What Makes Virat Kohli So Brash, Flash and Eager to Smash?

Dileep Premachandran
Grist Media
Virat Kohli of India celebrates victory with team mates during the ICC Champions Trophy Final between England and India at Edgbaston on June 23, 2013 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

efore the India’s cricket tour of Australia began in December, The Daily Telegraph, Australia’s most popular tabloid, had asked the pointed question: “India’s cricket team arrives for the tour of Australia next week, but will Virat Kohli travel with the rest of the team or just strap on a jet pack and come super hero style?”

It was a reference to an animated avatar that had been created for India’s captain for One-Day Internationals a couple of weeks earlier, featuring a cricketer-turned-superhero that takes on a big green monster. “We can almost hear the sledging now,” said the Telegraph. From thousands of miles away, we could hear the sniggers.

On the final day of the Adelaide Test, with Test captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni nursing a hand injury, Kohli was leading the side for the first time. India had been set 364 to win, on a wearing surface that was taking extravagant turn. Most teams would not even have contemplated such a chase, but with Murali Vijay offering solid support, Kohli played the best Test innings of his life, stroking a magnificent 141 from just 175 balls.

He was, however, one of eight wickets to fall in the final session as India eventually fell 48 runs short.

There were no apologies from the stand-in skipper, no mea culpa for the lofted shot that cost him his wicket in a manic final session. “At no point did we not think about not chasing the score down,” said Kohli. “We have come here to play positive cricket. No sort of negativity is welcome in this group. That’s the kind of belief we have come here with."

If the tabloids found mirth in Kohli’s off-field activities before the Test began, they weren’t sneering after the Boxing Day game in Melbourne. Australia sealed the series with a draw, but Kohli epitomized the defiance that has become the most laudable aspect of this new-look Indian batting line-up. He scored 169 and 54, while engaging in constant repartee with the Australian fielders.

After getting the better of Mitchell Johnson in a thrill-a-minute duel in the first innings, Kohli went to the press conference and spoke of how he couldn’t be bothered to respect those that didn’t respect him, and how he had been stoked by those close to the wicket calling him a ‘spoilt brat’. After one of the 11 fours that he took off Johnson’s bowling, Kohli puckered his lips and blew kisses. Not to Anushka Sharma, his girlfriend, sitting up in the stands, but to the irate bowler.

Kohli, now Test captain as well after Dhoni announced his retirement from Test cricket, represents a new paradigm in Indian cricket. If Sachin Tendulkar was ‘our kid’, and Rahul Dravid the young man girls wanted to take home to their parents, Kohli is the unapologetic bad boy who’s every bit as ambitious and driven as those that went before.

Tendulkar and Dravid, even now, shy away from the limelight. Each sought refuge from the madding crowds in different ways. Tendulkar was the thrill-seeking foodie, while Dravid preferred books and quiet reflection. Anil Kumble carried his camera along on tours, and even published a book with the images captured down the years. Kohli, in contrast, doesn’t shy away from the camera, on or off the field. He’s most at ease playing cricket, but he isn’t uncomfortable embracing his hero status either.

Tendulkar represented India for nearly a quarter of a century, but the idea of a superhero in his image would probably have made him blush. Not Kohli. His management team developed it in association with Motion Pixel Corporation (MPC), based in Miami. There’s also a website, which features images of him with Bruno, his dog, among other things. His personalized logo went through approximately 900 designs, with inputs from across the globe, before he settled on one that he liked.

That attitude is apparent even with the clothing label that he launched just before leaving for Australia. “With whimsical fashion up its sleeve and a brand philosophy that strives to ‘question everything’, WROGN will cater to the open-minded and progressive youth of the country,” said the press release. “The brand connects with the generation of today that is inquisitive and forever-questioning everyday norms.”

The questioning of everyday norms hasn’t just been through fashion either. On the tour of England earlier this year, Kohli got special permission from the Indian cricket board to have Anushka accompany him for the first couple of Tests. The link between cricket and Bollywood goes back half a century, to the romance between Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi and Sharmila Tagore and the relationship that Sir Garfield Sobers had with Anju Mahendru. And in the years since, there have been many others, whether covered exhaustively by the media or of the nudge-nudge-wink-wink kind.

Kohli has made no effort to hide his relationship – there has been no attempt to curry favour with the conservatives by mentioning impending marriage either – and when Sunil Dev, the manager on the England tour, commented that he would never have allowed girlfriends on a tour, Kohli didn’t even dignify it with a public response. Come the Melbourne Test, Anushka was back to watch her beau, and after 499 runs in the first three Tests, there were few ‘defenders’ of Indian ‘culture’ questioning her right to be there.

