Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

The age of Virat Kohli

Unapologetically aggressive, unquestionably masterful and fiercely loyal, India's best cricketer is redefining the nation's approach to the game—and to sport in general

Kathakali Chanda
Published: Jan 3, 2017 06:29:24 AM IST
Updated: Jan 4, 2017 03:29:12 PM IST

The age of Virat Kohli
Forbes India Celebrity 100 Rank No. 3
Image: Colston Julian

Being Virat Kohli can be frenetic. The morning after India defeated New Zealand (NZ) in a closely-fought ODI series in Visakhapatnam, Kohli has an early start as he flies down to Mumbai for a brief stopover before heading to Goa to watch FC Goa, a football team he co-owns, play in the Indian Super League. Once the match is over, he takes a flight back to Mumbai past midnight because lined up for him the next day are two multi-hour shoots, one at a studio and the other at a five-star hotel in suburban Mumbai. The Forbes India interview was to happen during the changes for one shoot, but has to wait till it’s wrapped up. His agent explains with an apology: “Sorry to keep you waiting, but Virat wants to focus on one thing at a time.”

Those last few words could easily sum up the Kohli phenomenon. Indian cricket’s hottest property is all focus and intensity, both on the field and off it. Consider his intrepid guard against the visiting English side on the final day of the Rajkot Test. Even as wickets fell around him, the ring of fielders, sniffing blood, closed in and chattered away to mess with his head, Kohli looked unflappable. He batted without panic—with merely his steely gaze visible through the grille of his helmet hinting at a sense of urgency, only just, and yet enough resolve to let you know that he’s firmly in control.

It’s with this fervour that Virat Kohli has capped a prolific year and led India to the top of the Test rankings. One could rattle off the statistics: Over 1,000 runs in Tests this year including three double centuries, three centuries and four 50s in ODIs, and the highest run-scorer for the year in both T20 internationals and the Indian Premier League (IPL) with a record four centuries in the latter. These numbers have given him cricketing heft and, coupled with his suave urbanity, have sent his brand value soaring: His Rs 134.44 crore pay packet this year has made Kohli the highest-earning sportsperson in the country. He’s had to change houses to avoid being hounded by fans, movie outings are a thing of the past, eating out ends with shaking off the paparazzi trail, and cricket lovers consider it their personal business to speculate on his relationship with Bollywood star Anushka Sharma.

But Kohli’s impact has transcended the realm of mere statistics and popular frenzy. He is, arguably, the biggest star in world cricket now—and the top-ranked sportsperson at No 3 on the 2016 Forbes India Celebrity 100 List with the highest fame rank. Kohli has taught Indian cricket to fight back hard, to be a ruthless competitor and not be embarrassed about it. He represents the fearless, post-liberalisation generation that speaks up and doesn’t cower to step out of the comfort zone. Taking on the Australians in their own backyard, for instance. Picture his animated send-off to Steve Smith or refusal to back down in a verbal confrontation with James Faulkner during India’s 2015-16 tour of Australia. He evokes an unapologetic confidence that asks Murphy’s law to go to hell. Because when anything goes wrong, there’s always Virat Kohli to the rescue.

We finally catch up with Kohli as he heads from the first shoot to the second. Seated in the backseat of a plush SUV, he doesn’t fidget much, except when the AC gets too cold for comfort. Or when one of his cellphones starts buzzing on the seat. He speaks at an unhurried pace that belies the frenzied life he’s living and ensures every word is intelligible and well thought-out.

Clarity of thought is something that came to Kohli right from his younger days, when he would go up to coach Raj Kumar Sharma and tell him that he’s too good for kids his age. “Why don’t I put him in the senior group, he would ask,” says Sharma. “After six months, I sent him to play with the senior boys. He turned out to be too good for them as well.” Sharma also remembers the struggle he would have to go through to pull Kohli out of the nets. “We usually made the kids bat for 20-25 minutes. He would do his usual round and then insist on two more. And even after that, he wouldn’t come away.”

Kohli says he doesn’t just want to stay on the field; he has to stay in the game. “Even when I was young, I wouldn’t be happy just collecting the ball and throwing it to the keeper,” he says. “I had to be in the thick of things.”

Sometimes that abundant energy translates into dropped catches at slips and over-appealing but, at most other times, in stealing a single, converting the ones into twos, effecting a run out.

Kohli demands challenges, relishes responsibilities. In one of the most stressful sporting jobs in the country, the 28-year-old exudes control. Asked to stand in as Test captain for the first time, when Mahendra Singh Dhoni was ruled out of the first Test of the 2014 Australia series with an injury, Kohli rose to the occasion with a century in each innings (115 and 141). He considers the 141 the best Test innings he’s ever played. “I’ve never been in a better mental state,” he says. Two matches later, he was put in the saddle as Dhoni announced a surprise retirement; Kohli celebrated his sudden elevation by scoring a century again. Ever since, he has averaged 53.92 as captain in 17 Tests (till the end of the NZ series), up by nearly 13 points from before and by far the best record among Indian captains.

