In a country where cricket’s unifying importance is tantamount to that of religion, the role of leading India into a World Cup comes with a certain divinity – both an unrivaled privilege and the not insubstantial pressure of carrying the weight of a nation’s expectations on your shoulders.
“You are one among the billion people,” former India captain Kris Srikkanth gushes, with the unequivocal passion that comes with having held a role for which an entire nation applies.
“You are literally an ambassador for the country. You can’t forget that you are representing a nation. You are not just a cricketer. You are captaining on behalf of India.”
Srikkanth only led India for a single tour and, by his own admission, it is not a portfolio that places him alongside the great cricketing leaders of a country that, if not the sport’s original ‘home,’ is certainly its spiritual abode. Yet, Srikkanth’s short tenure was time enough to understand the prestige of the position and the responsibility he held.
Vinoo Mankad. Sunil Gavaskar. Bishan Bedi. Kapil Dev. Sachin Tendulkar. Sourav Ganguly. Rahul Dravid. MS Dhoni. It is a lineage fit for the cricketing gods.
And now the current incumbent; Virat Kohli. He’s a man – statistically at least – living in a league of his own. With 41 one-day international (ODI) centuries in just 227 games, Kohli has rewritten the rulebook.
Only Tendulkar has made more hundreds in the format, though his 49 came in more than twice the number of innings. Ricky Ponting sits third on the list – 11 behind the India captain; quite simply, Kohli represents a dominance never before seen in white-ball cricket.
So is Kohli the best one-day batsman of all time? For now the great Australian leg-spinner Shane Warne is hedging his bets.
“The greatest one-day player I ever saw was Viv Richards,” Warne says of the West Indian legend. “The best player I bowled to was (Brian) Lara or Tendulkar. I’m not sure who’s better – they were both very very good. But Virat Kohli and watching him play now, his numbers …
“But when you are comparing era to era, it’s so hard. You have to compare how much better they are than the other players playing at the same time.
“He has made 25 hundreds chasing. No-one has done anywhere near what he has done in one-day cricket right now.
“So, I’m debating whether Viv Richards or Virat Kohli is the greatest one-day player of all-time. It is so hard to split them.”
Kohli is responsible for what Rakesh Patel, the founder of the Bharat Army – Indian cricket’s global supporters’ group, describes as “new India.”
“What I mean by that is an India that goes beyond talent,” he explains. “Just the way he conducts himself and his preparation is beyond what anyone has ever done in the past. He has brought a different level of standard and professionalism to Indian cricket.”
Kohli has even been known to head for the gym to prepare his body for coach journeys. It is a level of self-improvement that has rubbed off on his teammates. No Indian side has ever looked so fit, so full of athletes, so mentally engaged.
“Indian teams almost used to lose a match in the mind before they even got onto the pitch,” Patel adds. “But now, they are going into matches and tournaments thinking that other teams should fear us.
“It is more than him as an individual, but what he has managed to bring as a collective to a squad of players – a belief, a sense of pride, a tremendous patriotism.
“He really does take a lot of pride in his country and the fact that he represents them. I don’t think players in the past were as vocal in the way they expressed the emotion attached to their country.”
Patriotism, on some level, is a given for any international athlete, let alone one presiding over one of the world’s most globally supported sports teams.
Yet, there is a mesmerizing, sometimes even unhinged fervor to the way Kohli plays the game. His eyes bulging, this is a man aware of his responsibility to a nation, his insatiable desire hauling with him his teammates and supporters.
When Kohli has a haircut, others follow. Where Indian cricketers never used to be adorned in tattoos, there are now few without body ink. Once again, it was Kohli who first blazed that particular trail.
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“He has a very good quality as a captain; he’s able to take the team along with him,” Srikkanth says. “When the team does well, he gives the credit to the players. He doesn’t take any credit for himself. He makes sure that everybody feels comfortable, which is so important for a leader.
“He looks like a fighter. He is almost the king of cricket today. Even though he has achieved so much already in the game, his passion is amazing.”
