Virat Kohli
Virat Kohli Image Credit: AFP

New Delhi: Virat Kohli is the highest-profile athlete in the world’s most populous nation, and he’s been living up to the hype by helping India reach the Cricket World Cup final on home soil.

His 263 million followers on Instragram and almost 60 million on X, formerly Twitter, are in no doubt he’s the greatest player of his generation.

With a win over five-time champion Australia on Sunday in Ahmedabad, at the sport’s biggest stadium, Kohli can replicate what the great Sachin Tendulkar did in 2011 by being the star attraction when India claims a World Cup title on home soil.

King Kohli, as he's sometimes known, was a young member of that winning India squad 12 years ago.

Now he has surpassed Tendulkar's record for most centuries (100 or more runs in an innings) in one-day international cricket. He achieved it with a defiant 117 in the semifinal win over New Zealand on Wednesday that moved him out of the shadows of the so-called “Little Master.”

It's been a long road

It took him through the West Delhi Cricket Academy, which is run on the grounds of St. Sophia School in Paschim Vihar of India’s capital city and where the admission structure is quite simple. Children aged 7 to 14 are taken in without a trial, for a registration cost of Indian rupees 10,000 (US$120) and ongoing quarterly fee.

Players must bring their own cricket kit and arrive wearing training whites. Once in, the aspiring cricketers get to meet Rajkumar Sharma, the academy’s founder and head coach. He's the man who taught cricket to India's superstar.

Founded in 1998, Sharma runs four academies in Delhi now. The official name hasn’t changed, even if the academy is now dearly known as ‘the Virat Kohli Academy’ among hopeful kids.

Back in October 2013, Sharma’s phone kept ringing incessantly. In Jaipur, Kohli had smashed the fastest ODI century for an Indian batter — off 52 deliveries — to help his team successfully chase down Australia's big total of 359 for five with plenty of overs to spare.

“He called me up after the game. I said, ‘You idiot, what have you done?’ and we both laughed,” Sharma recalled. That become a regular thing for Kohli’s childhood coach – when you train a kid who goes on to break the legendary Tendulkar’s records, the phone will not stop ringing.

Surpassing Tendulkar's record

In a decade, Kohli has surpassed a Tendulkar record that some considered unbeatable.

Tendulkar retired as the game’s foremost batter in November 2013 with a 100 international centuries to his credit. His retirement from one-day cricket had come a year earlier, finishing with 18,426 runs in 452 innings with 49 centuries in the 50-over format. Kohli had scored 13 ODI hundreds by that time.

So when Kohli flicked a shot to deep square leg at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai earlier this week, it seemed cricket's Everest had been climbed. Kohli looked to his wife — actress Anushka Sharma — and bowed to Tendulkar, his childhood hero, just as the packed crowd bowed down to him.

“Big, big congratulations to Virat, he’s gone to 50 hundreds, he made it look easy. Incredible, super, we are all super proud of him,” said Tendulkar, who was at the stadium along with England football icon David Beckham and a host of other cricket and movie stars.

“I still remember the first day when he got into the dressing room. The other players played a prank on him and made him touch my feet saying that this is tradition — ‘you have to touch his feet to take his blessings, that’s when you are going to have a good career,’" Tendulkar recounted. “I was laughing away. Today to see the same player grow so beautifully and achieve so many laurels for our country, I am so proud.”

Kohli made his ODI debut against Sri Lanka in 2008, the year Indian cricket changed forever with the advent of the Indian Premier League.

Kohli had led India to victory in the Under-19 World Cup held in Malaysia, paving his way to the big time.

Achieving milestones in cricket is one thing, and Kohli will be remembered as one of the greatest batters of all time, particularly in white-ball formats. He has achieved something beyond that — an insatiable love from the Indian masses.

When Tendulkar walked out to bat, it seemed like India stopped. When he got out, television sets would be switched off, and life went back to usual for cricket fans. It's not quite the same with Kohli, who has received a different kind of adulation.

Across the length and breadth of India, wherever this World Cup squad has traversed, fans wanted to watch two main things: An Indian victory as well as a Kohli century. If Tendulkar’s runs were an emotional release for an upcoming Indian generation, Kohli’s hundreds have become an addictive habit for fans.

One more is never enough

Crowds in Chennai were disappointed when he got out for 85 against Australia. Pune slept peacefully as Kohli scored 103 not out, reaching his 48th ODI century off the last ball. Dharamsala was disappointed not to get the 49th – Kohli was out caught for 95 as India beat New Zealand in the league stage.

Against Sri Lanka in Mumbai, he was out for 88. On his birthday at the majestic Eden Gardens in Kolkata, the ground where he scored a maiden ODI hundred in December 2009, he notched 49th.

The M. Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru was adorned with all kinds of tributes in preparation for Kohli's 50th century but he didn't achieve it there. That set the scene for his big innings in Mumbai, when he posted his third century and increased his run tally to 711 for this tournament.

Now, the World Cup carnival moves back to the Narendra Modi Stadium, where the focus for most of India's 1.4 billion people will be on winning a third world title.

And of course, the great expectation will be another century from Kohli.