The age of Virat Kohli
Kohli says Sachin Tendulkar is the reason he started playing cricket and that everyone in Indian cricket comes second to him
Image: Sunil Saxsena / Hindustan Times via getty Images

He’s come a long way from the brattish days of yore when he would show his middle finger to the crowd (at the Sydney Cricket Ground in 2012) or celebrate vociferously in the middle. “Maybe I was a bit childish then, but at that age, it was fine,” he says.

Kohli doesn’t mind making mistakes because, he says, he’d rather learn from mistakes than follow instructions blindly. “I don’t like people telling me what to do; I need to know why.” It’s perhaps through this quest that the Kohli of 2016 has imbibed a maturity beyond his 28 years. Not just as is evident from the greys in his beard, but also in the way, for instance, he won over even his most trenchant critics by coming out in defence of girlfriend Anushka Sharma, lambasting social media trolls who blamed the actor for the team’s defeat in the T20 World Cup earlier this year. His became the most retweeted tweet in the country this year.
In cricket, such maturity has taught him to tell ‘over the top’ apart from ‘over the line’. He understands that, as the captain of the Indian Test team, he needs to tone down his aggression and turn into an elder statesman. He knows that if the panic button is hit all too frequently, he runs the risk of burning out, so does his team. “The true test of my character is not when we are winning and all’s good, but to hold on to my wits and keep the team together when we are losing, when the chips are down,” he says. “Failure teaches you the importance of being calm. That’s why you’ll see my century celebrations are also much muted. Just like you shouldn’t agitate when you are failing, you shouldn’t go overboard with celebrations when you are performing.”

Could the overdose of success mean that he doesn’t care enough to celebrate? “Not at all,” for once Kohli raises his voice over the honking during evening traffic in Juhu. “Every success is special. Just that I have become more balanced. I can’t explain this to you because this comes naturally to me. I don’t pretend,” he says.  
But he still retains enough firepower in him to be cocky. Ask Ben Stokes. The England all-rounder was reprimanded by the International Cricket Council for a verbal duel with Kohli on the first day of the third Test in Mohali. When he dismissed Kohli the next day, Stokes gestured back with sealed lips. Kohli returned the favour on Day 3 when Stokes got out: He stood with his finger on his lips as Stokes trudged back to the pavilion. You give it to Kohli, you get it back.

Yuvraj Singh has often said that he would enter and leave a party from the front gate as he had nothing to be afraid of. Kohli has taken this one step further.

For Kohli, the key to his success is an oft-quoted phrase: Sticking to the basics. In the context of his game, it means an absolute mastery of technique, irrespective of the format he’s playing in. He doesn’t change the foundations of his game, but has the ability to build a Gaudi or a tenement with equal ease. Former English batsman Ed Smith writes in The Cricket Monthly, ESPNcricinfo’s digital cricket magazine, “He is a fine counterpoint to the idea that T20 will become a careless, unintelligent game in which batsmen place little value on their wicket. Kohli, in contrast, is totally invested in playing a proper innings.... Watch him walk out to the middle. This is not a man going out to whack a few shots and have a laugh.”

Says Kohli of his game: “Some people get carried away with improvisation. For me, a good technique will bail me out of any situation.” He doesn’t try unorthodox purely because it’s cool; he works with what he has and sticks to what works. And he never lets up, extricating a contest out of everything, even sparring against his own body. In the Royal Challengers Bangalore’s (RCB) match against Kolkata Knight Riders at the Eden Gardens in IPL 2016, Kohli split the webbing on his left hand. At a stage where RCB needed to win every match to advance to the qualifiers, Kohli got it bandaged and returned to field as well as produced a match-winning knock later. In his next match, with multiple stitches, Kohli scored a century, his fourth in IPL 2016.  
“Kohli has matured very fast because he has quickly picked up that everything else—fame, celebrity status—can get bigger and better only if your cricket stays where it has to stay. He’s been able to successfully compartmentalise his game and the economic benefits he can derive out of it,” says veteran sports writer Sharda Ugra.

In a way, that reflects the grounded personality that Kohli has. He begins the interview with an apology for being late. He happily obliges selfie requests outside the shoot venue, clicking some himself. In fact, he takes multiple shots just to be sure that he hasn’t botched one up.   

His teammates vouch for his work ethic as well as his ability to weave them into a unit, making every chalk and cheese feel at home. Says KL Rahul, the 24-year-old opener, “The most important thing for a young player coming into the national side is to feel welcome. Virat does that straight away. He makes everyone feel comfortable. And with the highest standards he sets for himself, to have him around is inspirational.”

His long-time manager and CEO of Cornerstone Sport and Entertainment, Bunty Sajdeh, calls it a result of being part of a close-knit family. Kohli lost his friend and confidant, father Prem, when he was 18. He was playing a match in his first Ranji season when Kohli senior had a cerebral attack in the middle of the night. Kohli didn’t give up the match to grieve at home, instead reached the ground, scored 90-odd before returning to the crematorium for his father’s final rites. “Since then, his career has been on the upswing, but he never forgets where he comes from,” says Sajdeh.