A decade before Kohli was born, a teammate said of Graeme Souness, Liverpool and Scotland football legend, that “if he was a chocolate drop, he’d eat himself.” The first time I watched Kohli play, blazing his way to a 74-ball century against West Indies at the Under-19 World Cup in Malaysia in 2008, I was reminded of those words.

Not that being like Souness is a bad thing. Ian Rush, who played alongside him in a team that won the European Cup – now the European Champions League – once said: “Graeme used to go round every player at half time, fist clenched, geeing us up, telling us the game was ours for the taking. He pumped adrenalin into you. I can't explain the feeling to this day, but you used to go out thinking you couldn't lose. That was the Souness psychology.”

As different as he is from the old timers, and as much as some of his antics may discomfit them, there’s no mistaking the regard that they have for the young man who’s taken the battle to Australia in a fashion not seen before. Where they believed in letting their ‘bats do the talking’, Kohli shoots his mouth off and then walks the talk.

But there’s a lot more to Kohli than the brash exterior that you see. And contrary to Brad Haddin’s taunt on the final day in Melbourne – “It’s all about you, it’s all about you” – this is someone acutely aware of the footprints that went before. In his recently released autobiography, Playing it My Way, Tendulkar writes of how Kohli walked into the dressing room with tears in his eyes after his idol had played his final game. “He held out his hands and said his dad had given him these threads, the kind that Indians wear around their wrists for good luck, and he had always wondered who he would give them to. It had to be someone very special. Then he handed them to me before touching my feet as my younger brother. I was speechless.”

The tour of England a few months ago was the worst of Kohli’s career, with just 134 runs in the five Tests and a string of failures in colored clothes. But instead of sulking on his return, he went straight to Mumbai and spent a couple of days in the nets. Tendulkar watched and offered his insights.

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The morning his father died, in December 2006, Kohli called Rajkumar Sharma, who had coached him for nearly a decade. Sharma, whose playing career encompassed nine Ranji Trophy matches for Delhi, was away in Sydney at the time. His young ward, unbeaten on 40 overnight in a match against Karnataka, wanted to know what he should do. In four previous innings for Delhi, he had made 10, 42, 13 not out and 21.

Sharma flipped the question back. What did the boy want to do? He wanted to go out and save the game for his team. With his coach’s blessing, he went out and did just that, adding a further 108 that morning with Puneet Bisht. After he had been dismissed, he went home to attend his father’s cremation. When he next called Sharma, he was in tears. “He was crying not for his father but because he was given out wrongly,” said Sharma.

Prem Kohli, his father, didn’t live to see the glory years, but it was he that took both his sons – Vikas was older, but gave up the game in his teens – to Sharma’s West Delhi Cricket Academy. “He was aggressive from the beginning,” said Sharma, when asked if he had always been so feisty. “When he came to me, he was not even nine. He was a naughty sort of child who was a bit chubby. But he was agile and he wanted to dominate even then.”

Yet, if you ask Sharma if there was a specific incident or match that convinced him that Kohli was in it for the long haul, it’s not the Ranji game played in the shadow of his father’s demise or a big hundred that he summons up. At our academy, whenever the opposition used to have a partnership, he, even though a batsman, would start bowling to break it,” said Sharma. “He was pretty confident about his ability and had a lot of self-belief from day one.”

It was that confidence that also caught the eye of Sir Vivian Richards, when he was in India as a mentor to the Delhi Daredevils during the Indian Premier League season of 2013. “I love watching Virat Kohli bat,” said the man considered by most to be the greatest attacking batsman of the modern era. “He looks to me like an individual after my own heart. I love his aggression, and serious passion that I used to have. He reminds me of myself.”

After Kohli had led India Under-19 to the world title in 2008, the buzz over his batsmanship and captaincy credentials went hand in hand with cautionary words. During the tournament, attention had also been drawn to a social-networking page where Kohli told anyone that cared to read: “c i dont give a f**k wat people think about me...i just know dat i give evrything for d people i knw n whu r close to mee..specially gurlz.”

Those in the know didn’t care. By August 2008, he was playing for India, opening the batting in a one-day international series in Sri Lanka alongside Gautam Gambhir. In his fourth outing, he made his first half-century. But once that tour was over, Virender Sehwag and Tendulkar returned to the fray, and Kohli spent more than a year waiting for his next cap.

