NEW DELHI—Before the roar, there was silence. 2011, Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium, the World Cup Finals. Sachin Tendulkar, the city’s favourite son, had just departed to Lasith Malinga, a tame stroke resulting in a catch behind. Enter Virat Kohli, the Delhi boy widely expected to settle into the shoes of India’s greatest batsman.
The first ball was a bouncer, Kohli ducked. Nine more balls went by without a run. The mood was tense, India’s chances hung by a thread at that moment.
On the eleventh delivery Kohli faced, he produced a delicate glance off the bat for four. The star of the future could hold his own, he belonged to the occasion. By the time he departed for a well-crafted 35, India could breathe easier.
The score stood at 115, and the story told so many times since was about to unfold. Mahendra Singh Dhoni calmly eviscerated Sri Lanka’s challenge. The winning blow for the six a cool jab to confirm the inevitable. India were world champions.
Tendulkar was nearly 38 when he won his first and only world cup at his sixth attempt. Much of his extraordinary cricketing career had been spent carving out jaw-dropping acts of individual heroism in service of salvaging lost causes.
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If the arc of Tendulkar’s career was defined by the ultimately fruitful struggle for the Cup, what heroic quest would define Kohli — who had scaled cricket’s highest peak at the beginning of his career, aged only 22?
Eight years later, as the World Cup rolls into England, the task that awaits him is clear: Kohli must not only win the cup again, but must win it with a team moulded in his own image — an aggressive, athletic, vocal unit of young men with identikit tattooed forearms and carefully sculpted beards. The sort of young men who are expected to say “New India” in every second sentence. Winning is everything.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni won more than anybody else in the country but he liked to present himself as a process man: Do the little things right, the result will take care of itself. Kohli is a process man too, but his process is winning — plain and simple.
Of late, the Indian captain and the coach Ravi Shastri have made it a point to stress why this team is different. And better. Indian cricket has not seen a more golden age, across formats, they insist.
It is a question that is likely to come up again in England this summer, especially if India is on the cusp of emulating 1983 and 2011. Comparisons are inevitable.
Dhoni and Kohli are the only players left from the triumph eight years ago. The former’s legacy is secure, no matter how the next few weeks go.
But what about Kohli and his dream to be the most winningest Indian cricketer in history?
To know cricket, one must understand more than cricket, as Neville Cardus famously wrote. The same could be said of Kohli. If you were to limit ourselves to the cricketer’s runs and his centuries, you would learn something about him. But it would be an incomplete picture. To really understand Kohli, we will have to dig in other places.
A decade ago, during the Indian Premier League in South Africa, Bunty Sajdeh was working for Yuvraj Singh in Johannesburg. The agent had started his own company Cornerstone not very long ago and was keen to add more cricketers to his roster.
As Virat Kohli walked into a restaurant where Yuvraj and Bunty were sitting, the agent was unimpressed. Sajdeh was introduced to the young batsman as he recalled to Mint. “Virat came in wearing a flashy jacket and sunglasses. I remember thinking, ‘What are you doing? You’re an athlete, not a model.’”
Sajdeh didn’t get it — Kohli was an athlete, and a model. Or to borrow the name of his line of ‘breakaway youth fashion’ brand, Kohli was right and Sajdeh was WROGN.
“When people think of me, the first thing that comes to their mind is ‘wrong’,” Kohli said a promotional event for the WROGN clothing line. “And then it eventually becomes right… this brand is me.”
I scold him even now. Sometimes, he wastes his energy on trivial thingsRaj Kumar
Kohli’s cricketing journey is somewhat boring — he started good, became great, and has remained consistently so. Experts often complain they fail to describe him without repeating themselves. His commercial journey has more interesting diversions.
From his earliest advertisements for Fastrack to Uber recently, marketing campaigns around the cricketer portray him as a restless figure. The Fastrack series with Genelia D’Souza, captioned ‘Move on’, show Kohli as a young man who is free, footloose and always on the lookout for his next destination.
His later obsession with exercise and fitness extends Kohli’s relationship with movement, albeit in a physical sense. He wanted to be the most agile man in his team, and any obstacle was publicly rejected. This transformation led to an end of Kohli’s agreement with Pepsi in 2017 as the Indian captain found it uncomfortable to endorse sugary drinks. Since then, Kohli has projected himself as an ambassador for healthy eating and intense physical activity. He turned vegan last year.
