July 13, 2024

Mumbai, India –  As the Indian cricket team move from city to city like a travelling carnival, steamrollering all opposition in a home World Cup, they are cheered on by packed stadiums of fans in replica blue jerseys, many bearing “Virat 18” on their backs.

Meanwhile, Virat Kohli, India’s star batter, is having the time of his life.

Kohli has regaled fans with his batting. And when the DJ spins the right tune, he’s also not shy to show off his song-appropriate dance moves, some of them picturised on his wife Anushka Sharma, a famous Bollywood actor and producer.

At times the crowds have chanted for Kohli to be given a chance to bowl, and against Netherlands on Sunday night, he did.

The “wrong-footed, in-swinging menace” – as described by his coach Rahul Dravid – obliged by taking a wicket from a dreadful delivery and enjoying every last bit of it with his teammates, fans and wife Anushka who cheered him on from the stands.

India's Virat Kohli, centre, celebrates the wicket of Netherlands' captain Scott Edwards during the ICC Men's Cricket World Cup match between India and Netherlands in Bengaluru, India, Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Virat Kohli celebrates after taking the wicket of Netherlands’ captain Scott Edwards [File: Anupam Nath/AP]

Kohli’s World (Cup)

Amid all this, Kohli ended the league phase as the leading run scorer in the tournament, with 594 runs, getting 50 or more in all but two of nine matches.

On occasion, he has strategised with his batting partners to complete his century before the win was sealed. In the shadow of the Western Ghats in Pune, they successfully engineered a hundred for him against Bangladesh. Under the snow-capped peaks in Dharamshala against New Zealand, they fell short by five runs.

In steamy Kolkata on November 5, the entire stadium sang him happy birthday. Kohli, who turned 35 that day, scored a hundred in India’s victory over South Africa, and in the process, he equalled his hero Sachin Tendulkar’s record of 49 one-day international centuries.

When India last won the World Cup, in 2011, Kohli was 23.

During the celebratory lap around the field in Mumbai that night, he famously hoisted Tendulkar on his shoulders and supplied a memorable quote to the cameras: “He’s carried the burden of the nation for 21 years, so it’s time we carry him on our shoulders.”

If India go on to win this World Cup, it is not out of the question for Kohli to be the one hoisted in Ahmedabad.

In the 12 years between then and now, he has acquired a status that few in the sport ever have. To the outside world Kohli is an icon for Indian cricket.

Within India he has come to represent something greater: excellence itself.

India's Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina, Harbhajan Singh, Sachin Tendulkar and Shanthakumaran Sreesanth (L-R) celebrate after India won their ICC Cricket World Cup final match against Sri Lanka in Mumbai April 2, 2011. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi (INDIA - Tags: SPORT CRICKET IMAGE OF THE DAY)
Virat Kohli (left) celebrates the 2011Cricket World Cup win with teammates Sachin Tendulkar (centre), Suresh Raina, Harbhajan Singh and Shanthakumaran Sreesanth in Mumbai on April 2, 2011 [File: Adnan Abidi/Reuters]

‘Hot-bloodedness and internal discipline’

There are, first of all, the runs: a staggering 26,000-plus and counting in international cricket, already the fourth highest of all time.

There is the legacy of his captaincy (which ended, under controversial circumstances, in 2022). Although India did not land a global trophy in that time, his 63 percent win record across formats compares with the best in history. During his captaincy, the Test team held the number one ranking for three-and-a-half years straight.

But to understand the phenomenon of Kohli in contemporary India, we have to consider, too, the impact of “Brand Kohli”.

For four of the past five years he has been placed first in Kroll’s Celebrity Brand Valuation reports for Indian celebrities, ahead of a bevvy of film actors (his latest valuation is $177m).

No fewer than 372 million people subscribe to his social media feeds. If put together, an agglomeration of Kohli followers would make the third biggest country in the world.

While welcoming cricket into the Olympics, the LA Games Sports Director Niccolo Campriani pointed out that Kohli’s following is “more than LeBron James, Tom Brady and Tiger Woods combined”.

Santosh Desai, a leading Indian advertising professional and columnist, teased out the elements of “Brand Kohli” for Al Jazeera: “There is grit, a kind of fierce determination”; “a combination of hot-bloodedness and internal discipline”; “a certain hardness and masculinity”; “aggression is an important part, directed both at himself and outside”.

If these adjectives feel at odds with his carefree demeanour on display at the World Cup, there is reason.

