What did we do at 18? Surreptitiously smoke fags on the balcony? Write awful love poetry to obscure objects of desire? Skip exams to read Kerouac? Ponder the latest advancements in string theory? Or, as Pulp sang in ‘Common People’, “watch your life slide out of view?” Whatever we did or didn’t do, it’s not usually an age associated with grief and emotional scarring.
But for Virat Kohli, the weeks following his 18th birthday were the worst of his life. His father, who had dreamt of his second son donning national colours, died. It had been almost a decade since Prem Kohli took Virat and Vikas, his older brother, to Rajkumar Sharma’s academy in West Delhi. Vikas’s passion for the game had faded. Not so with the younger kid. Sharma recalls a naughty child who was “a bit chubby” but who seemed a born leader: “He wanted to dominate even then.”
Sharma never asked for Virat’s innate aggression to be reined in, and he admired the confidence with which he approached every task, whether with bat or ball. And by 2007 the young man still mourning his father was part of the India Under-19 side about to embark on a tour of New Zealand. The team’s coach, Lalchand Rajput, wanted his wards to have an idea of the sort of conditions they would encounter, and asked some senior stalwarts to speak to the side.
One of those was a former Mumbai teammate preparing for the World Cup in the Caribbean later that year. When Sachin Tendulkar arrived at the Wankhede Stadium, the group of young men stopped their horsing around and stood in awe. Most of them were seeing him in the flesh for the first time, this man whose feats they had wanted to emulate since they were old enough to grip a bat or ball.
Kohli still smiles when he recalls that first meeting, a month after his father’s death. He remembers how he had goosebumps in 30ºC heat. Tendulkar had a quick chat with the group about New Zealand. Kohli stared. “I didn’t even blink my eyes because I couldn’t quite believe it,” he said. “It was something truly special.”
Nearly seven years later, in November 2013, both the hero and the fan were back at the Wankhede. Tendulkar was playing his 200th and final Test. Kohli, who won his first India cap 18 months after that first interaction, was the champion-in-waiting, with an enviable ODI record and showing signs of maturity in the five-day game.
As Tendulkar walked back after his final innings, a fluent 74, a nation went into meltdown. Though it was mid-morning, most of India’s news channels were discussing nothing but the last act, and there were enough tears shed to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool. Kohli must have been emotional as he arrived at the crease – Tendulkar has mentioned in his book how both of them were in tears in the dressing-room as Kohli presented him with auspicious wrist threads that his father had given him – but he hid it well. The first ball he faced from Narsingh Deonarine – the first of Indian cricket’s After Tendulkar era – was laced through cover for four.
Almost eight years earlier, Kohli had been accompanied to the crease by an altogether different kind of grief. The Delhi team he had just become part of were playing Karnataka in the Ranji Trophy. His four previous first-class knocks had yielded 10, 42, 13 not out and 21. Those in the know expected big things from him, but there was still a chasm between potential and performance.
At stumps on the second day, Delhi were shipping water at 103 for 5 in response to the visitors’ 446. Kohli was batting on 40. A few hours later, Prem Kohli passed away. Sharma was away in Sydney at the time. Not knowing who else to turn to, Virat called him, asking what he should do. Sharma was at a loss, and ended up telling the boy to follow his heart.
The next morning, to widespread amazement, Kohli was at the ground and marking his guard. He batted more than a session before being adjudged caught behind for 90. When Sharma next spoke to him, Kohli was in tears. “He was crying not only for his father, but because he was given out wrongly,” said Sharma. That afternoon, on returning from the Feroz Shah Kotla, Kohli helped his brother perform the last rites.
That one innings, long before he became Under-19 captain or national team prospect, pitchforked him into the public eye. The rough edges were many, but coaches, teammates and opponents all felt that his toughness would take Kohli a long way.
Every nation has its magic number. For Australia, the titans have usually batted at No.3 – Sir Donald Bradman, Greg Chappell and Ricky Ponting. The English greats tended to be opening batsmen – Sir Jack Hobbs, Herbert Sutcliffe, Sir Len Hutton, Geoffrey Boycott, Graham Gooch. If you look at the history of Indian cricket though, it’s No.4 that counts.
Rahul Dravid, one of the all-time greats at No.3, used to joke that his was the one Indian wicket that used to be cheered most, because it often meant Tendulkar’s arrival at the crease. And once he was there, the mood and tenor would quickly change. For years, the catchphrase used to be: “Shush, the boss is batting!”
Kohli evokes a very different response. He has never inspired the kind of devotion that Tendulkar did, primarily because he was the anti-Sachin in his teens, a brash, potty-mouthed David Beckham wannabe. Yet, love him or hate him – and there are few shades of grey in this relationship – he makes people watch the game. Whether it’s pulling off improbable run-chases or blowing kisses to Mitchell Johnson after smashing him around the MCG, Kohli doesn’t live in the shadows.
On his first tour of Australia in 1991–92, Tendulkar made two centuries. The one in Perth – a considerably quicker pitch then than it is now – was an innings for the ages. When he next visited the country in 1999–2000, he made another sublime hundred in Melbourne even as the team he led disintegrated around him. Eight Tests, three hundreds, and Australian talk of how he might be the best since Bradman.
Kohli has also played eight Tests on Australian soil. There have been five hundreds, three of them at the Adelaide Oval. Against the same core group of players that routed England 5-0 in the Ashes the previous season, Kohli made 692 runs in four Tests. Despite that, much of the talk has been about his behaviour, on and off the field. Tendulkar created a template for an Indian cricket hero. Kohli, who grew up idolising him, doesn’t conform to it. As a result, he doesn’t get anything like the same adulation.
