Monday 27 May 2019

sport

India’s one-man golden age

  • When cricket’s World Cup begins in England this week, all eyes will be on Virat Kohli, the captain of India and the greatest player in the world
  • He not only carries the hopes of his 1.4bn compatriots, he also embodies the aspirations of a modern, cosmopolitan India
  • A $180m brand with 30m social media followers, he is not only talented but hard working, intensely disciplined and, just occasionally, controversial

By Gideon Haigh

On the afternoon of 4 December 2018, the day before India began its defence of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, Virat Kohli went to the practice nets behind the Western Stand at Adelaide Oval for a final workout. He batted 20 minutes against first his pace bowlers then his spinners. Behind him crouched a cameraman from the website of Cricket Australia, lens tilted slightly up so that 175cm Kohli filled the frame, catching every detail for a minute-long edited package that went live a few hours later, and proceeded to take on a life of its own. In the next 24 hours, it was watched more than three million times.

Kohli's practice session in Adelaide has been watched 3m times

Of the 31 strokes, 28 are aggressive. Kohli pirouettes into pull shots, launches into long drives, runs to third man with an urgent reflex call: “Yes one!” At a solitary miscue, the microphone also picks up a self-admonition:“Ah no.” Otherwise the soundtrack is a succession of improbably deep detonations from Kohli’s bat, echoing off the stand’s bricks like a clay-pigeon-shooting rifle. Twitter echoed the echo. “Wow!!!!” exclaimed an awestruck Adam Gilchrist. “Don’t think it used to sound like that off my bat…” murmured a droll Paul Collingwood. Hashtags were hung: #intensity, #freak, #Supercharged and the inevitable #KingKohli. In a column for The Times, Mike Atherton called the footage “a paean to modern batsmanship”, deciding finally:“I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a better batsman.”

There has assuredly never been a batsman watched more closely and more widely. Last year in Adelaide was hardly the first time he has been studied in the nets – YouTube offers a thriving sub-genre of Kohli in training, with scores of videos bearing titles such as “Virat Kohli Smashing Bowlers in Nets” and “Virat Kohli Batting with Pure Technique!!” The day may come when these interludes are policed, when the sound of Kohli’s bat is monetised as part of his intellectual property like the Harley-Davidson growl. But not, thankfully, yet: it remains a public event every time Kohli picks up a bat, because it is an event when he does most anything.

Many experts agree that Kohli is the world's finest batsman

In the last two decades, India has grown into substantially the world’s largest cricket country, culture and market. Its captain is both cause and effect. “Kohli embodies a new and self-confident nationalism in India,” says James Crabtree, author of the new study of Indian wealth, The Billionaire Raj. “One which is somehow entitled, which grew up thinking India was rightly top dog.” At 30, Kohli is the outstanding batsman of his generation in all three formats, and leads the world’s best team in Test and one-day cricket; but the world bows down as much before his concentrated star power, his estimated $60m net worth, $180m brand value, and 30m-plus Twitter and Instagram followers.

$60m net worth. $180m brand value. 30m-plus Twitter and Instagram followers

Kohli did not invent the business of sport, marketing and media in the subcontinent. Its heritage is long: when Denis Compton was taming his locks with Brylcreem in England, Vinoo Mankad was doing the same in India; when Fred Trueman and Trevor Bailey were synonymous with BBC Test Match Special, Cricket with Vijay Merchant had a far vaster audience on All-India Radio.

In India, cricket has also had the glamorous shadow partner of movies, first aligned 50 years ago when the Nawab of Pataudi Jr married the Bollywood beauty Sharmila Tagore. You can distinguish members of the lineage of great pan-Indian batsmen by reference to their screen lives. Sunil Gavaskar appeared as himself, somewhat awkwardly, in 1980s movies like Kabhie Ajnabi Thé and Maalamaal; Sachin Tendulkar inspired a deferential and earnest documentary, Sachin: A Billion Dreams (2017); MS Dhoni was the subject of a florid three-hour biopic, MS Dhoni: The Untold Story (2016). Kohli? Last September, Kohli starred in a knowing one-minute superhero spoof, Trailer: The Movie, rolling it out in a droll tweet: “Check it out while I prepare my Oscar acceptance speech.” It is no less funny for being an undisguised brand building exercise for the apparel range, Wrogn, that Kohli owns with Anjana Reddy’s Universal Sportsbiz. “Watch while one man rises above the rest,” says a stentorian voiceover as Kohli dodges about between aliens, zombies and dinosaurs, “by standing on a really tall building.” So far, for Kohli, fame has been only a one-edged sword, something with which to shave his perfectly kempt facial hair.