Kohli’s star appeal hasn’t got unnoticed by the money men. Puma, Tissot, Audi, MRF Tyres, Uber and Philips – six major brands, all are aligned to Kohli.
“People treat him as somebody who is an icon, somebody who they can relate to because of where he comes from,” Patel explains. “That is why he has become such a huge brand.”
Sports business publication SportsPro featured Kohli as its highest-ranked cricketer in its annual list of the world’s most marketable athletes; it positions him four places ahead of Neymar, 20 ahead of Lewis Hamilton and 22 ahead of Mo Salah.
A Twitter following of 29.3 million to go with an army of Instagram followers counting 32.4 million merely highlights the eyeballs obsessed by India’s inspirational skipper.
“Everyone is looking up to you, everyone sees you as a hero,” Srikkanth says of the daily pressure on Kohli and those to have come before him.
“Everyone is watching you, asking: ‘Can I emulate X, can I emulate Y?’
“When people are looking at you, it also fine-tunes your personality. It gives you the opportunity to teach people and learn with people. You have to be very skillful in the way that you conduct yourself in public.”
Beyond his obvious talents with bat in hand, it is, perhaps, here where Kohli has been most significant. What was once a who’s who of individual greats, India has become a team in Kohli’s image, molded around a thrilling intensity that has set him apart from his peers.
Patel, who spent four years living in India, has seen a country change both with its captain and its team. What was viewed as a developing country lacking aspiration, is now a forward-thinking land of opportunity.
“Twenty years ago, you had Indian people leaving the country to go to the UK or the US,” he reflects. “Now, you have got Indians flooding back to India.” It seems a tenuous link – Indian prosperity and an exuberant cricketing figurehead, but that is to underestimate the sport’s role in society.
The idea of a “new India” can be seen during the six-week extravaganza of the Indian Premier League (IPL). Bollywood – a multi-billion-dollar industry itself – does not release a single film during the period, such is the competition’s stranglehold of a population.
“Kohli has played a big part in being proud of where we have come from,” Patel says. “It’s that sense of patriotism he has and, therefore, how he represents us on the field of play.
“It is important that you have a captain that represents where the country is at, and Virat Kohli is a representation of that. His aggression to take the game to the opposition is very much representative of where the country is as a whole.
“We are not going to be a country that can be dictated to. We are going to take it to you. He does that. He takes the game to the opposition. He will not take a backward step.”
It is a theory that was challenged during India’s most recent Test series away from home against Australia.
It was a spiky month of cricket, with Kohli and Australia captain Tim Paine engaging in a series of verbal battles; neither man backed down. It was a fiestiness that, perhaps, might not have occurred in eras gone by. But that is Kohli.
That tour saw India’s first ever Test series victory over Australia – another accomplishment ticked off for a serial record-breaker.
However, captaining India to World Cup glory – on English soil, no less, where India lost a Test series in 2018 – remains outstanding on any Indian captain’s bucket list.
Dhoni was the last man to lead India to global domination in 2011 – doing so with the added burden of home advantage. It was a victory that cemented his legend.
Eight years on, Dhoni’s longevity lives on; he will be a key member of Kohli’s charges when India’s tournament gets underway at Hampshire’s Ageas Bowl – a beacon of calm amid Kohli’s impassioned storm.
Any doubt over the former skipper’s place in this India side has been extinguished by his own recent form. More than any weight of runs, Srikkanth – a former chairman of the national selection committee – views Dhoni as an “essential team mentor.”
“There is a good camaraderie between Dhoni and Kohli,” he adds. “Exuberance, passion and calmness together can only get you victory.”
India will hope so. A cricketing nation expects. Having failed to retain their world crown in 2015, the pressure is on a captain and his highly-regarded team.
Yet, where there is Kohli, there is hope. It is his ability to consistently back up words with something more tangible that makes him so unique.
With a World Cup on the horizon, his is a legend that will only increase.