Virat Kohli, the phenomenon: India's captain, batting genius and leader with a smartphone

It was all pretty routine for Virat Kohli on Sunday in Pune. Another mammoth chase, another celestial ton, another billion gasps at the sheer nonsense of his talent. Many of those doting intakes of breath were just from England fans, who have gradually journeyed from schadenfreude at Kohli’s Anderson-induced nadir in 2014 to joining the rest of the world in just smiling bewildered at his feats. There remain a few pockets of unbelievers who still refuse to acknowledge Kohli’s brilliance in all forms because of his failure on that one tour. But this is an odd way to judge genius, like putting your fingers in your ears whenever you hear a Beyoncé song because you once found a Destiny’s Child B-side mildly disappointing.

You could describe Kohli as peerless in ODIs but that would give credence to the notion peers potentially exist. They don't. Not now or ever. He is a statistical freak, a man whose centuries are woven from the torn up threads of history. He has turned abnormality into the norm to the extent it almost felt as if England were naive in reducing India to 63-4. Eoin Morgan’s knights had slayed a dragon’s family but left the dragon itself unharmed and ready to exact revenge. And no one breathes fire quite like Virat Kohli.

Virat Kohli. AP

Virat Kohli. AP

Similarly, during the lunch break, Sky Sports had aired one of its Masterclass interviews between the Indian skipper and Nasser Hussain. Kohli spoke candidly about his mental and technical processes and how he just saw any target as a challenge, and the more dangerous the attack the better. The mid-innings score in the match hovered in the corner of the screen as the two men spoke, the “Eng 350-7’ almost taunting Kohli to come and try his luck. He inevitably did, though there is rarely anything lucky about his masterpieces.

Kohli, as anyone, has evolved over the years. Evolved in body and soul and even in hair, his once spiky cut now replaced with a rather more reserved parting befitting his slightly more reserved personae on the field. From his Instagram and Twitter feeds you can see he spends more time in the gym than a set of barbells. This doesn’t make him unique, of course. Many modern cricketers have biceps even bigger than the bats they wield (thought the latter oddly get more attention), but Kohli aligns his velvet bulk with a colossal sense of instinct and invention.

There is just no other player in the world who could have carried off the shot he played to Chris Woakes midway through the chase. To a ball short of a length Kohli went back and simply drove it, with a high elbow for purists, over cow corner. Not pulled it or hoicked it or jabbed it but drove it, those hours in the gym meeting with god-given timing to create a cricketing supernova. It was complete lunacy.

Watching him in the field earlier as England raced toward what would once have been an unassailable target, you could observe the differences between Kohli and Dhoni, see the passion he has rarely ever bothered to conceal, even when it gets him into trouble. Where Dhoni was the ice-man, Kohli still simmers with agitated heat when things are not going quite to plan. Where Dhoni was the persevering, patient uncle, Kohli is a slightly pushier parent, all hand claps and gestures and verbal encouragement to his team. He will be a different captain, but not one so arrogant that he ignores his predecessor’s advice. He didn’t on Sunday, regularly consulting Dhoni as England wreaked what they thought was fatal carnage. People could perhaps once have accused Kohli of being too self-confident, but he has never been self-absorbed. He is a sponge for knowledge about his craft, even if his captaincy is not yet fully-crafted.

For Virat, though, it is not merely enough to set fields, hit shots and wallow in the plaudits. He is different to many other stellar sportsmen in that he recognises this deification brings millions to his timeline and eager ears to his every word. He is not a man to stay silent. It is comfy for the sporting god to close their gilded door on social issues, but Kohli sneers at that idea the way he sometimes used to sneer at opponents. For all he achieved on Sunday, it really wasn’t the most impressive thing he has done in the last fortnight.

Alone in a hotel room a couple of weeks ago, Kohli decided to pick up his smartphone and record a short video for his Twitter followers. It wasn’t one of the good-natured little shout-outs to fans you often get from players, saying how they’re “looking forward to the match tomorrow”. This was Virat Kohli, captain and totem of India, recording unprompted a video to condemn the sexual assault of young girl in Bangalore and the indifference of bystanders who failed to intervene. He clearly hadn’t scripted it, this was simply raw anger about injustice, raw anger about the defenceless being exploited from a man who doesn’t have to bother but did. “It’s her life, it’s her decision, it’s her choice,” he told those who might seek to use a women’s choice of short clothes as an excuse for molestation or inaction. He was simmering.

Given the atrocity of what he was talking about, you might say this was merely someone with an iota of decency simply expressing a common sense view. It was. But it’s not so straightforward for a sportsman to put his head above the parapet in these days where an expression of compassion online can earn you a large serving of troll soup. In England recently, footballer Gary Lineker found out the cholerics had taken over the asylum debate when he expressed concern over the fate of those fleeing civil war in Syria. A campaign to boycott Walkers Crisps, which Lineker advertises, was instigated. Likewise one wrong tweet from someone like Kohli could end a sponsorship endorsement worth tens of millions of dollars. It is far, far easier for a sports star to pocket the cash and just keep their smartphone in their pocket. But Kohli didn’t.

Every time Kohli walks out to bat he is expected to attain or exceed greatness, a self-imposed consequence of his own making. It is an expectation he will have to live with for the rest of his career. But no one, absolutely no one, expected him to talk about violent misogyny. His choice to do so was equally self-imposed. People may think there was no greater statement than to score 122 as captain in the first game since since MS Dhoni relinquished the role. But Virat Kohli wasn’t holding a bat when he sealed his place as India’s cricketing leader. Instead, he was holding a smartphone.

Published Date: Jan 17, 2017 10:27 AM | Updated Date: Jan 17, 2017 10:27 AM

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