This shrewd containment of his own image makes him, in a way, unknowable. Kohli is seldom interviewed. It is hardly worth his trouble. In May 2016, he agreed to sit down with India Today’s Boria Majumdar where he was staying in Kolkata’s ITC Hotel. When Majumdar advised him where the cameras were located, Kohli replied: “I will be there by 6pm as discussed. I just need to arrange for security to get to the part of the hotel where you have set up.” Tendulkar famously found it almost impossible to move around in public; Kohli cannot even cross a hotel lobby. When he married his own Bollywood belle nine months later, the ceremony had for convenience’s sake to be held in Tuscany and the honeymooners to adjourn to Finland. Still, rather than seek total seclusion, Kohli and his bride, Anushka Sharma, shared scenes on social media, embracing their lives’ inhibitions and artificialities and making them part of the fun.

Kohli with his bride Anushka Sharma, December 2017

Those seeking an essence of Kohli often do so ethnically and geographically, that he is a Punjabi from Delhi. “The saying about people from Delhi is that if they can be heard in a whisper they still want to shout,” says the veteran cricket columnist Ayaz Memon. “There’s something of that in Virat.” Cricketers from Delhi are defined by their dash and volatility. Kohli himself emerged from the 1980s apartment blocks of the city’s west, with their noisy, crammed and competitive confines.

Kohli’s father Prem was a lawyer; Virat and brother Vikas were polished by a convent school. But by his own admission, Virat was a “cricket brat” from the age of nine when Prem enrolled him in the West Delhi Cricket Academy in Paschim Vihar – one of a host of such sporting colleges, always thronged with hopefuls. Coach Rajkumar Sharma, who had played a handful of games for Delhi as an off-spinner, charged the princely monthly tuition fee of 200 rupees (about £2.20).

Rajkumar intuited the boy’s talent at once. Kohli threw and hit with precocious power. He was noisy, energetic, hated not being involved, would sit brooding in his pads after dismissal, fret if there were too few runs to chase and there was a chance he might not bat. He was undaunted by competing against older boys, undismayed when local selectors looked the other way. Delhi cricket is ill-famed for its nepotism – the Delhi and District Cricket Association is colloquially known as the “Delhi Daddies Cricket Academy” – and Kohli notoriously found his path temporarily blocked at under-14 level. His determination doubled.

Still, nothing was pre-ordained when he reached senior level. Test opener Aakash Chopra was impressed when the teenage Kohli joined Delhi’s Ranji Trophy squad but not entirely convinced. “He came across as a very confident lad, but not so out of the ordinary,” Chopra recalls. “Yes talented, yes passionate, yes aggressive. But you also know that when you play in Delhi you see a lot of kids like that, and he had some technical difficulties.”

The most famous incident of Kohli’s cricket youth is his fourth game for Delhi, where he went into the second evening against Karnataka on 40 not out, then learned overnight that his father Prem had suffered a mortal stroke. After consulting Rajkumar, he elected to continue his innings, falling just before lunch for a five-hour 90. When Rajkumar checked back, his prodigy was annoyed: “Sir, I was given out wrongly when I was just ten short of a century…”

Virat Kohli carries the Under-19 World Cup trophy, 2008

It is a great story. It evokes doggedness, destiny, filial piety, preternatural focus. But there were no headlines at the time. India has more than 30 first-class teams, numberless unacknowledged daily tales of misfortune defied. Kohli’s advance owed more to changes underway in Indian cricket, which was finally achieving a wealth to match its abiding scale and ardour. However hard the scrabble of his boyhood, Kohli’s youth was fortunate. In the 21st Century, Indian cricket has not just been finding talent but looking for it. India’s win in the 2000 under-19 World Cup pointed the way. When Kohli led India to repeating that success in Malaysia in February 2008, he was guaranteed even swifter recognition, thanks to the looming Indian Premier League – cricket amplified, accelerated and monetised as T20.