AB de Villiers, his RCB teammate, agrees. “His competitiveness never crosses the line, and his approach could never be fairly described as either aggressive or brash,” says the South African.  

Kohli admits that perhaps his difficult beginnings and penchant for roughing it out in ultra-competitive Delhi has made him feisty. It’s his game face, he says, one that he needed to own his space. “You can’t walk onto the field and expect someone to respect you straightaway. You have to fight your way up.”  

The constant performance pressure can also leave your nerves jangled. Every time Kohli walks out on the field, he knows there are 50,000 people beyond the boundary line who expect him to score a boundary every single ball. Every time he is stopped at an airport for an autograph or a handshake, there are requests for a century. If he scores one, there’s demand for a double. Notwithstanding the billion-decibel noise, he doesn’t get ahead of himself. “I understand that because of the position that I am in, people can’t point out my mistakes. People will tell me what I want to hear, but if I latch on to that, it’s self-pity. With self-pity, you can never improve. That’s why I always have people around me who aren’t ‘yes men’, people who can put me in my place.”     

Perhaps that’s why when you compare him to Sachin Tendulkar, he lets out a chuckle. “Every time I hear the comparison, it makes me laugh,” he says. “People will never understand the importance of Sachin in my life. He is the reason why I started playing. Everyone in Indian cricket comes second to him. If I start comparing myself to Sachin Tendulkar, I am being unfaithful to his legacy. And I am nothing if I am not loyal.”

Kohli may demur, but if he continues to ratchet up the numbers the way he does now, he will soon be considered the gold standard in world cricket. Take his ODI record for instance. His tally of 26 centuries now stands fourth to Tendulkar (49), Ricky Ponting (30) and Sanath Jayasuriya (28). But Kohli has been the fastest to pile on the runs: While the top three took 463, 375 and 445 matches, respectively, Kohli is already within sniffing distance in just 176 matches. His unbeaten 154 in the third ODI against NZ is his 14th hundred in successful chases, a record that puts him on a par with his idol.

But Kohli doesn’t crave numbers, unless it’s a Game Of Thrones episode that he’s tracking (he’s already on to Season 6 in a month despite being sceptical about the genre). Instead, he wants a legacy that eclipses shortlived goals. “When I came into the team, I was after numbers. Not any more.  I want to make a difference. I want to leave cricket better than what it was when I started,” he says.

It could start by turning the new generation of cricketers into the finest of athletes. And being the one who wants to lead by example, Kohli threw himself a challenge first. It came to him one fine morning four years ago, when he was taking a break after IPL. He had gone into the tournament on a high, having performed well against Australia, but couldn’t consolidate his performance, finishing with an average of 28, down from 46.41 the previous season. “When I went back home, I looked into the mirror one day and was embarrassed with the way how I, an international sportsman, looked,” he says.

Almost overnight, he opted for a lifestyle change that included eating smart and training like a workhorse. That meant cutting out his regular high-carb Delhi diet, sweets, alcohol—his only indulgence being the rajma-chawal his mum makes when he returns from a tour—and gymming five to six hours a week during season and nine to 10 hours during off season. Like his cricket, where he looked to improve at least one aspect every time he practised, he set new benchmarks every time he hit the gym. Once he started to lose weight and became confident of improved reflexes on the field, he turned to Shankar Basu, the fitness coach for RCB and now Team India, for power that would help him clear the boundary more often. Basu introduced Kohli to weightlifting during the 2015 tour of Sri Lanka, but not before he taught him the right technique for a month-and-a-half with a stick. Once he mastered the technique and started lifting weights, it worked like magic. Says Kohli, “I can now hit shots 10-15 metres further. I can’t believe I got the maximum sixes award in the IPL because, earlier, I couldn’t trust myself to hit that far.”

His body fat percentage is also down to 9, just a shade over 7.5 of tennis ace Novak Djokovic. Says Basu, “He responds very well to power training. He now trains like a track star and his mobility drills, strength and power work, running drills are sequenced systematically according to his cricketing load.”

Kohli’s obsession with fitness is a reflection of his dogged pursuit of excellence. People close to him say it’s a quest that comes from within. All he needs is to be interested. Like with the brands he endorses as well. His manager Sajdeh recalls an instance when Kohli chose to forgo a higher endorsement fee for a brand that was paying less but he felt was classier. “He could be easily doing 30 endorsements. But we turn down more endorsements than the ones we pick. Because Kohli doesn’t want to be force-fit into a brand. He wants to identify with it,” says Sajdeh. His business interests reflect a similar philosophy, too. His clothing line Wrogn and Chisel, a fitness startup that he backs, represent two of his current passions and allow Kohli the scope of being creatively involved in the projects.

But, at the end of the day, Kohli is not looking to build products but relationships that would last him a lifetime. He values not the runs or the trophies, but the friendships that he’s forged over the years. “If I am spoken of when I retire, I want to be the guy who may not have spoken the sweetest words but always said things the way they were meant to be said,” he says.

As in cricket, so in life, Kohli has set his sights high.

Some of the numbers may have changed as the story was written before the conclusion of the India-England Test series.

(This story appears in the 06 January, 2017 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)