ashwin, Mohammed Siraj
Second Test: December 26-30, MCG, 10.30am AEDT
Third Test: January 7-11, SCG, 10.30am AEDT
Fourth Test: January 15-19, Gabba, 11am AEDT