Kohli in the IPL colours of the Royal Challengers, Bangalore

Scooped up for a nominal fee by the Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB), Kohli played in the IPL’s inaugural game. He made 1. He averaged 15 in thirteen matches, of which RCB won only four. But this was a new cricket economy, more forgiving than of yore. Opportunities were more numerous; fruit hung lower. Kohli obtained a bat contract with BDM, was gifted a job as “manager” by Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, was included in elite youth teams. And during the second IPL, held in South Africa, Kohli was wooed by an aspiring sports agent, 30-year-old Bunty Sajdeh.

It was not Kohli’s run-making that appealed to Sajdeh so much as his relatable qualities: youth, vitality, the flair of his designer wardrobe, the flash of his eye-catching ink, the face of a mischievous cherub. Under Dhoni, India was remaking its one-day team after the disaster of the 2007 World Cup, building towards hosting the next. Yet this was also the phase of Tendulkar’s long fade. A country three quarters of whose population is younger than 35, Sajdeh reasoned, would soon be searching for younger heroes.

Kohli, left, with team-mates celebrating India's victory in the 2011 World Cup

Sajdeh’s may be one of the savviest management calls of all time. Capped for India in one-day international cricket after just 11 Ranji Trophy matches with a single hundred, Kohli found it a snug fit. In his first 40 one-day internationals he averaged nearly 50; he achieved a similarly healthy strike rate for endorsements, mainly of youth-accented fashion accessories. When the 2011 World Cup came round, Kohli opened the tournament with an unbeaten hundred against Bangladesh, concluding it with a composed 35 in the final; he was also one of a handful of younger co-stars in Dhoni’s campaign for Pepsi. As Dhoni accepted the Cup, Kohli loyally helped to chair Tendulkar from the field, and led a dressing-room chorus of a song from the movie Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi: “What to do, my friend, in you we see God himself!” The movie, a 2008 romantic comedy, starred Kohli’s future wife.

Anushka Sharma with co-star Shahrukh Khan

Kohli’s relationship with Anushka has now drawn him to a luxury apartment in Mumbai’s plush Worli district, and it is a Mumbai expression that best summarises his cricket. Khadoos is a traditional exhortation to the batsmen that have made the city famous, including Gavaskar and Tendulkar. Its nearest translation is something like “relentless” or “inflexible”. Remember, khadoos! Kohli’s era might be more lucrative, more comfortable; somehow he has risen above all the potentially negative entailments of such a world. With each passing year, he seems harder, leaner and keener, if not meaner.

Kohli in Test match action against Australia, 2012

Like every great batsman, Kohli has his signature faculties – a conquering stride, a supersonic bat speed,  a purist’s regard for hitting the ball along the ground unless absolutely necessary. But what chiefly marks Kohli out is his untiring pursuit of broad-based excellence – from the battening of his defence against the moving ball to the expansion of his T20 attacking options. He is batting’s supreme evolutionary specimen. Gavaskar was the great master of Test cricket; Tendulkar excelled in Tests and one-day internationals; only AB de Villiers rivals Kohli in his mastery of cricket in all durations, and the South African lost the taste for the five-day format that in the Indian remains as sharp as ever. De Villiers’s recent autobiography ends with a piquant story of the pair, teammates at RCB, having breakfast one morning.

“‘So I was wondering,’ I said, out of the blue, ‘how long do you think you’re going to keep playing cricket?’

Virat’s face broke into a beaming smile, his eyes alight.

‘I’m going to play forever,’ he replied.

‘If only that were possible,’ I smiled, ‘if only that were possible.’”

The reality of cricket immortality not being possible does not prevent Kohli approaching cricket as though it is. It took television host Rajdeep Sardesai six months to organise an interview with Kohli in June 2016, but it was worth it. Kohli, who emerged from his private gym, replenished himself with a protein shake, and expounded on cricket and life for three hours, enthralled him. “He was brilliant,” says Sardesai. “I was impressed by his knowledge and passion. He is completely in love with the sport. He has an intense understanding of his own game and of contemporary cricket, and a very sharp grasp of what it will take for him to continue this level of sporting excellence, form, fitness, diet.”

