Bloke On Top

Inside Sport - - Contents - BY MATT CLEARY

In­dian su­per­star Vi­rat Kohli has a knack for re­ally get­ting un­der our skin. That’s be­cause he plays the game just like an Aussie.

Vi­rat Kohli is mega-wealthy, su­per-fa­mous and ex­tremely good at cricket. We dis­like him, be­cause he is good enough to beat the Aussies, and let us know about it while he does it. But the sen­ti­ment against the In­dian cap­tain is mis­guided – he plays the game just like us.

The Swami Army has a quite funny chant that goes, “We’re so rich it’s un­be­liev­able!” and re­peat on high ro­ta­tion. It’s il­lus­tra­tive of con­fi­dent, mod­ern, thrust­ing In­dia. It’s New World thumb­ing nose at Old. It’s un­apolo­getic, as­pi­ra­tional and un­der­stood: you have the coin, you may show it off. MK Gandhi wore the hum­ble dhoti as pants. MS Dhoni rode a red Du­cati into 16th on a Forbes list.

The same mag­a­zine has de­clared that In­dian cap­tain Vi­rat Kohli sits 83rd on their sports star hi­er­ar­chy with an­nual earn­ings of $34m. He lives in a flash joint in Delhi, is mar­ried to a Bol­ly­wood star, and drives many fast cars. It’s hard to drive them, how­ever, at least in the day time, be­cause peo­ple know which ones are yours and be­lieve that you are a rock god rein­car­nate.

But he’s do­ing okay. He owns a foot­ball club, FC Goa, and the UAE Roy­als, a ten­nis team in Dubai. He’s a share­holder in a squad of pro wrestlers called the Ben­galuru Yod­has. He has dozens of en­dorse­ments. He has cre­ated a shoe. He has 27 mil­lion Twit­ter fol­low­ers. Time mag­a­zine says he’s one of most in­flu­en­tial peo­ple in the world. Which you would say is a good thing.

Yet with the tat­toos and bling fash­ion­able among his gen­er­a­tion, and eye­brows that form a “V” above a spade-shaped black Beard of Evil, many Aus­tralians – be­cause it’s how many Aus­tralians are, we are a weird mob – think of Kohli as we once did Javed Mian­dad and Ar­juna Ranatunga and dear old Dougie Jar­dine: the vil­lain. Feisty, com­pet­i­tive. Wanker.

But those many Aus­tralians don’t know the man. Most peo­ple don’t. So In­side Sport spoke to sev­eral Aus­tralians who do. Crick­eters all of them, they’ve played with the man and against him. And get this: they like him. “Funny,” they said. “Hum­ble,” they added. Even the ul­ti­mate Aussie ep­i­thet: “Top bloke.” Bet you didn’t think he’d get that.

They do ad­mit he can carry on like a pork chop on oc­ca­sion, and reckon he would do well to tone it down. But they’re mostly for­giv­ing of the man be­cause they un­der­stand him – Kohli re­minds Aus­tralian crick­eters of an Aus­tralian crick­eter. And if you, Aus­tralian cricket fan, need a rea­son to like and bet­ter ap­pre­ci­ate the man, the bat, the cap­tain of all In­dia, Vi­rat Kohli, then it would be this: he plays cricket like an Aus­tralian. And he’s re­ally, re­ally bloody good.

VI­RAT THE LAD

Young Aus­tralians played against Vi­rat Kohli in un­der-19s and he clanged. He came over like a princeling, a poor man’s Sourav Gan­guly: petu­lant, born-to-rule, Jof­frey from Game Of Thrones. Yet as Ricky Ponting went from black-eyed Kings Cross curb crawler to leader of the holy or­der of the baggy green, Kohli has sim­i­larly gone from boy prince to pro states­man.

Yet the prince thing was bull­shit any­way. Kohli’s from mid­dle-class West Delhi. Older brother, older sis­ter, his fa­ther died of a stroke when Kohli was just 18. He scored 90 the next day and saved a match for Delhi. He scored a wel­ter of runs as a boy. Every­one knew he could play. They didn’t know the half of it, didn’t see the depths in the kid, the steel.

Since Dhoni’s ab­di­ca­tion, Kohli is by some mar­gin the most fa­mous and wealthy In­dian crick­eter. He’s the name that’s yelled out most by fans. Young women are big fans. He wouldn’t host team-mates to a bar­bie – it’s not re­ally the In­dian way. But in the main he likes his team-mates, Aussies in­cluded.

As a boy he spent time at the Cricket Acad­emy in Bris­bane and didn’t know how to shave. He’d only ever had bar­bers do it for him. Doesn’t mean he’s posh; it’s what bar­bers in In­dia do – cut your hair. It meant, though, that he couldn’t use a ra­zor. So he rang lo­cals for help. Guys went to his room, found shav­ing cream ev­ery­where, blood seep­ing out of lit­tle cuts on his chin and neck. They patched him up like Nor­man Gun­ston and ex­plained the op­er­a­tional as­pects of the Gil­lette Mach 3.

