Virat Kohli: cricket’s many faced master

We profile the aggressive and dynamic cricketer who changed the game forever.

Damian Brandy April 4, 2017

With a Twitter following equal to that of a small nation, Virat Kohli is unquestionably the world’s most revered cricketing superstar. Official Twitter statistics make him the 11th most followed sportsman in the world, with his 14 million followers putting him marginally below the likes of Barcelona football maestro Andres Iniesta and cricket icon Sachin Tendulkar but already above all-time sporting greats such as Shaquille O’Neal, Rafa Nadal and Kobe Bryant. At just 28, Kohli is on a trajectory few – if any in sport – will match.

As the most recognisable man in the sport it is fitting then, that Kohli features on the cover of the world’s most famous sporting reference book this month. Cricket’s 154 year-old Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack is known as the sport’s most sacred doctrine that holds a mirror up to a game obsessed with tradition, conformity and orthodoxy. In the age of instant gratification and post truths, Wisden works obsessively hard to uphold cricket’s defining values.

Yet the image of Kohli reverse sweeping on the cover of the 2017 edition does the opposite. It challenges, rather than upholds tradition. There was a time such cricketing wizardry was frowned upon, but now it is celebrated. Wisden is applauding Kohli the rule breaker as much as it is admiring Kohli the record breaker.

Delhi born, Kohli is the Aryton Senna of cricket. He is cricket’s Icarus. Those who know him talk of a man so incredibly emboldened by his own conviction he is almost a danger to himself. His brashness and temper have divided opinion, but, as the world will see in the upcoming IPL 10 season, brand Kohli is a universally revered competitor. Although his behaviour at times can be somewhat ‘un-Indian’.

The world got its first glimpse of the real Virat Kohli in 2011/12, during India’s tour of Australia. It was an unhappy tour during which India were thrashed 4-0 but it was also a turning point for the former India under-19 World Cup-winning captain, who struggled in the first two matches of that series but came good in the third match at Perth with 75 when all other batsmen failed. That rare sight of a travelling Indian batsman conquering the world’s fastest pitch was a reminder of the mastery of a young Tendulkar 20 years earlier whose 114 in Perth in 1992 is still regarded as his best innings.

Kohli backed it up with a brilliant century at Adelaide in the last Test and showed his class when more experienced batsmen around him failed miserably. Kohli’s performances in that series however, were overshadowed by ‘fingergate’ – an angry gesture to a raucous crowd at the Sydney Cricket Ground in 2012 that ultimately landed him a fine of 50 per cent of his match fee and forced him to offer an apology.

He followed that up with a typical sign of belligerence, tweeting: “I agree cricketers don’t have to retaliate. What (sic) when the crowd says the worst things about your mother and sister. The worst I’ve heard.”

Kohli wasn’t done. He then verbally abused an Australian bowler when celebrating his century in Adelaide. It was another contravention of cricket’s etiquette and Indian cricket’s stars of the past were unimpressed. Sunil Gavaskar said, “Virat and some other youngsters swearing at the opponents is like having a temperament of school-kid cricket. When a Tendulkar, Dravid or a Laxman score a century they just raise the bat. By swearing or doing something like that, [it] brings down the focus.”

But Tendulkar, Dravid and co. were benevolent masters. Kohli, by contrast, is a fireball. Heading into that year’s IPL for his team Royal Challengers Bangalore, Kohli was confident – over confident perhaps and it had made him reckless with his mental and physical preparation. It was his undoing and the moment when everything changed.

“I had great tours to Australia and scored 180 against Bangladesh and went into the IPL thinking this is going to be a great season for me,” he confessed, reflecting on that period of his career. “I wanted to make it my tournament and dominate the bowlers. I really struggled.”

His return of 364 runs at an average of 28 in IPL 5 brought a period of reflection, and as is so often a necessary process for supreme athletes – reinvention. Kohli could be better, and to explore just how much better, he went back to basics and with some introspection and the expert guidance from the Indian team’s senior players, Kohli vowed to bounce back. 

