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The Cult of Kohli

by Dileep Premachandran

Virat Kohli carries the hopes of a nation on his shoulders and he does it in a style that makes him the most revered, and most marketable, cricketer on the planet. Just how does he do it?

Like many of his teammates, Aakash Chopra can vividly recall the morning of December 19, 2006. Delhi were playing Karnataka at the Feroz Shah Kotla, and had struggled to 103-5, in response to the visitors’ 446, by stumps the previous evening. One of the not-out batsmen was Virat Kohli, who had turned 18 just a month earlier.

In the early hours of the morning, Prem Kohli, Virat’s father, passed away after a brief illness. You can imagine the players’ surprise then, when the young man turned up at the ground, ready to don pads and gloves and resume batting.

“His eyes were red-rimmed, and he was clearly in pain,” recalls Chopra. “We all asked him to go home. No one expected him to go out and bat. But he did. He made 90. Got a bad decision, leg-before even though there was a thick inside-edge. He went home [for the last rites] only after that.”

Within 18 months, Kohli had led India to an Under 19 World Cup win, with a 74-ball century against West Indies one of the highlights of the tournament. By August 2008, he had won his maiden ODI cap, and in 2011, he was one of the younger members of a World Cup-winning side whose talisman, Sachin Tendulkar, had been his biggest hero while growing up in West Delhi.

Kohli and his hero

Kohli and his hero

These days, the young boy who was too shy to even go up to Tendulkar when he first saw him in the flesh during a training session at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium is Indian cricket’s shining star, and easily its most sellable face. Kohli currently endorses 16 brands: Audi cars, Tissot watches, Herbalife nutrition and even Pepsi, a drink he’s unlikely to consume given how fastidious he is about diet and fitness.

Two of the most lucrative contracts in the portfolio
are currently up for renewal. Madras Rubber Factory (MRF) paid him 50 million Rupees a year (approximately £615,000) to have their sticker on his bats, while Adidas were paying him 30 million Rupees a year to endorse their shoes and apparel. The MRF deal is likely to be renewed, but Adidas face stiff competition from Puma to retain him as a brand ambassador. Given his prodigious run-scoring feats over the past three years, it’s also a given that both firms will have to pay considerably more than they had agreed on in 2013.

The Kohli that Chopra remembers from a decade ago was very different from the poster boy of today. “He was very much a kid of that era,” says the Delhi opener who played 10 Tests for India in 2003 and ’04. “He would focus a lot on his hairdo. In fact, he’d focus on other people’s hairdos as well! He enjoyed a laugh and a joke. Playing was primarily fun to start with.

Captain Kohli is a charismatic leader

Captain Kohli is a charismatic leader as India Test captain

“He was dropped from the playing XI, but I never saw him sulking or gossiping, or getting into camps. I do remember a game where I told Viru [Sehwag] not to drop him, because he had made runs in the previous one. We had a problem of plenty at the time, and Viru didn’t listen to me. He dropped him and played Mayank Tehlan instead. But Virat handled it well. You never saw him throwing a tantrum or anything like that.

“Once he played for India, he came back a more mature batsman. After I left Delhi [for Rajasthan] in 2010, I heard he had run-ins with a couple of seniors, but I don’t have details.”

***

You cannot walk through the streets of a big Indian city these days without Kohli’s face beaming down at you from a billboard, carefully trimmed hipster beard and all. If you step out for a walk near my office in Bangalore, the hoarding you’re most likely to see is for Chisel, a chain of gyms in which he has some sweat equity (a non-financial investment). The chiselled six-pack stares back at you.

Those who have worked with Kohli on the commercial side of things stress that he’s least bothered by the endorsement portfolio. He focuses on his game, and
lets his managers crunch the numbers. For now, a day’s endorsement will cost a client 15 million Rupees.

One of the projects he was quite immersed in was the clothing line that he promotes – Wrogn, deliberately misspelled to reflect its edgy nature. He hasn’t invested his money into Wrogn, but by lending his name to it, he is expected to make close to 600 million Rupees in royalties over the next five years.

He also has sweat equity in the UAE Royals, an International Premier Tennis League franchise, and Bengaluru Yodhas, who are part of a wrestling league. There is more sweat equity in Sports Convo, a London- based tech start-up that also has Gareth Bale promoting it. His own money has been used only to buy a stake in FC Goa, an India Super League football side currently managed by Zico, the Brazilian legend.

Virat Kohli: heavyweight endorser

Virat Kohli: heavyweight endorser

Kohli frequently uses his Twitter account to draw attention to other sports and sportspersons that labour in cricket’s immense shadow. In October alone, there were several messages of support for FC Goa, Bengaluru FC
– who reached the AFC Cup final – and even the kabaddi team, which won the World Cup beating Iran in the final. That generosity of spirit has always made him a popular teammate, and now a leader that colleagues respect and adore. He has spoken of how much he gained from sharing a dressing room with Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and others, but Chopra says he isn’t sure whether his Delhi teammates can claim credit for his development.

