Mark that face. It’s contorted in an expression of something that resembles intense hatred, revulsion. You’d be terrified if you encountered such a face in the dark of the night in a lonely street. Those eyes!
But mark his serene face, too, when he talks about goals and projects, of making India great, of taking the team to win, of being willing to pay any price for the team. He’s modest to a fault in that mode, bashful and self-effacing, putting team above self. And mark that smile, too, which is coy and adoring when he talks about his wife, about going out for a walk with her in lovely Napier, about just seeing the sights and talking with her. If Virat Kohli were a book, he’d be termed unputdownable. He’d be Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and both with several different personalities — feisty, kind, prickly, provocative, friendly, cantankerous, edgy, interesting. But boring? No chance.
In the careers of our past greats, such as Kapil Dev or Sunil Gavaskar, their popularity was not quantifiable — it was measured in terms of a certain undefined number of fans constantly chasing them when they stepped out.
Kohli’s popularity is measurable. He’s got 28.1 million followers on Twitter and 29.2 million on Instagram. If you want to gather clicks online, just put his image on a website, with an interesting or provocative headline. If you want to gather eyeballs in the TV world, use his name and image. During the recent India-Australia series, the broadcasters knew just who sells — in the promos, they declared that ‘The King is Coming’. Even when he was not batting, the camera constantly followed him. And The King, ever so passionate, gave back generously with facial expressions that were theatric but genuine — he projected a gamut of emotions through his eyes and face and gestures, as per his team’s fortunes.
Kohli reveres a great cricketer — Sachin Tendulkar. It’s very likely that he would simply scoff at people who compare him with the great man. Yet, it’s fair to say that Kohli is Tendulkar on speed — great batting with an attitude that’s edgy, prickly, aggressive, and yet modest.
The chase is on
On March 25, 2015, Kohli played the second-biggest match of his life. The biggest had been the World Cup final on April 2, 2011, when he’d made 35 off 49 balls against Sri Lanka.
On March 25 four years later, Kohli faced Australia in the World Cup semifinals in Sydney. He was the star of the team, but India were on a daunting chase of 328. Two top bowlers, Mitchell Johnson and Josh Hazlewood, bowled 12 perfect balls to Kohli, pinning him back, allowing him just one run. The 13th ball was a sucker ball — the Australians had realised that Kohli was edgy on being throttled and was desperate to break free. That ball, from Johnson, was short and angled across Kohli — Kohli went after it and sent the straight ball up for a simple catch. India lost the game and their World Champion status.
Four years later, Kohli is acknowledged as the greatest chaser in the game — it’s possible that the pain of March 25, 2015, changed something for Kohli. His second innings average in ODIs then was 63.60, now it’s 79.71 — that’s a huge increase. In chases that resulted in Indian wins, his average is 124.07, with 24 centuries. In short, if Kohli succeeds, India succeed. India were bowled out for 92 against New Zealand in Hamilton on Thursday, after having thrashed the hosts in the three previous ODIs. What changed? For the fans, the answer was clear — Kohli had gone on vacation after the third ODI, and he took away the team’s fire. He is the team’s fire. Michael Clarke recently called him the greatest ODI player of all time. Ian Chappell paid him the ultimate compliment, comparing him with Viv Richards. “Kohli reminds me of Richards in his approach to ODI batting; he eschews fancy shots and relies on a wide range of traditional strokes,” Chappell remarked. “If he were to continue at his current rate — an unlikely outcome as he ages — he would pass Tendulkar’s aggregate with more than one hundred innings to spare and nearly 20 centuries in advance of the Little Master. If he even came close to achieving these amazing feats, there could be no argument: Kohli would be the Sir Donald Bradman of ODI batsmen.” In the year of the ODI World Cup, the focus is on his ODI feats though his Test performances have been remarkable over the years. He’s got big runs in South Africa, England and Australia in the past 12 months.
A steely mind
Kohli’s appetite swells with every helping. His hunger and determination are unmatched in cricket. In terms of pure talent, it’s likely that Yuvraj Singh and Rohit Sharma are more gifted. But hard work is a talent, too; mental conditioning is a talent, too. Kohli is blessed as a batsman, but his steely mind elevates him above the greats, making him the greatest among those playing the game currently. He’s worked hard on his fitness, and due to that he can bat for 45 overs after fielding for 50 overs. He has got 24 ODI 100s in 123 innings batting second, as compared to, say, only two in 151 innings by the great Inzamam-ul-Haq. Fitness matters. Working bloody hard despite achieving everything he dreamt of as a kid makes him a role model for mere mortals like us. Year ago, if you were looking at a candidate who could go awry after finding success and fame, you could have zeroed in on Kohli — a brash Delhi-Punjabi kid who liked the good things in life, was superrich and worshipped by fans, and had a filmstar for a girlfriend. Yet Kohli remains remarkably grounded. He’s fired up on the field, he’s likely to pay you in kind if you’re rude to him, but off the field, he’s gracious and polite. Success didn’t go to his head. He made his head impervious to trivialities that could affect his game. That’s his biggest achievement.