And they liked him. He wasn’t into self­dep­re­cat­ing gags – few In­di­ans are, they don’t re­ally get Aus­tralians’ shit-stir­ring, even caus­tic hu­mour. But he was cool, funny, up for a laugh. They took him out for beers at the Break­fast Creek Ho­tel, and on­ward to the night spots. Kohli’s never for­got­ten it. He’s mates with blokes still.

“You can sit down and yap about cricket with him,” says for­mer Royal Chal­lengers

“OTHER BAT­TERS, YOU MIGHT MUTTER A COU­PLE OF THINGS. BUT WITH HIM YOU DON’T. HE LOVES IT. HE WANTS TO GET IN THE GAME. HE LOOKS FOR A FIGHT.”

Ban­ga­lore quick Dirk Nannes. “He’s a good fella. Peo­ple are quite di­vided be­cause of the on-field per­sona. But he’s cu­ri­ous about team-mates’ lives. He’s cu­ri­ous about Aus­tralian cricket cul­ture.”

Moises Hen­riques, an­other team­mate at RCB, would get around the team ho­tel in ill-fit­ting white slip­pers. He’d wear them ev­ery­where, in­clud­ing to IPL af­ter-par­ties, events that could turn into fash­ion shows as the play­ers went around sport­ing the lat­est de­signer duds. Kohli found Hen­riques’ lack of van­ity quite cool. Soon Kohli be­gan wear­ing white slip­pers to par­ties him­self.

At train­ing, he would dis­ap­pear on oc­ca­sion and be whisked away in a pri­vate jet. Then he’d be back the next day and you wouldn’t know he was gone. “He has a full-on sched­ule,” says Nannes. “All the In­dian guys do. I don’t think Aus­tralians have any idea of the lives these guys lead.”

He wouldn’t turn up to train­ing in a flash car or he­li­copter – when you’re a part of In­dian teams, you’re on a team bus. Which means plenty of time to talk. Money is a sub­ject, with half-se­ri­ous dis­tance wee-wee com­pe­ti­tions about who has the most spon­sors. Kohli was once rib­bing Dhoni that he had more spon­sors. “Yes, I have half as many spon­sors,” replied Dhoni, al­ways the coolest guy in the room. “But they pay me twice as much.”

PAS­SION PLAYER ... ANDPORKCHOP

Vi­rat Kohli’s white-line fever, they say, is ridicu­lous. As he walks out onto the cricket field, his whole per­sona changes. His man­ner­isms. He be­comes a crick­et­play­ing beast. He’s like Shane Wat­son used to be: he doesn’t seem to re­alise peo­ple are watch­ing him. Our Watto, off the field, you would not meet a nicer bloke. On it, he could carry on like the prover­bial.

Aus­tralian crick­eters have a very poor rep­u­ta­tion in­ter­na­tion­ally. We largely don’t re­alise how poor it is. What we might con­sider “ban­ter”, oth­ers con­sider, you know, “in­sults”. Kohli has been con­fused by Aus­tralians, doesn’t get why they’d have an ac­tual plan to tar­get bat­ters with ver­bals. Yet he’s a crick­eter who rel­ishes the fight. Ryan Har­ris ad­mires him for it.

“He can carry on a bit, I sup­pose. But if he’s on your side you don’t mind. It’s a tough one, ‘the line’. I think if you say some­thing about some­one’s fam­ily or their coun­try or re­li­gion, that’s over it. Oth­er­wise you can say what you want.

If it puts some­one off, that’s what it’s for. That’s the idea – you’re com­pet­ing against them. You’re try­ing to put them off, dis­tract them. You’re try­ing to win.”

It’s wasted on Kohli. “Other bat­ters, you might mutter a cou­ple of things,” says Har­ris. “But with him you don’t. He

loves it. He wants to get in the game. He looks for a fight. He won’t pick one. But he’s wait­ing for it.”

Yet like David Warner’s ric­tus face of anger, Kohli’s send-offs and ver­bals look uglier than the re­al­ity, ac­cord­ing to Har­ris. “It’s his pas­sion com­ing out. He wants to win so badly. You can sit back and watch and think he’s car­ry­ing on. But it’s hard to de­scribe. You can be crit­i­cised for not car­ing. Vi­rat, he’s the sort of guy you’d love to a have on your side. He’s like us – he re­ally doesn’t like los­ing.”

He’s not the chippy an­tag­o­nist? “I had five years with him, never knew him to be an­tag­o­nis­tic,” says Trent Wood­hill, the for­mer Ban­ga­lore batting coach and men­tor to Warner and Steve Smith. “The 2016 se­ries in In­dia, Aus­tralia went over with a view to be an­tag­o­nis­tic, and Vi­rat didn’t un­der­stand why. He knows in the heat of the bat­tle things can be said – he’s said them him­self. But he couldn’t un­der­stand it as a plan.

“The Aus­tralians un­der Dar­ren Lehmann thought they could pick a fight with In­dia and win. It was stupid, re­ally dumb. They can’t beat Vi­rat. Vi­rat won’t stop un­til he’s won. If Vi­rat comes in, don’t talk to him, don’t en­gage him, take the wind out of his sails.”