“The season we won the Ranji Trophy [in 2007/08],
he was there till the knockout rounds,” he says. “Viru played that season. [Gautam] Gambhir was there. So was I. [Mithun] Manhas was there. [Ashish] Nehra may have played a couple of games. There was a lot of experience, sprinkled with a bit of youth. We can’t say whether that helped him or not. He may have picked up a few good habits from us. Some bad ones too.”

When we talk of bad habits on the field, Chopra becomes animated. “Initially, he had this front-foot movement, this very short stride,” he says. “I remember telling him that
 it could get him into trouble, especially when the ball was darting around a little. At the time, he was batting at No.5 or No.6 for Delhi. But he told me: ‘Bhaiya [brother], I’ll play late and I’ll manage.’ And I was fine with that. As a young kid, you don’t want to think too much about technique.

“But he knew how to score runs, how to build an innings. He had piled on the runs since his under 16 days – daddy hundreds. And he continued in the same vein in the Ranji Trophy as well. It was a natural progression. Of course, he failed a few times as everyone does. But he had the hunger, wasn’t afraid to take people on, and took pride in finishing games off.

“He never backed away from a confrontation. I remember him taking on Amit Mishra in a List A game. We’d lost our previous match and were angry about that, and he just went after Mishra hammer and tongs.”

Celebrating a World Cup century v Pakistan in 2015

Celebrating a World Cup century v Pakistan in 2015

There were others too from the victorious under 19 side marked out for greater things. But only Kohli, and Ravindra Jadeja, to a lesser extent, have made the leap to the big league. “I remember having this discussion with Rahul [Dravid] a long time ago,” says Chopra. “How do you actually rate a young player, and how do you know if he’s going to have a long career? Rahul said that you look at where they were when they started out, and whether they’ve been able to build on that.

“All of us start with certain weaknesses and if they’re still there four years down the line, the player is not evolving. With Virat, there’s been a constant evolution. He was a candidate for a bouncer to be bowled every second over. It wasn’t just in the West Indies on his first Test tour [in 2011], but also in the IPL, where Munaf Patel bounced him out. But now, you’d hardly bowl a bouncer to him. Either he ducks and leaves, or he pulls.”

Virat Kohli

Kohli dominated the first half India’s home series against England (Image: AFP)

On Indian pitches, he often struggled to force the pace because he didn’t play one of the bread-and-butter shots employed on turning tracks. “Before, he hardly used to play the sweep,” says Chopra. “I remember an IPL game against Chennai Super Kings. Dhoni was captain and Ashwin was bowling. Both fine-leg and square-leg were inside the circle, which is so unusual in that format. But Kohli didn’t sweep at the time, and he didn’t even try. Since then, he’s added the sweep, and the cut as well. But though he’s got these new toys in the box, he isn’t tempted to play them all the time.”

Greg Chappell, Indian coach at the time Kohli was making his first strides in domestic cricket, has often said that the three strokes you need are the drive, cut and pull, and that everything else is a variation on those. Kohli plays all three with authority, but it’s not his repertoire that impresses Chopra the most. “The biggest thing about his batting now is the absence of ego. That happens only when you’re completely focused on the team. He could perhaps match Chris Gayle and AB de Villiers [Royal Challengers Bangalore teammates] stroke for stroke, but he never tries. His focus is almost always on being there when the game gets over. And if he has to compromise his attacking instincts in order to do that, he will.”

***

As for the man behind the batting records and the billboards, few know what he’s really like. The Instagram posts about the father he still mourns offer some clues, but like Tendulkar, who retreated into a cocoon by the time he was out of his teens, Kohli too gives little away.

“I can’t really tell you what he’s like,” says Chopra. “We hardly talk now. We shake hands when we meet each other, that’s about it. As a younger man, he was good company. Always happy, chirpy, jovial. Even if he was fielding, he would get into competitions about who could get the most direct hits and so on. But now? I can’t say I know him.”

Four years ago, when I interviewed him for the inaugural edition of the Wisden India Almanack, Kohli told me: “When playing cricket as kids, we all pretend to be a particular player. 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.”

Now, each time he walks out to bat, the cheers are almost an echo of the deafening chants of ‘Sa-chin, Sa-chin’ that were integral to the soundtrack of Indian cricket for nearly a quarter century. The kid that Chopra once knew has grown up, and millions of fans watch him with the same anticipation once reserved for ‘The Master’. And the many thousands of billboards watch over them.

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