Word on the street is that this has been a below average year for Virat Kohli. He had a disastrous Test series in England and committed a crime no sportsman has ever been forgiven for: he got himself a famous, movie-star girlfriend. His side, Royal Challengers Bangalore, finished second last in the Indian Premier League, and questions were raised about his judgement outside the off stump. It has been a tough year.
So, how come Kohli finished the year as the second-highest run-getter in one-day internationals and the third in Twenty20 internationals? How come he features in the top two in both the ODI and T20 batting rankings? How come he averaged nearly 60 in one-day cricket and a ridiculous 96 in T20 internationals? How come he managed to captain India in nine ODIs this year and finish it awaiting his first Test match as captain? How come he managed to slip in a Man of the Series at the World T20?
Perhaps Kohli should take it as a compliment that a year like that is considered below par for him. Perhaps he should feel flattered that the expectations of him are akin to those India has had of only one cricketer before. But, there is a difference in the way we viewed Tendulkar and the way we view Kohli. We hoped for Tendulkar; we demand from Kohli.
Up until the early 2000s, cricketers in India were still seen as heroes of the middle class; men from humble beginnings through whom the masses could vicariously taste success and international fame. Then came big-money endorsement deals, the IPL and its riches, fancy haircuts and flashy cars. Cricketers were not a breed of struggling athletes of whom a select few would make it. They were young, ungrateful brats making quick, easy money. Kohli epitomised this ugly image fans painted in their minds. He got into arguments with the crowd; he cursed every time he reached a century; he had his hair ruffled by girls in advertisements. He was one of the most naturally gifted batsmen in the world. But, we grudged him this rather than appreciate it. We claimed a divine right to a portion of his talent and declared it his duty to wield it the way we see fit.
Perhaps, we were waiting for Kohli to fail. So, this year, when he had one bad series — one in which, by the way, almost no one in the Indian team did well — we fixated on it. We forgot that just a few months before, he had almost single-handedly taken us to a World T20 final and nearly ended up winning it. We glossed over his four one-day centuries in the year.
We seem determined to deny Kohli his legacy. But, perhaps we are denying ourselves the joy of watching the kind of cricketer we always hoped we’d have. For Kohli is unique in more ways than just his haircut and choice of girlfriend. No Indian batsman has ever looked as calm, composed and confident under pressure as Kohli does. You can count on your fingertips the number of memorable one-day hundreds in chases by Indian batsmen before Kohli. For him, it has become routine. His unbeaten 139 in a recent game against Sri Lanka, in Ranchi, would have been impressive if it did not look like it was something he could do in his sleep. This is what he said after the match: “I knew what I had to do. Knock the ball around for singles and then go for it when my instincts told me to. I am used to these situations. It was good experience for the younger players who are not.” He looked almost bored. This was a chase of 287 in which, at one time, India had needed more than nine runs
an over with just three wickets remaining.
For Kohli, it was just another day at the office.
In April, by the time he scored a match-winning 72 not out against South Africa in the semi-final of the World T20, he had been a part of so many successful chases in the tournament that a journalist at the post-match press conference was prompted to ask: “Why are you always there when the winning runs are scored?” Kohli laughed before saying, “Cricket is played more between your ears than your technique. If you can mentally be strong, then you can tell yourself to stay at the wicket.”
A lot of Indian batsmen have said similar things before. But, with Kohli, you tend to genuinely believe him. He may not yet have found the self-assuredness he displays in shorter formats in Test cricket, but no one would bet against him finding it soon. Perhaps it is the very arrogance we have grown to despise that gives Kohli the confidence we all want to see from Indian cricketers. When he is at the crease, no matter what the situation, no matter the amount of pressure, he believes he can win the game. And, watching him, we start to believe it too.