Kohli's tattoos represent contemplation and asceticism

Kohli’s khadoos is perhaps most pronounced in his athleticism. Since shedding a youthful chubbiness, Kohli has made a cult of his lean muscle mass reminiscent of Novak Djokovic, but which clearly has tripartite cricket ends in mind – endurance for Test cricket, explosive energy for one-day cricket, explosive power for T20. India has had fit cricketers before: Dhoni is built like the mountains he hails from. But fitness for Dhoni was personal; for Kohli it is philosophical. He has likened himself to “a monk in civil society”. His left arm bears tattoos symbolising contemplation and asceticism – Lord Shiva meditating on Mount Kailash, alongside a monastery. And in a country where adequate quantity of food has more often been the issue, Kohli’s obsession with the quality of his wheat-free, gluten-free diet, the quotient of protein and the choice of vitamins, is revelatory. That India’s cricket team has never been fitter can be ascribed directly to his idée fixe.

Captaincy came to Kohli steadily then suddenly, on a tour of Australia in 2014-15. It was the trip where everything about Kohli’s batting seemed to click and whirr. He peeled off four hundreds in four matches. Then, at the end of that game, 33-year-old Dhoni matter-of-factly gave up Test cricket.

A century celebrated against Australia at Adelaide, 2014

By his own account, Kohli returned to his hotel room and broke down. For all his modernity, Kohli has a distinctly Indian sentimentality about his mentors. On 5 September 2014, Teacher’s Day in India, his brother Vikas had turned up at Rajkumar Sharma’s doorstep and on Virat’s behalf presented his former guru with a Skoda. At the altar of Dhoni, Kohli still downright genuflects; he will not hear of the 37-year-old giving up one-day and T20 cricket. “Kohli is fiercely loyal to Dhoni, which is interesting because they are so different,” observes the columnist Memon. “Dhoni is reclusive, unavailable, never gives a press conference, and has made his cricket personality around an enigma. Virat is in your face, frequently on Twitter, interacting with fans. But Virat leans on Dhoni a lot, and the team is loyal to Dhoni too.”

All the same, Kohli has felt no need to emulate Dhoni’s impassive, low-temperature personality. He has recast captaincy in his own death-before-dishonour image, leading an unapologetically confident team. Since January 2016, India has been the number one ranked Test nation for all but eight months. On his heaped-up burdens, Kohli has stood ever taller. No sooner had Kohli succeeded Dhoni as one-day and T20 captain than he churned out double-centuries in four consecutive Test series, including an epic 235 against England in Mumbai in eight and a half hours. It was the first Test at the Wankhede Stadium since Tendulkar’s last, but even the mighty Sachin already felt like prehistory. The love of Kohli admits of no nostalgia. He constitutes a one-man golden age.

Kohli has helped India become the highest-ranked Test nation

As if in recognition of his status, Kohli has begun sounding less the cricket brat, more the sporting statesman, a custodian, even a traditionalist (“I feel somewhere the commercial aspect is taking over the real quality of cricket and that hurts me”). Where insouciant Dhoni always looked like he could take or leave Test cricket, Kohli is the foremost ambassador of the 142-year-old format  (“I think if Indian cricket respects Test cricket… then Test cricket will stay at the top because of the fan-base that we have all over the world”). Where the insular Tendulkar could appear completely sunk in his own performance, Kohli accentuates collective achievement (“We strive to play well as a team. Single innings and single spells don’t win games of Test cricket. We play to make the team win”).

Where Dhoni and Tendulkar led India’s obdurate distrust of cricket’s video-assisted Decision Review System, Kohli has been an unreconstructed technophile (“There are significant decisions that the DRS has been able to overrule and … it’s something I think all cricketers should be happy with”). At the same time, he has exhibited grace in defeat (“There’s no good reason why we should win every game, and I’ve naturally started feeling happy for the other team if they outplay us, because they are playing the same sport”) and generosity to rivals – including the humbled Australians Steve Smith and David Warner, whose public humiliations he deplored (“I’ve known David and I know Steve as well … the things that happened after should never have happened”).

