Virat Kohli, a cricketer of our time

Virat Kohli, a cricketer of our time

Sportsmen are often just sportsmen, inhabiting their own rarefied space. Sometimes, these are metaphors of their environment, both sporting and cultural. Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev embody the mature years of Indian cricket, Sachin Tendulkar is seen as the face of India’s emergence as a marketing force in the game, against the backdrop of a liberalized economy, VVS Laxman represents an era of miracles and MS Dhoni reflects India’s peak years as a white ball superpower.

Virat Kohli is a symbol of the game’s global transfer of power to India as well as changing the country’s perceptions of a hero.

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Kohli is India’s most powerful cricketer – mainly due to his batting genius and partly due to his commanding personality – in India’s most powerful cricketing era. The BCCI had been cricket’s wealthiest governing body since the turn of the last century, but its emergence as the monarch of the cricketing empire, more so after the launch of the Indian Premier League, parallels the rise in Kohli power. The board’s wealth stands at two billion pounds, Kohli is the most followed Indian on Instagram (183 million followers and swelling), and behind only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as the most followed in the world.

It could have been coincidence — or fate, the word the country is obsessed with — but the community of Kohli and the council’s definitive virtues is unstoppable. Kohli and his features would have been slightly off to another era – say, the 90s. He wouldn’t have been the metaphor for that era, despite his knack for twisting narratives.

Boastful and aggressive, ruthless and fearless, Kohli stepped onto the court like the way the board operated. Until the first cracks between them openly appeared about six months ago, he was the lead batsman forged in the ideals and image of the board, just as his team transformed in spirit and Captain’s beliefs. And a delicious irony is that Kohli took the powerful advice that could end careers, as only he could, just as the advice took the powerful Kohli – the one who could change perceptions with a hashtag – only as the Indian cricket board could have.

In essence, Kohli is therefore an atypical Indian sports idol. The archetypal hero – sensibilities fashioned perhaps from epics and folklore – was monastic, selfless and sacrificial, taking arrows to his chest and hiding pain beneath a stoic face. Tendulkar was almost detached in his devotion to his art, an ascetic married to his dharma, pouring little emotion into the field. His great contemporaries, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, were also carved into the Ramayana-Mahabharata ideals of heroism. Even Virender Sehwag, so different in temperament from them, was a little buddha with the wood when he beat in that impenetrable trance of his.

Kohli struts around the field like a commander with his fleet. He is not fazed by the occasion or the arena and is not intimidated by the bowlers or the hostile crowd.

His staff reflects his confidence. No shot absorbs this spirit to the fullest like its cover reader. In his hands, it’s not just a blow, but a tool of domination. The front foot darting forward, the eyes locked on the rushing leather sphere, the body following in balletic harmony, the bat bristling and tracing the most symmetrical parabola, and the ball crackling in the distance, shearing the ‘grass. Not the most illustrated cover reader, but a shaking punch to the bowler’s face. Viv Richards found his spiritual successor in him, just like The Don had Tendulkar.

It evokes different emotions from the audience. Tendulkar took the audience through a wide range of emotions, from hope and joy to agony and anguish, Sehwag caused an adrenaline rush and Laxman’s stick was all about peace. But Kohli was a movie hero rather than an epic or a novel. It provokes rage, happy rage. When he smokes, we smoke too. It does not transport us to a different world or offer us an escape from it. They instill self-confidence. His hundreds and double hundreds did not exhaust us, on the contrary, they energized us. Few Indian batsmen exuded raw, transmittable energy like Kohli, and few deployed orthodox shots with a bat that seemed like exhilarating life. Even a defensive hit is rarely a passive resistance hit.

Kohli may epitomize all the brashness of the IPL generation, but he also told the generation that mastering the crossover format is achievable. His recent form in red ball cricket may have plummeted, but he still played on an all-format board beyond the reach of any other player in the current era.

Thus, he changed the concept of an Indian batting hero. They are no longer cast in the Gavaskar-Tendulkar-Laxman-Dravid mold of monastic, selfless heroes. Like him, the Generation-in-Waiting has inked body tattoos, flaunts neatly groomed beards, chiseled abs and pecs, exudes irresistible fearlessness, and wants to achieve mastery of the crossover format. Ganguly was a brave new India; Kohli is a fiery new India.

While Kohli belongs to the IPL generation, his dedication to Test cricket has helped maintain the format’s superiority in the T20 era. Thus, there is no better metaphor for the cricketing milieu, or the power vested in the hands of the Indian cricket board, than Kohli.

This column first appeared in the print edition of March 4, 2022 under the title “A cricketer for our time”. Write to the author at [email protected]