“About four years ago, when he assumed the captaincy, Virat started to feel that he needed to set a trend for the Indian team. He wanted his teammates to be as fit as the Kiwis or Australians. Virat wanted to change the culture of the Indian team,” said his personal coach, Raj Kumar Sharma, in a recent interview with HuffPost India.
His biographer Vijay Lokapally adds, “He acquired this image as he began to travel and came into contact with people from different walks of life. All the products he endorses are directed at the youth. He can quickly recognise what will go down with his image. Virat had a mind-blowing offer from Coca-Cola but he turned it down, like P. Gopichand, because it would not suit him.”
The youth icon’s transition to a married life carried his brand forward. In an interview to the show Breakfast with Champions, Kohli acknowledged the role played by his wife Anushka Sharma.
He reckons he’s a “gentleman” now because she has taught him many things. One of them might be acting, as a recent Google Duo ad shows. Not to forget there is a whole line of ‘Virushka’ ads since the couple got married in 2017, with many of those set at a wedding. Perhaps there is a move towards Bollywood in the offing. Kohli’s next steps are being drawn even as he plants his imprint on the cricket field.
Restless, moving, forward. Kohli’s early image is intact in the Uber advertisements even now - Badhtein chalein (Keep moving ahead). The young tearaway is still in motion, except now in a chauffeured car. This is Kohli now, a youth icon for the socially mobile and affluent Indian.
Kohli’s impatience can sometimes be seen on the cricket field, a wicket-less phase for India brings out a fidgety man ill at ease with stasis. In the cricketer’s younger days, coach Raj Kumar would struggle to keep his protégé calm. But he was the only one who could. Especially after the untimely death of Kohli’s father, the coach consciously chose to nurture his student.
Virat’s brashness and anger has worried everyone at some point but it was indulged. Experts and teammates explained it away by saying it was integral to his success. “He needs the aggression, to get the kick in his game”, opines Raj Kumar.
But in 2017, as he returned to England, Kohli found himself in a mood not dissimilar from his previous tour three years ago. The captain was under a cloud, for different reasons. In 2014, his underwhelming form was one of the sore points in a comprehensive Test defeat for India. Before the 2017 Champions Trophy, though, it was his estrangement with coach Anil Kumble that had come to dominate the news.
Kohli was in conflict with one of Indian cricket’s stalwarts. Kumble is considered a brainy figure in Indian cricket circles, someone who thinks about the game deeply. But his strict ways had rubbed Kohli and a few teammates the wrong way.
“How many former greats came out in the open to defend Kumble? Except for Gavaskar who maintained that Kumble was treated shabbily, nobody else,” Lokapally, his biographer, says. “Even the members of the Cricket Advisory Committee (CAC) Sourav Ganguly, VVS Laxman, and Sachin Tendulkar eventually approved his removal.”
The appointment of Ravi Shastri in Kumble’s place despite India’s excellent record during the latter’s tenure gave many a cause for concern. Ramachandra Guha, a member of the Supreme Court-appointed Committee of Administrators (CoA), cited rising player power as one of the reasons behind his resignation from the body that was entrusted with overseeing the constitutional revamp at the BCCI.
Kohli, clearly, had become indispensable to Indian cricket. Gone were the days when the BCCI would perform an adversarial role in front of the captain. In today’s times of coordinated communication policies designed by the managerial staff, direct arguments are nipped in the bud.
Even as the skipper has matured, some things have not changed. “I scold him even now. Sometimes, he wastes his energy on trivial things,” reveals Raj Kumar, hinting at his mentee’s tendency to get involved in slanging matches. As a captain, Kohli returns to his younger self on the field riled up by umpires and opposition from time to time.
Like many bullies, Kohli’s pronouncements reveal a man who is keen to identify ideologically with power — whoever that may be.
Lokapally remembers Kohli as a teenager who would “make demands of his coach and confront him. He was like other teenagers from West Delhi who would fight tooth and nail for an inch.” Kohli’s connection with the city of his birth, particularly West Delhi, is a sustained refrain when people talk about him.
Raj Kumar Sharma has lived in Tagore Garden since 1984, one of the many residential parts of West Delhi. In the past 35 years, he has seen his neighbouring parts develop almost beyond recognition.