Kohli enjoys India's victory in the ICC Champions Trophy Final, 2013

Through his off-field duties, Kohli moves with similar confidence. England’s former captain Mike Brearley tells a story of observing Kohli at a reception for his team at Lord’s last year organised by India’s High Commission. As can happen at such gatherings, the noise rose to uncomfortable levels that failed to abate when it came time for speeches. Commandeering the microphone, Kohli firmly shushed the audience. “I would never have had the nerve to do it myself,” says Brearley. “Perhaps I would have insinuated something when my turn came to speak, to persuade people to listen. But it was so crisp, impressive, unfussy, and, I thought, so correct.” It’s central to his conception of Kohli. “The impressive thing about Kohli is that he doesn’t become bland,” argues Brearley. “He keeps his energy, his articulacy, his sharpness.” Not merely a captain, then, but a leader.

But what is a leader in contemporary India? Another aspect of Kohli’s personality to emerge through his captaincy over the last four years is its unilateralism. India is playing extraordinary volumes of cricket, but Kohli exhibits little desire to defray his workload or dilute his authority. A management diagram of India’s cricket team, perhaps even of Indian cricket, would reveal a bunch of straight lines back to him. This is a mode of operation that reminds some of Narendra Modi, which Sardesai calls “the cult of the supremo”.

“This is an age where people are looking to the strongman, the muscular individualist,” Sardesai says. “Mr Modi is like that. He runs his government less through the cabinet system than by sheer force of personality – a very top-down governance style. Most of our political parties and movements are one-man or one-family shows with very little internal democracy too. And our cricket is moving in the same direction, with less scope for discussion and dissent. Kohli approaches cricket as a team sport. He’s completely invested in the team. In a T20 match, Kohli will run from one end of the field to the other as captain, leave Dhoni to manage the inner circle. But at the end of the day, all the decisions vest in him. It works at times, but it can be vexing for those whose personalities are not like that.”

Narendra Modi (46m social media followers) with Kohli (30m)

One of these was Anil Kumble, Test cricket’s third-highest wicket-taker, a figure revered for his skill, courage and integrity. The Board of Control for Cricket in India appointed Kumble as India’s coach in June 2016. During his year working with Kohli, India won 12 Test matches and lost one. Yet for reasons neither has deigned to divulge, Kumble departed. Kumble’s tweeted resignation remains his only statement on the matter: “I was informed for the first time yesterday by the BCCI that the Captain had reservations with my ‘style’ and about my continuing as the Head Coach. I was surprised since I have always respected the role boundaries between Captain and Coach. Though the BCCI attempted to resolve the misunderstandings between the Captain and me, it was apparent that the partnership was untenable, and I therefore believe it is best for me to move on.”

Kohli has not said that much, leading to the perception of the interlude as a new variation on an old theme. “In India, we have always glorified the individual more than the team,” says Sardesai. “As long as Tendulkar was making runs, we never really cared about winning and losing. Under Kohli, that’s changed for the better. But there are aspects of him that remind me of the India of the past where the individual becomes the focus, and the clash with Anil was emblematic of that.”

Kohli’s accumulation of power has also coincided with power’s diffusion within the BCCI following 2013 allegations of corruption in the Indian Premier League. India’s Supreme Court first appointed a judicial commission to overhaul the board’s governance, then a bureaucratic committee to enforce that commission’s recommendations. The result has been a mix of administrative timidity and caprice at the top of Indian cricket, even as Kohli has enhanced his own stature.

Briefly a member of the committee until he quit in disgust at Kumble’s axing, historian Ramachandra Guha describes the atmosphere round Kohli as craven and appeasing, like that of a Manchu court with the courtiers speaking of “Virat’”to advertise their closeness to him. “There was an incident when I was on the committee when the Future Tours Programme came up, and games were discussed with Zimbabwe and Bangladesh,” says Guha. “This board official says: ‘Oh, why should we waste Virat’s time playing against these lesser-ranked nations?’ Forgetting that for quite a lot of our cricket history, India was a lesser-ranked nation.”

"Materialistic some days, spiritual others, brash occasionally, suave often, exciting always"

Perhaps that’s just a recognition that the worship of a figure comes more readily than investment in an institution. Social media here both reflects and leads. Consider that @BCCI, the Twitter handle for Indian cricket, has 8m followers, while @imVkohli has 30m – a ratio not dissimilar, incidentally, to the ruling political party @BJP4India’s 10m followers versus @narendramodis 46m. Social media’s amplifications, moreover, are set to grow: in a few years India is expected to have more Facebook users than the US has citizens.