“I looked at myself in the mirror after the IPL and I told myself: ‘You cannot look like that if you are an international cricketer. You need to do something’,” he reveals.

“My training was horrible, I ate so bad, I was up until late, I was having a drink or two regularly. It was a horrible mindset. The season ended and I was so thankful it was over.”

What emerged was the protagonist of cricket 3.0. Now equipped with the body of an elite athlete, Kohli’s desire for success and victory is as pure and absolute as anyone to have played the sport, and his run scoring is spectacular. Kohli is already the fastest Indian to score 1,000, 3,000 and 4,000 runs in one-day international cricket (ODI) and is also the fastest cricketer to score 10 ODI centuries. He was also the highest run-scorer for India in ODIs for three consecutive years – 2010, 2011 and 2012 – and was named the ICC ODI cricketer of the year in 2012.

Perhaps even more telling though is his thirst for victory. In January he surpassed Sachin Tendulkar’s record of hundreds in successful run chases. It seems nothing motivates him like the pursuit of victory. 

In contrast to his desire for combat on the field, off the field Kohli, 28, craves inner calm and order. “I am a freak for keeping things clean,” he admitted to former England captain Michael Vaughan in an interview. “Keeping my room stacked up nicely and stuff like that is part of my daily routine now. So I had to figure out what can take me to that next level. What can give me more stability in my mind so that I do not focus on stuff like opinions, advice, suggestions.”

Equilibrium is a tough thing to find for an Indian cricket star. As most will testify, the adulation of Indian fans can sometimes be overwhelming, especially when you’re dating Bollywood actress Anushka Sharma. The 24-hour security contrasting with the inability to ever really be completely alone, it is paradoxically a life of almost total isolation for a celebrity sportsman like Kohli. And it is the unfortunate price paid for genius in a nation of worshippers.

“I clearly remember after a World T20 game in Mohali against Australia,” Kohli recalled after the 2016 tournament, in which India were knocked out in the semi-finals. “I felt people were reacting in a different way towards me; they looked at me as if I was walking in a circular light or something.

“I came out of security in the airport and this guy came up to me. I told security to calm down. He stood next to me and said, ‘show me your hands’. I held them out and he touched them and it was as if a flow of current went through his body. I was so embarrassed. I think he thought I was Superman or something.”

In many ways he is Indian cricket’s Clark Kent. By day a man of humility, order and privacy but when the call comes, Kohli’s intervention is almost always transformative as the world will no doubt see in the forthcoming IPL season, in which Kohli will be desperate to avenge a painful defeat to Sunrisers Hyderabad in last year’s final.

In India’s recently concluded 4-0 whitewash of England the energetic and aggressive cricketer made two centuries including a career-best 235 in the fourth Test at Mumbai. It was that ruthless double hundred that showed us something different. His desire to win has never been in question, but that innings reminded him – and us – of a great duty he has to his talent. 

It’s a talent that has attracted more than a dozen juicy endorsement deals with prestigious companies such as Pepsi, Oakley, and Audi, making him cricket’s richest player by a comfortable distance. Kohli’s most recent commercial activity saw him sign a $15 million, eight-year deal with Puma.

There is still so much unfinished business with Kohli. His average of 13.4 with a top score of 39 on the 2014 3-1 defeat to England, was his worst Test series return (his 46 runs in five innings against Australia recently was also shocking).

Kohli has vowed meticulousness in his preparation for the return England series in 2018, targeting a county cricket stint. And already, some of the off stump demons that plagued him in England appear to have been ironed out. He has worked on his balance, adjusted his stance and loosened his bottom hand grip. Such measures can feel like a major overhaul for a batsman but for Kohli it is a necessary process of refinement.

And that is what makes him so special. By the end of his career the records will tell their own story. But like an engineer, tweak by tweak, Kohli is building an adaptive, intelligent batting machine. Do not be surprised to see him on the cover of Wisden again before his career is done. As for the shot he’ll be playing – that is anybody’s guess.