Bhubaneswar: For ardent cricket followers in the country, the tricolour-coated visuals of a certain Virat Kohli fan come as little surprise. Though not popular as the iconic Sudhir Kumar Chaudhary – immortalised in the lore of Indian cricket for his devotion to Sachin Tendulkar – Nikas Kanhar's attendance in about 55 India matches across formats has made him a recognisable face in the crowd. Kanhar was spotted in the Kalinga Stadium for both the India matches and says his love for cheering the nation brought him to a sport he doesn't follow.
"I don't follow hockey. I haven't been to a hockey match ever, but how could I have missed an opportunity to cheer for India when the World Cup is being hosted in my state?" Kanhar, a resident of Phulbani in Odisha's Kandhamal district, told Firstpost.
Phulbani is 207 kilometres from Bhubaneswar, and on the day of every India match, Kanhar paints himself in the tricolour, gets one of his friends to scribble the name of the Indian cricket team captain on his back, and boards a train that takes him to the Odisha capital in about three hours.
"The locals know me. They know I am mad about cricket," he said.
The 35-year-old claims to have picked the basics the hockey after just two visits to the stadium and has begun to recognise certain players. "It's a very fast game. It keeps you hooked all the time."
"Among the Indian players, I recognise PR Sreejesh, Manpreet Singh, Lalit Upadhyay, Birendra Lakra and some more. Some of them even waved at me from the ground," Kanhar, delighted after securing a selfie with the Sreejesh on Sunday, said.
"Sreejesh told me to continue cheering for India and asked if I need any help. I said, I just want the World Cup. He said he will keep that in mind."
Kanhar’s journey towards fandom began with his initiation to international cricket in 1998, when he visited the Barabati Stadium in Cuttack to watch a One-Day International (ODI) between India and Zimbabwe. The unbeaten 275-run stand between Ajay Jadeja and then captain Mohammad Azharuddin left an indelible impact on his mind.
"I was in Class VII, I think. It was the first match I ever watched live and it was the start of my journey. I became a fan that day. I still remember that Azhar scored an unbeaten 153 in that match. What a player! Jadeja also scored a ton."
For ten years, Kanhar followed the game on television and from stands — including the Visakhapatnam ODI where MS Dhoni announced himself with a 123-ball 148 against Pakistan — until he saw a teenaged Kohli lift the U-19 World Cup in Kuala Lumpur. Kanhar claims to have fallen for Kohli's energy and aggression.
"I instantly liked him; in fact everything about him. His energy and passion for the game is infectious. His batting, well, everyone knows how well he bats," he says of the world's top-ranked limited-overs' batsman.
Kanhar says his life changed when he met the original Superfan, Sudhir, at an ODI. "The idea (of painting himself) came from Sudhir bhai. I always wanted to watch all of India's cricket matches from the stands, and I thought of painting myself in the tricolour, like Sudhir."
In 2014, Kanhar made his first appearance in paint and two years later, his eight-year dream of meeting Kohli in flesh came true.
"I went to watch the India-England Test match in Mohali in 2016. I had mortgaged my mother's jewellery to get the flight and match tickets. It was winter, but feeling cold was the last thing on my mind. That's when some newspaper journalists wrote about me."
Kohli read the report – or was informed about such a report – and met him the next day. "He met me with a lot of warmth. He told me that being a fan is fine but I should never do that (mortgage family jewels) for him. He asked me how much money I needed to pay to get the jewellery back, but I didn't disclose that. I told him I don't want money. I said if he can, I would like to have match tickets of all of India's matches at home."
Kohli agreed without second thoughts, and thus began Kanhar's journey in greasepaint. He is also a regular at Odisha's Ranji Trophy matches, which he attends in a Virat jersey. Kanhar doesn't have a permanent job. He stays with his father, who runs a mutton shop, and an elder brother. His current stint as an over-the-counter ticket-seller at the Phulbani bus stop gets him Rs 250-300 per day.
"I go to work when I don't travel for India's matches. I have been to all the major grounds in India. At my workplace, they call me Virat. The moment they see me, they shout Virat idhar aa and stuff."
Kanhar scrolls down on his newly-purchased smartphone and stops at a WhatsApp group. Indian Superfans, it reads, and its members include Sudhir, differently-abled fan Dharamveer Pal, Ram Bahadur Yadav aka 'Gabbar' (the Shikhar Dhawan lookalike-fan), and Ram Babu (the MS Dhoni fan who also paints himself in tricolour). The 'Superfans' exchange notes on the group, and as Kanhar suggests, cheer each other up to continue rooting for India. They are happy that one among them has diversified to other sport. "I send them pictures from the Kalinga Stadium, and they say I should keep cheering for the team."
The day India play a cricket match, Kanhar shuns his meals and sits in front of the TV set. "Initially, my family thought I have gone mad or something. But my late mother supported me, and now my folks know this is what I love doing. They have all come around now. I don't want to get married or anything; I just want to cheer like this for the rest of my life. Virat Kohli is God to me."
Come Thursday, and Kanhar will be up in his Phulbani home early, gaping at every move India make in Adelaide as the Test tour gets underway. Kanhar is certain that Kohli will do well and create history by becoming the first Indian captain to win a Test series in Australia.
"He started his Test captaincy with a hundred in Adelaide. Four years later, he returns to that venue. I am sure he will not only score a lot of runs but also win the series," he says. India would hope it turns out that way.
Updated Date: Dec 04, 2018 11:40 AM