Some of the commentary on him has been little short of bizarre. “If Virat Kohli scores a century and then blows a kiss towards his girlfriend, I have no problems,” said Kapil Dev. “We played cricket in a different era and now it’s a different era. We have to accept that. We can’t just sit back and think that cricket is no longer a gentleman’s game. Times have changed. The generation I played was different. We grew up with Test cricket. But now you have sledging, abuses [sic] and T20 is an accepted format.”
What does Kohli blowing kisses to his partner have to do with the gentleman’s game? If anything, he should be admired for not being a hypocrite like many of his predecessors. Anushka Sharma, his girlfriend, is a well-known Bollywood actress, who recently starred in the biggest-grossing Indian movie of all time. She was with him during the first two Tests in England in 2014, and was present again in Melbourne and Sydney. Had Kohli taken lessons from some former stalwarts, Anushka would have been a nudge-nudge-wink-wink secret to be ushered in and out through back doors.
In a country where so many opinion makers and shapers still seem to value appearance over substance, it doesn’t help that Kohli, like Rhett Butler, doesn’t give a damn. Before leaving for Australia, he launched his own fashion line. Its name? Wrogn, deliberately misspelt. “WROGN will cater to the open-minded and progressive youth of the country,” said a press release. “The brand connects with the generation of today that is inquisitive and forever questioning everyday norms.”
For a while though, after lifting the Under-19 World Cup as captain and earning his first IPL contract, there was a real danger that Kohli would be just another Flash Harry. Success at age-group level is no guarantee of progression to the big time, and sporting history is replete with what-might-have-been tales. Ghana’s Nii Odartey Lamptey was once the next Pele – according to the great man himself. His itinerant career took in 13 clubs before retirement at the age of 34.
As for cricket, look no further than Stephen Peters and Reetinder Singh Sodhi. Peters has logged 250 first-class games for Essex, Worcestershire and Northamptonshire, and once made a match-winning century for England in an Under-19 World Cup final. The next big step never came though. As for Sodhi, who starred in the Under-19 World Cup final in 2000, he played 18 ODIs over a period of two years. His first-class career was over by the age of 26.
In Kohli’s case, there were never any doubts about his ability to make the grade. There were, however, plenty of reservations about his attitude. As impulsive off the field as he was aggressive and brash on it, he quickly became a bad poster boy for the new IPL generation. As he revelled in the lifestyle, the focus on cricket became hazy. Performances dipped. Another Vinod Kambli said the cricketing grapevine. Kambli averaged 54 in Tests and played his last at the age of 23.
Fortunately for Kohli, his path then crossed that of someone who had never played a Test. Ray “Jet” Jennings was part of Transvaal’s Mean Machine, a team who would probably have wiped the floor with some of the Test sides around in the 1980s had they been afforded the opportunity. But PW Botha and apartheid intervened. A generation of players like Jennings watched international cricket from afar. When the isolation ended in 1991, he was 37, less than 18 months away from retirement.
If you want to know the value of an international cap, speak to Jennings and catch the yearning and regret in that voice. When he took over as coach of Royal Challengers Bangalore in 2009 for the IPL’s second season, Kohli was one of several players quite happy to be coasting along. Jennings – whose off-field training included diving across mattresses spread on the floor while imagining he was at Lord’s – wasn’t amused, and he let them know it. So did Anil Kumble, whose leadership was as devoid of frills as his bowling. “No one gives a **** what you did as an Under-19” was the gist of Jennings’s first lecture.
By the end of that year, the spoilt brat had scored his first international century. More than five years on, it’s impossible to think of an Indian team without him. At 26, he has ten Test hundreds from 33 matches. To put that into context, Tendulkar had 19, but from 68 games. In coloured clothes, Tendulkar’s tally was 22 centuries from 218 games. Kohli has 21 from just 150.
India have played four Test series since Tendulkar retired, and lost each of them. Kohli’s batting has been one of the few redeeming features. He started the two-Test series in South Africa with 119 and 96. He signed off from another two-game jaunt in New Zealand with a hundred. There were four in Australia. The one inkblot? England, where ten treks to the crease fetched a paltry 134 runs. James Anderson tormented him, as did technical glitches that he worked on with Tendulkar as soon as he returned from the tour.
The sad thing about Kohli and the new generation of Indian cricket icons is that no one will really know them. The BCCI’s media policy has seen to that. Perfunctory press conferences, a blanket ban on interviews, an overarching contempt for the written and spoken media. During the Old Trafford Test in 2014, I was fortunate enough to play some cricket in a friend’s back garden. As I chucked down my off-breaks, the older son asked me what Kohli was like. If he had asked me the same question about Tendulkar or Dravid, or Laxman or Kumble, I would probably have chewed his ear off. But for Kohli, I didn’t have an answer. I doubt I ever will. I’ve spoken to him a couple of times. He’s always engaging and personable in front of the microphone. But have I ever seen behind the façade? Not once.
Maybe one day, the board will take a more enlightened view. Kids, whether in West Delhi or Chorlton, need their heroes. Kohli would be the first to attest to that. “When playing cricket as kids, we all pretend to be a particular player,” he told me, as animated as I’d ever heard him. “I always wanted to be Sachin. I wanted to bat like him, so I tried to copy the shots he played and hit sixes the way he used to hit them. He was the one player that always made me think: I want to bat like him.”
Tendulkar. Kohli. So similar. Yet, so very different. Two No. 4s – the past, present and future of Indian batting.
This article appeared in The Nightwatchman. You can buy it here.