From the area, Indian cricket has received talents like Shikhar Dhawan, Ishant Sharma, Gautam Gambhir, and of course Virat Kohli. When Raj Kumar started his West Delhi Cricket Academy on May 30, 1998, two young boys among 500 arrived to hone their cricketing abilities. The siblings, Virat and Vikas, were among the 250 selected. But why did this part of Delhi come to be associated with cricket when it had almost no historic connection with the game?
“This area is full of middle-class families, there are not many affluent families. I don’t think kids from affluent families are keen to work as hard as others,” Raj Kumar said. “When I started the academy, facilities for cricket were not here. But ever since then, cricket academies have mushroomed in these parts.”
Kohli’s popularity must help now. When I visited the St Sophia’s School in Paschim Vihar, the home of West Delhi Cricket Academy, 80 to 100 kids were engaged in some form of training to play the game of cricket. Kohli and his success feeds the burgeoning attraction. Many people visit Raj Kumar in a day, most conversations bring a mention of the Indian captain. But Kohli’s stature is not a cricketing construct anymore. His wide appeal exists for other reasons.
Rebel or Bully?
Last November, during a Q&A session for his mobile app, Kohli received a comment from a user who called him an overrated batsman and revealed a preference for English or Australian batsmen.
“I don’t think you should live in India. Then you should go and live somewhere else, no?” Kohli said, in a widely shared video. “Why are you living in our country and loving other countries? I don’t mind you not liking me but… Get your priorities right.”
Only once the public backlash spread far and wide—some Twitter users were keen to note that Kohli had named South Africa’s Herschelle Gibbs as his favourite batsman over a decade ago—did Kohli hide behind the familiar excuse that it was a joke gone wrong.
But briefly, the mask had slipped: the rebel appeared as a bully.
Since Kohli assumed the leadership of the Indian team, he has been keen to project himself as a mature voice who engages with popular subjects outside the cricket field.
Like many bullies, Kohli’s pronouncements reveal a man who is keen to identify ideologically with power — whoever that may be. He spends time around the powerful and is not shy to promote their agendas. The rebel is a conformist too.
When demonetisation was causing havoc across the country in late 2016, Kohli called it the greatest move that ever happened in Indian politics. Then last year, the Indian skipper nominated PM Narendra Modi for a ‘Fitness Challenge’ as part of the government’s outreach to showcase the workout regime of popular faces thereby gaining public legitimacy.
In 2018, he and his wife Anushka had attracted criticism for publicly shaming a man who had littered the road. The connection with PM Modi’s ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’ was easily drawn. Similarly, it was difficult to miss the similarity between chants of ‘anti-national’, ‘go to Pakistan’ and Kohli’s words to the cricket fan who merely did not like him or the other Indian batsmen.
It is a public image that certainly wins the Indian captain favour among supporters of the ruling establishment, even though his political views are selectively aired. Like many since 2014, he walks the tightrope between social engagement and pro-government advocacy.
Virat is himself deified through monikers like Captain Fantastic, King Kohli, and Superman. It would not be unusual for anyone watching Indian television to hear uncritical admiration of the Indian captain whose larger-than-life image continues to expand its footprint.
But he is not merely seeking validation from outside. He wants to take charge of the world he inhabits, control what people say and write about him.
Journalists often complain of tetchy press conferences when difficult questions are put to him. One such combative exchange ended in unpleasantness when India toured South Africa last year. Whether poor results at the World Cup will mark a return to old hostilities with the press will be worth noting.
Not since the Sourav Ganguly-Greg Chappell fracas has the personality of the Indian skipper been a matter of such intense debate. The Ganguly issue revolved around cricket but Kohli’s larger-than-cricket persona leaps into uncharted territories. It leaves many things to say about Kohli.
Kohli is a batsman in excelsis, an iffy captain prone to strategic errors, a leader making the Indian team in his own image but still looking for the triumph that will define him. Kohli is a brand obsessed with relentless movement, an icon who represents the wishlist of the affluent Indian male. Kohli is a conformist who wants to hobnob with the powerful and serve as an ambassador for their agendas.
All of these statements make the Indian captain. As he leads India at the World Cup, all the Virat Kohlis might be visible over the next few weeks. Should India win the World Cup, his quest to be the supreme cricketer will come closer to be realised, shading everything else. Winning and Kohli will be firmly entwined.
But what if he loses?