Age, fatherhood, freedom from captaincy, have all had a (slightly) mellowing effect on the most relentlessly intense figure Indian cricket has known, whose in-your-face competitiveness – celebrations like road rage – could rub not just the opposition the wrong way but some of his own countrymen too.

Desai says there has been brand evolution since his marriage to Anushka: “a definite attempt to dull some of the harder edges of his persona”.

Indeed Kohli has often credited Anushka with having a calming influence on his life.

“The patience bit I have learnt ever since me and Anushka met each other – I was very impatient before,” Kohli famously said during an online session with students during the coronavirus pandemic.

India's cricket team captain Virat Kohli (L) and his wife, Bollywood actress Anushka Sharma, pose during a photo opportunity at their wedding reception
Kohli and his wife, Bollywood actor Anushka Sharma, pose at their wedding reception in New Delhi, India December 21, 2017 [File: Adnan Abidi/Reuters]

‘He’s a winner’

Indian viewers often receive Kohli in carefully curated ways, especially on Star Sports, the broadcasters of the 2023 World Cup.

Kohli-specific programming has been a staple during their tournament coverage.

The WeForVirat series documents aspects of his life and career.

Believe: The Diwali Miracle, a two-part series, is dedicated to a single T20 innings against Pakistan.

In Wrogn Lessons (Wrogn is a clothing brand Kohli co-owns), Kohli reveals his intimate side as he talks about his mum and daughter.

Whereas on the chat show Virat Unplugged, he winsomely banters with a social media influencer.

It’s not all adulation. Unexpected blowback came this weekend, when a leading trend on X in India attacked Star Sports for being a “PR agency” for Kohli, and more specifically, for not giving play to the captain and fellow batting stalwart, Rohit Sharma.

It was a storm in a teacup. Worldly success – fame that is easily worn; wealth that is directed into such business investments as a plant-based meats company, a gymnasium chain, the football club Goa FC – only burnishes Kohli’s credentials as a sporting superachiever.

Former England captain Nasser Hussain once asked Duncan Fletcher, who had coached both England and India, for his take on Kohli.

“He’s a winner,” was Fletcher’s pithy response. It is what a young, aspirational nation looks up to.

‘Changed the way the sport is played’

The most visible proof of Kohli’s ambition has been his pursuit of supreme fitness.

“Visionary,” is the word of choice for Basu Shanker, head strength-and-conditioning coach of Kohli’s IPL team, and of the Indian team during Kohli’s captaincy.

“He was and is ahead of his time,” Basu told Al Jazeera. “He started preparing himself like an Olympic athlete – with such diligence that it was a game-changer.”

Basu is being modest. It was he who introduced Kohli, in 2015, to programmes whose effect Kohli once likened to someone putting “high-octane fuel in my body”. In their minds, Kohli and Basu were not competing with cricketers: they were aiming for Novak Djokovic. It is hardly surprising that Kohli, a football fan, idolises not Lionel Messi but Cristiano Ronaldo.

The turning point for Kohli had come even earlier though, in 2012.

“I was finishing candy packets, 40 pieces, three packets a week. I was eating and sleeping horribly, my habits were all over the place,” he recalled once in an interview to Sky Sports. “I finished the IPL, I remember I went home, came out of the shower, saw myself in the mirror and I was ashamed.”

Kohli’s self-control since is the stuff of legend. A former support staff member of the Indian team recalls the time at breakfast when a dosa was served to him. Kohli leaned over, sniffed it, remarked that it smelled great, and returned to his optimally calibrated plate.

“It mustn’t be easy for you,” said the colleague.

“Who said playing for India is easy?” Kohli replied.

Ordinarily, cricketers have a cheat meal a week. Kohli has one a year, sometimes two years.

Watching him in sporting middle-age sprint his runs towards a fag end of an innings, in a World Cup where batters keep going down with cramps, is to think of other Kohli stories.

Getting a travelling yoga instructor to stretch him on match days at an hour when his teammates are still asleep; showing up at the gym late in the evening, to the astonishment of opposition coaches, after he’s scored a big century in sapping conditions and played football with the team afterwards.

The effects of Kohli’s obsession have been transformational not only for himself, they have influenced athletic culture in India.

“Now every kid in this country knows that fitness is the vehicle on which you travel for excellence,” Basu said. “He changed the way the sport is played.”

To Desai, Kohli’s metamorphosis goes beyond sport.

“It is a very powerful symbol of what is possible.”

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