“Most Indians are in stultifyingly boring jobs they are looking for any escape from,” says Keshava Guha, a novelist and writer for Scroll. “Many of them have limited social life because work has taken them away from their families, or if they are working where they come from they want to get out. Social media brings the world to them.” Only a select few will ever be able to rise above its hubbub, intensified by India’s ethnic, religious and linguistic differences. Kohli, then, suits these times also: a kind of everywhere figure, raised in Delhi, based in Mumbai, representing Bangalore, materialistic some days, spiritual others, brash occasionally, suave often, exciting always.

How to handle such eminence? Kohli has applied himself to the question with the same earnestness as he does cricket. For the last six years, for example, he has funded an eponymous charitable foundation whose causes have ranged from underprivileged children to underprivileged sport – that is, basically any sport in India, bar cricket. For a time, Anushka herself was a cause. When she was first publicly acknowledged as his girlfriend, Kohli pushed back strongly against the idea, popular on social media, that she was Indian cricket’s Yoko Ono, distracting and divisive.

 

Celebrating with his wife after beating Australia at Sydney

Anushka herself is an unapologetic career woman, socially conscious, publicly aware, favouring positive roles as smart, strong, talkative young women – she played a cricketer’s feisty girlfriend in Patiala House (2011). Her net worth has been put at $35m. She has veered into movie producing, owns her own clothing line, supports charities advocating female empowerment and gender equality, even providing a voice-over to India’s first openly transgender musical group, the 6 Pack Band. Some also detect Anushka’s influence on Kohli’s sudden interest in animal welfare – an army officer’s daughter, she is renowned for her love of dogs.

Certainly, having moved on from his days as a simple clothes horse, Kohli evinces increasing fastidiousness about his stable of endorsements. In September 2017, for example, he cut ties with Pepsi, which by sports sponsorship standards was almost an abdication. Pepsi, India’s cola market-leader, had been enmeshed in cricket since the 1996 World Cup, when it launched a famous ambush marketing campaign featuring Tendulkar. The endorsement had been passed down to Kohli via Dhoni like an ancestral heirloom. A sugary drink, however, was now at odds with Kohli’s commitments to good nutrition and hard work; in similar spirit, Kohli also abjures sponsorships from makers of junk food and fairness creams, the skin tone cosmetics that still sell widely to India’s self-conscious. He hews to products he can use, such as Chisel, a gymnasium chain, and Puma, for whom he has designed a sneaker (the Basket Classic one8).

Kohli, pictured with his wife, refuses to endorse unhealthy products

Among values expected of public figures in modern India, however, views on cola rank well behind views on country – Modi, of course, exhibits a canny sense of what the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has called “the erotics of nationhood”. For the captain of the national cricket team, the outcomes have been less predictable. Responding on video to fan questions when he launched an “official app” on his 30th birthday last year, he appeared to bridle at a correspondent who described him as “overrated”, and expressed a preference for watching English and Australian batsman over “these Indians”. “Why are you living in our country and loving other countries?” Kohli retorted. “I don’t mind you not liking me, but I don’t think you should live in our country and like other things.”

The tone was perhaps half-facetious, the content strangely intemperate. There ensued a Twitter backlash, the actor Siddharth Suryanarayan chastising Kohli for his “idiotic set of words”, and a frontlash, fans leaping to Kohli’s defence with such hashtags as #pride and #ISupportKohli. Even Kohli seemed faintly disconcerted. “I guess trolling isn’t for me guys, I’ll stick to getting trolled!” he tweeted. “I spoke about how ‘these Indians’ was mentioned in the comment and that’s all. I’m all for freedom of choice. Keep it light guys and enjoy the festive season. Love and peace to all.”

