June 11, 2017: Oval Cricket Ground, London.
India were playing a virtual knockout match against South Africa for a place in the Champions Trophy semi-final. The team had lost rather unexpectedly to an unfancied Sri Lanka two days earlier at the same venue, and much was riding on this contest against the world’s number one ODI team.
With news reports of a growing tension between captain and the coach (Anil Kumble) gaining ground, it was a match of immense significance for captain Virat Kohli.
Riding on a good bowling performance, India thrashed South Africa to make the semi-final. And Kohli, like he has done so often right through the year, anchored the run chase remaining unbeaten on 76 to close out the game.
Despite winning at a canter, the skipper was unfazed. Like always, Kohli stayed in the moment. His peripheral vision, which according to Sachin Tendulkar is his greatest strength, helped him do so and not get swept away by the flood of praise.
July 9, 2019: Old Trafford, Manchester.
India had lost the World Cup semi-final to New Zealand and Virat Kohli was out for one.
Within moments of the semi-final getting over, Kohli was trolled heavily on social media with furious fans venting their ire. Yet again, Kohli was unfazed. The defeat had hurt him more than anyone but, having played sport at the highest level for a decade and more, he knew how cricketers in India are deities one day and fallen angels the next after one bad performance.
Much to Kohli’s credit, a failure with the bat like the World Cup semi-final is an aberration.
Ponder this: 20,000 international runs in the last decade, 43 one-day hundreds in record time, nine back-to-back series wins as captain and six 200-plus scores in the last 24 months is special by even his own very high standards.
With a Bradmanesque average in all formats of the game, and holding pole position in the ICC rankings in two of the three formats, Kohli is in the form of his life.
The transformation of ‘King Kohli’
It was January 2012 and the Australians, as they are famous for, managed to get under Kohli’s skin in Perth. Under pressure from a section of fans calling him ‘wanker’, Kohli ended up showing his middle finger to them. He had talent yes, but temperament-wise — the young man still had a fair distance to travel.
Two months down the line and it was a very different story. Kohli had just scored a match-winning 183 against Pakistan in Dhaka in a match that had ended close to midnight. The media, there in good numbers, were eagerly waiting for Kohli before filing their copies. Kohli, however, had other things in mind.
At Mirpur, the press conference enclosure is on the opposite side of the pavilion and the player has to walk right across the ground to reach the media area. Midway into this walk, Virat stopped and started jogging towards a section of his fans in the stands. Close to 2,000 people were still screaming ‘Kohli, Kohli’ and Kohli, to our surprise, decided to oblige them with photographs and autographs before making way for the media. And soon after he reached the press conference room, he apologised to the media for making them wait and for having forced them to extend their deadlines.
The transformation, clearly, had begun.
It showed signs of completion in November, 2013 when the baton was passed on by the master to the protégé. Here’s what happened in the words of Tendulkar himself, “As I reached the dressing room post the presentation and post my speech and was sitting all by myself, Virat walked up to me. I could see tears in his eyes and he came up to me to give me something very special. He said his dad had given him this (a family heirloom for good luck) and he always wondered who he would give this to.
“It had to be someone very special and he thought me worthy of it and handed it to me before touching my feet as my younger brother. I was speechless. I held him tight and said: What are you doing touching my feet? You should be giving me a hug. Thereafter, I couldn’t say a word for I felt choked with emotion. A lump had started to form in my throat and I asked Virat to leave — knowing I would burst into tears if I tried speaking more. This was a gesture I could never forget and I wished Virat all the success in his career.”
Story still incomplete
But the Kohli story, despite the sheer scale of his achievements, isn’t complete yet — for he is yet to have a major ICC crown under his belt as captain. Come next year and a victory in the World T20 in Australia might correct that anomaly and give Kohli a kind of immortality never achieved before in the echelons of Indian sport.
The last words on Kohli have clearly not been written. Will he be hailed in four years as India’s greatest batsman and captain, or will he go down as an autocrat who treated a legend like Kumble unfairly? Again, will it matter to him how we label him? Does Kohli, the person, really care?
I guess he doesn’t, for he is at peace with himself in his gym, at training, in his married life and most importantly in the 22 yards. He is at peace in giving up a multimillion endorsement contract often simply because he didn’t believe in the product he was being asked to endorse.
He is all alone when he is the crease and when he trains. A passionate human robot with single-minded determination. And Indian cricket, so far at least, has been blessed. India under Kohli is the number one Test team in the world and number two in ODI rankings now.
Kohli may well continue to polarise opinions but he gives us results. And, in sport, it is winner takes all. And Kohli in 2019, no one can dispute, is on course!
— The writer is the official biographer of Sachin Tendulkar, a well known sports journalist and scholar based in India