Kohli admits now that it was a tumultuous time. With an IPL contract in possession, he started to enjoy the trappings of fame. A little too much. Fortunately for him, Royal Challengers Bangalore – his IPL franchise – changed their leadership structure before the tournament began. Kumble took over as captain, while Ray Jennings, who had been in charge of South Africa’s Under-19s in Malaysia a year earlier, was appointed coach. Jennings, part of the Transvaal Mean Machine during the Apartheid years, never got to play international cricket, and whether he coaches kids or men in their mid-30s, he never forgets to remind his wards just how privileged they are.

In a bar overlooking the Indian Ocean in Durban, he told me with no great subtlety just what sort of approach he had taken with the younger players. “I told them that no one gives a f**k what you did as an Under-19,” he said. “That’ll be forgotten in no time. It’s what you do from here on that will define you as a cricketer.” Kohli, to his great credit, was one of those that listened. By the end of 2009, he had scored his first ODI century, against Sri Lanka at Eden Gardens.

In Adelaide, Kohli became only the second man after Greg Chappell to score centuries in both innings of his first Test as captain. Failure in Brisbane resulted in a bit of a dressing-room meltdown, and a disagreement with Shikhar Dhawan that needed the intervention of Ravi Shastri, the team director. Melbourne, the biggest stage in the game, saw him back to his best. Up next is the Sydney Cricket Ground, forever associated with the exploits of the likes of Trumper, Bradman, Laxman and Tendulkar, the player Kohli wanted to be from the time he first picked up a bat. Unlike in Adelaide, when he was merely a stand-in, he’ll walk out for the toss knowing that the captaincy is his for the foreseeable future.

* * *

The rough edges remain. In his early years in the international arena, there were senior teammates and even older pros in the commentary box disgusted with his expletive-laden celebrations on reaching landmarks, wondering why he seemed so intent on picking fights.

In the two years since Dravid and Laxman retired, however, Kohli has toned down the brat-boy antics. These days, when he fronts up to a microphone, he usually speaks with great maturity and poise. And he’s managed to do that without losing the fierce competitiveness that Richards spoke of.

Some, like Sunil Gavaskar, have been critical of Kohli’s win-at-all-costs attitude but there are others that see his ascension to captaincy as the next logical step. Away from home, the defeats have mounted and fans have felt most betrayed by the absence of fight that has marked most of those losses. India have constantly been on the defensive, with a lack of bowling resources forcing Dhoni to almost always choose safety-first tactics. That is unlikely to be the case under Kohli, whose performance in Adelaide suggested more of a Hollywood-or-bust mindset.

Historically, India have been seen as soft touches when on the road. Kohli alone won’t be able to change that poor away record, not without a drastic improvement on the bowling front, but you can expect a lot more snarl and intensity from any team he leads. Even with Dhoni in charge, the manner in which Kohli whispered endearments to Haddin and Johnson when they were batting at the MCG said much about the generational change that is upon us. The quiet gentlemen have given way to the tattooed tyros.

The key, for Kohli and the team, is keeping a lid on the emotions. Even during his Melbourne century, there was a passage when a stoush with Johnson appeared to disrupt his concentration, leading to a couple of rash strokes. Kohli has ridden the adrenaline wave with considerable success, but there have also been spectacular blowouts. Teams sense that they can get under his skin and induce the false shot.

Sharma, who has watched Kohli grow, hasn’t been surprised by his ascent to the top rung. “He is a sort of guy who livens up the dressing room, joking and pulling each one’s leg,” he said. “When the team’s batting comes, he wants to play right from the first ball to the last ball. He doesn’t want to get out. The best thing about him is that he loves challenges, and when there is a good opposition, he loves to put up a fight.

“Sometimes he crosses the line, he has to keep that aggression under control. That’s the only thing I want from him.”

It’s what India wants as well, as the country gets used to an entirely different kind of captain, walking out at the No 4 position that was a certain someone’s for as long as most of us can remember. A generation ago, it was two glorious centuries on an otherwise ill-fated tour of Australia that marked Tendulkar as the standout player of his generation. In just three Tests, Kohli has already gone one better. It’ll be fascinating to see what lies ahead for this young man who exemplifies the spirit of that Pantera album – Far Beyond Driven.

(With inputs from Sidhanta Patnaik.)

Dileep Premachandran is editor-in-chief of Wisden India.