Well, not quite all. In February, a suicide bomber from the Islamist cell Jaish-e-Mohammed attacked an armoured convoy in the Pulwama district of Jammu and Kashmir, killing 40 military personnel. India blamed Pakistan for succouring the perpetrators. Tit-for-tat airstrikes were launched around the line of control that separates the irascible neighbours, while social media seethed with patriotic effusions and memes – Kohli was even criticised for not posting his “heartfelt condolences to the martyred soldiers” fast enough, and hurriedly cancelled a fundraiser for his foundation. Then Dhoni, an honorary lieutenant-colonel in the Territorial Army, organised for the Indian team to wear military-style camouflage caps into a one-day international against Australia in Ranchi. Kohli announced that players would donate their match fees to the National Defence Fund, a state-run military welfare charity, also urging countrymen to give generously.

Some were disconcerted by the explicit identification of cricketers with a warrior culture. “Dhoni I understand,” says Ram Guha. “He is from the hill country where people have traditionally gone into the army – three of India’s five Victoria Crosses came from his area. Kohli, however, is from a business community that has resolutely stayed out of the armed forces. Yet here he was addressing the nation like Winston Churchill. That’s what living in a bubble can do to you.” But when the bubble is so influential, who dares gainsay its occupants?

Here, though, is something of a paradox to Kohli – that for all his personification of India, his country has never fielded a more international cricketer. His tastes are cosmopolitan, his English fluent and expressive. He makes runs everywhere, thrives on mastering different conditions, is compelled by the desire to win away from home, which even Dhoni and Tendulkar seemed to think a nice thing to do if possible but not to be too fussed over. Not only is he linked with global brands such as Tissot, Colgate, Mattel and Audi but he is one himself, in the league of sportsmen he admires like Roger Federer and Real Madrid, a cricket counterpart to corporate exports like Infosys and ArcelorMittal; for her part, Anushka’s next projects are for Netflix and Amazon Video. It’s a decade since Harvard’s Nirmalya Kumar profiled India’s Global Powerhouses, in which he argued that Indian companies had gone “from passive resistors to active promoters of globalisation”. The same could apply to the Kohli household.

Can Kohli lead his team to victory in the World Cup starting this week?

To watch him in Australia last summer was a fascinating study. Aussies do not surrender readily to awe, not even of their own. Skipper Tim Paine tried to take Kohli down a peg, to little avail. Crowds brooded on the Indian captain’s every gesture in the field, sat up straight when he came into bat. Sizeable contingents of Indian Australians attended every Test and one-day international – migrants from India now constitute Australia’s largest source of permanent migration. The media, notoriously hostile to visiting captains, was transfixed, almost meek. As noteworthy as that much-watched video of him batting in the nets is that it was created at all, so admiring, so deferential.

In a recent interview with CricBuzz, Ricky Ponting, these days in Australia the game’s most resonant voice, echoed Mike Atherton’s view of Kohli’s place in cricket’s firmament: “His numbers show that he is the best. How old is he? Maybe 30, and he is going to play another 200 games. I don’t think there will be many people who are going to argue against him being the best.”

In the same interview, Ponting based a brisk case for Indian’s status as World Cup favourites on Kohli’s presence: “If Virat has a good World Cup, India will win.” It cannot be so simple, can it? After all, no batsman takes more than a single ball to dismiss. But it’s a capacity of the truly great that they encourage crisp judgements, straightforward conclusions. Kohli will lead India into its first World Cup fixture, against South Africa at Southampton’s Rose Bowl, on 5 June. He will be expected, six weeks later, to lead them into the final at Lord’s; he will expect it of himself. The world will be watching. It always is.

Gideon Haigh writes about cricket for The Times and The Australian. He has written 37 books and edited seven others

Further reading

Introducing Kohli to American audiences, ESPN’s Wright Thompson enjoyed a firsthand glimpse of the chaos when Indian cricket and commerce meet:

“I’m not answering one question on cricket,” Kohli says.

India’s leading public intellectual, Ramachandra Guha, happens to be its premier historian of cricket. He brings those perspectives together in a trenchant critique:

“In Indian cricket today, the selectors, coaching staff and administrators are all pygmies before Kohli. That must change.”

Vijay Lokapally of The Hindu spotted Kohli early, and was first to try condensing his life between covers. Driven has been overtaken by events, but is a nicely-observed account of Kohli’s emergence and maturity:

“The twirl of the bat that marks his arrival at the crease suggests the man is in a hurry. His gait is rapid and confident – not the swagger of Viv Richards or a pensive amble to the middle of Sunil Gavaskar.”