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June 21, 2014

The Rise and Rise of Virat Kohli

Text by Anjali Doshi. Illustration by Rahul Das. Anjali Doshi is co-editor of The Nightwatchman, a London-based cricket quarterly. Former cricket editor at NDTV, she won the Ramnath Goenka Award for broadcast sports journalism in 2012. Her twitter handle is @anjaliadoshi

He thrives under a pressure that would cripple most of us. At 25, Virat Kohli is captain-to-be, national heart-throb and batsman extraordinaire. Verve unravels the magic of the player who has, in the last few years, unanimously captured the imagination and embodied the aspirations of this vastly diverse nation, become its metaphor and its unofficial spokesperson

It took the worst day of his life to give Virat Kohli the singleminded purpose you need to succeed in international sport. It was the day his father died. Kohli – all of 17 – had a decision to make. Abandon the Delhi-Karnataka Ranji Trophy game in Bengaluru where he was not out overnight, or put the trauma aside and help his team. He stayed, made 90 and flew home immediately to attend the funeral.

Kohli left adolescence behind that day, and embraced adulthood. “It’s as if his life hinged totally on cricket after that,” his mother Saroj told a leading newspaper the day he led India to the Under-19 World Cup trophy in 2008. “Now, he looked like he was chasing his father’s dream, which was his own too.”

But, as often happens with those forced to give up the innocence and blitheness of youth for the responsibility and goals of being grown up, anger and resentment lurked within. He celebrated every century with pumping fists, glowering eyes and spewing expletives. ‘Brash’, ‘arrogant’ and ‘immature’ were often used to describe him – and appropriately so – as he struggled to keep his feet on the ground in the vortex of cricketing stardom. It was him against the world. And the world was not listening.

Even so, while he fumbled his way through the early stages of his international career, it was apparent to anyone who watched him at the nets – practising throws, catches and batting – that he belonged on a cricket field. Like few others have.

Playing for India is not easy at the best of times. But when you make your international debut at 19 – and get to play alongside your boyhood heroes, including Sachin Tendulkar – you can be excused for losing your way. Unlike Tendulkar, who early on found an oasis of calm within – the kind every public figure must find when the world gets too noisy – Kohli spent his formative years wrestling inner demons.

Then he decided it was time to change, time to truly put the rashness of youth behind him and step willingly into adulthood, time to realise that “not everyone gets to play for India”, as he admitted after they won the World Cup in 2011 and he memorably carried Tendulkar on his shoulders at the Wankhede.

The past three years have produced a stunning transformation in his mental make-up: Kohli has gone on to become one of the world’s most destructive yet consistent batsmen – one who has mastered the shorter versions of the game and is now working hard to apply his gifts to Test cricket. Being appointed Royal Challengers Bangalore captain in the Indian Premier League last year – a bit like making the naughtiest boy classroom monitor – added to his sense of responsibility and led to a chorus of credible voices calling for him to take over as India captain after MS Dhoni’s miserable run. More to the point, Tendulkar himself handpicked Kohli as the cricketer most capable of breaking his records.

That may take some doing, but he has already shown why batting in Tendulkar’s Test slot – at number four – is not just a trope for lazy journalists. Currently among the world’s best batsmen, Kohli exudes nous, drive and grit, and clearly enjoys leadership, as his stint during the recent Asia Cup showed.

At 25, he is captain-to-be, national heart-throb and batsman extraordinaire. He thrives under huge pressures that would cripple most of us.

India has long shared an intimate connection with its cricketing heroes: batsmen more than bowlers because, in the pantheon of 22-yard deities, batsmen are the creators, preservers and destroyers – bowlers, the sideshow.

And so it is that every generation since the 1970s has featured a batsman who has unanimously captured the imagination, embodied the aspirations of this vastly diverse nation, become its metaphor and its unofficial spokesperson: Sunil Gavaskar in the ’70s and ’80s for an India in search of stability through the travails of Nehruvian socialism and the Emergency; Sachin Tendulkar in the ’90s and noughties for a post-liberalisation India ready to announce its arrival to the world; and Virat Kohli for the present-day selfie-snapping, Twenty20-loving and aggressive India that knows its place in the world and is not afraid to claim it.

The new poster boy of Indian cricket, he is alpha male and metrosexual, loves bhangra beats and electronic dance music, shows his finger to the crowd in Australia and comes home to mummy’s rajma, enjoys IPL after-parties with the RCB boys and jets off to see Bollywood star Anushka Sharma (whom he’s supposedly dating), lives for cricket and loves football (especially Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo), sports a sword-bearing samurai on his shoulder and kisses the lucky chain around his neck when he gets past 50. He straddles these apparent contradictions comfortably.

In new, hyper-connected India, Kohli knows exactly how to interact with his three million-plus Twitter followers and 10 million Facebook fans to give them a vicarious taste of his life. His Twitter timeline is dotted with selfies: at the gym, cuddling his dog, showing off his Arjuna award, and trying on a new suit. Not for him the enigma of being a reclusive superstar like Tendulkar or Dhoni: his touch is very personal.

Not too long from now – after India’s World Cup campaign in Australia and New Zealand next year – Kohli will take over as captain. And brand Kohli – already a blue chip stock raking in Rs 100-crore-a-year – will have little competition from India’s handful of celebrity sportsmen once Dhoni relinquishes the captaincy.

Outwardly ultra-competitive, passionate – sometimes to a fault – and a truly world-class batsman, Kohli is a refreshing contrast to the current captain. Unafraid to show emotion on the field, he speaks his mind and takes everything to heart. He shows dissent after incorrect umpiring decisions, engages in on-field skirmishes with opposition players and makes his frustration obvious when less accomplished team-mates can’t keep up with him.

But he’s learning – slowly – to temper his emotion, reflect on his behaviour, and admit past mistakes. Kohli is among the few players in a young Indian team who excels at all three formats and has the stomach for bloody battle. The higher the odds against him, the more likely he is to pull off something sensational. And, as he amply showed in the recent World Twenty20 tournament, he relishes nothing more than a challenging run chase.

Combine his innate flair, appetite for runs and competitive spirit with an uncompromising work ethic and approach to fitness and you understand why, at 25, he has the world gushing and gasping.

From the boy who burst on the scene with a prodigious talent, to the teenager who nearly threw it all away, to the man who found his way out of the woods, Kohli has taken a different route to the top from the man who inspired him to pick up a cricket bat.

But Tendulkar he is not. He is Virat Kohli. And his best is yet to come.

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