There are 12 creatures of the Chinese Zodiac, ranging from the little rat to the mythical dragon, the hefty ox to the noisy rooster, but the late 2010s in Indian cricket needs only one mascot. Almost each year is the year of Virat Kohli, and 2017 (the rooster’s turn, if you were curious) was most certainly one of them.
As a batsman, Kohli can barely put a foot wrong, across formats. As captain, he still leans heavily on Mahendra Singh Dhoni in limitedovers cricket for on-field tactical support, but 2017 was the year in which Kohli took his position in Indian cricket to a pinnacle few players have been able to scale.
While there have been singular, iconic Indian captains before, not one has had total control over the destiny of Indian cricket in the manner that Kohli commands. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (or what remains of it after the court-driven reforms of administration) has no men (or women) in positions of power with the stature to veto anything Kohli wants. Commercially, when was the last time you saw an Indian cricketer individually endorsing a big brand? Kohli is an industry unto himself in this regard, and it is only natural that there are others who make the most of being in his inner circle.
The central factor in Kohli’s success has been his realisation that some things are too important to be left to others. Whether it is picking the coach he thinks he might work best with, or getting the selectors to give him exactly the squad he needs, whether it’s putting fitness ahead of everything else or putting in place systems that only he really understands, he has exerted an influence on Indian cricket that even someone like Sachin Tendulkar could not, at his peak.
In that sense, Indian cricket, at the moment, is all about Kohli. Yet, this being a team game, he cannot hope to do everything on his own, and perhaps this is a realisation he has reached as well, given how hard he has tried to make a success of the Royal Challengers Bangalore, with all the top guns at his disposal, and yet barely scratched the surface.
Towards the end of the year, Kohli — who allegedly wanted to take time off more than once in the past, something that never came to fruition — insisted at a press conference that he was only human. “Slice my skin and I will bleed,” he said, half in jest, insisting he was not a robot.
But, from the cricketing sense, he is the closest thing to a prototype that can hit balls day-in and day-out, shutting out the rest of the world in the pursuit of scoring runs. At 29, Kohli has 50 international centuries, and Sachin Tendulkar’s mark of 100 hundreds has suddenly gone from a freak achievement to one that will not just be matched, but surpassed at pace.
The fact that Kohli is the only international cricketer to average at least 50 with the bat in all three formats is testament to his mastery over the knack of making runs. He will be the first to tell you that statistics do not matter to him, but some things are easily measured in sport.
In that sense, Kohli is a colossus of a cricketer before he has even entered what should be his best years as a batsman, the 30s. And, given his maniacal approach to fitness — the chubbster who loved butter chicken now takes his mates out for sushi — there’s no reason to doubt his longevity.
At some point, Kohli will have to take a break from cricket, just to preserve his sanity and keep the powder dry for the skirmishes that count the most, and where his powers are most needed. But, the fact that he has not reached that point just yet is achievement enough.
As a batsman, his hunger for runs is invaluable; as a captain, his ambition is only understandable. All that remains is for Kohli to understand what it will take to make him a leader of men. Given how he has matured, tailored his expectations, adapted and worked, there’s no reason to believe this is beyond him. At the moment, Kohli is so much on top of his game that the only thing that stands between him and true greatness is himself.