He’s like an Aussie then? To a de­gree, ac­cord­ing to Moises Hen­riques. “He’s prob­a­bly a lot more emo­tional than most Aussies on the field. Peo­ple say it’s his pas­sion that makes him so good. I don’t nec­es­sar­ily agree. He’s so good be­cause he works so hard and has done for a very long time. He’s a smart crick­eter and gets the game. He learns ex­tremely quickly on the run.”

Kohli’s not above a send-off. Any game of cricket he plays, he’s mouthing off at the op­po­si­tion – and at his team-mates. He’s eas­ily frus­trated by mates on the field. He ex­pects a lot out of them. He ex­pects to win. “He’s just very pas­sion­ate on the field and very nor­mal off it,” says Dirk Nannes. “He loves the game, loves his job, and loves his coun­try – that’s the best way to de­scribe him.”

THEPRO

“What sets Vi­rat Kohli apart is he can chan­nel his en­ergy to what he’s deal­ing with at the mo­ment,” says Trent Wood­hill. “If he’s in the gym he’s fo­cused only on be­ing in the gym. If he’s out to din­ner with you, his phone’s away and he’s to­tally en­gaged. And when he’s batting, he’s only con­cerned with that.

“There was a thought it could change when he be­came cap­tain in all three forms. But there’s been noth­ing to sug­gest that. He’s in the mo­ment bet­ter than any crick­eter in the world.”

Cour­tesy of trainer Basu Shankar, he’s also the fittest. Basu, they say, has the In­di­ans ripped. They’re lithe, ath­letic, flex­i­ble, mo­bile. “If you had to pick some­one be­hind the emer­gence of Vi­rat, it would be Basu,” says Wood­hill. “There’s no­body in bet­ter shape.”

Kohli has changed the at­ti­tude around what was ac­cept­able for In­dian play­ers. In­dia had a rep­u­ta­tion for not tak­ing phys­i­cal train­ing as se­ri­ously as skills. But Kohli has been pro­gres­sive and worked his bot­tom off – run­ning, skip­ping, boxing, lift­ing weights, per­form­ing foot­work drills, ply­o­met­rics.

“He’s also very in tune with es­cap­ing cricket when he can,” adds Moises Hen­riques. “When he gets quiet time, he looks to learn about some fairly off-cen­tre things. He has a huge ap­petite for learn­ing, about any­thing. Phi­los­o­phy, psychology. He’s a big reader.”

Yet when they made Kohli cap­tain peo­ple thought, what the hell is In­dia do­ing? He was once re­garded as a petu­lant kid. And in­her­ently selfish, as most bat­ters just about have to be. “But you talk to blokes and he’s been ab­so­lutely bril­liant,” says Dirk Nannes. “He’s giv­ing to the young guys. No one’s had a bad word to say about him.”

In­dia’s more forth­right ap­proach to cricket be­gan un­der the great MS Dhoni. Wood­hill reck­ons if Dhoni was Aus­tralian, he’d be touted in the same breath as Mark Tay­lor. Dhoni’s won ev­ery­thing – IPL tour­na­ments, World Cups, cham­pi­ons leagues. In­dia’s been the no.1 team in the world in all forms. Kohli has run with that and added pol­ish.

“Un­der Dhoni they found their own way,” says Wood­hill. “The play­ers would run through walls for him. Now they’ll do the same for Vi­rat. There’s 11 play­ers on the same page: a group that wants to do well. There’s warmth for in­di­vid­ual achieve­ments. Their cricket is hard but fair. Vi­rat drives that. There’s such bur­den as cap­tain of In­dia. Vi­rat is be­fit­ting of the role.”

Yet cap­tain Kohli is a dif­fer­ent man on and off the field. On it he’s emo­tional, some­times overly. He has such ea­ger­ness to win, to make the op­po­si­tion feel un­com­fort­able. He wants to show the world and he wants In­dia to be strong. Nannes reck­ons Kohli is the per­fect cap­tain for In­dia.

“They’ve al­ways been pushovers in terms of on-field per­sona. But he’s put spine in them and they play around him. He plays ag­gres­sive, com­pet­i­tive cricket. He’s like an Aussie. We tar­get their best with ver­bals. He loves that stuff. He’ll throw it right back. And he won’t stop un­til he’s won.”

VI­RAT THE BAT

Vi­rat Kohli’s Test av­er­age against Aus­tralia is 50.04. His av­er­age in Aus­tralia is a re­mark­able 62. On the last tour in 2014-15, he plun­dered 499 runs at 83.16. “I bowled against him one match,” says Dirk Nannes. “The only way we thought we could get him out was bowl­ing a su­per­wide one and hop­ing he’d throw the bat at it, get caught off a top edge. You couldn’t get him out bowl­ing straight. You’re like a bowl­ing ma­chine.”

Kohli likes bat on ball, the feel of it. Ryan Har­ris reck­ons bowl tightly, though wide of off stump. Bore him out early, get him nick­ing. Not eas­ily done, though – Trent Wood­hill says Kohli is much like Smith and Kane Wil­liamson in that he wants to be in good po­si­tion once the ball’s re­leased, and is not in­ter­ested in how it looks. He cares how he feels.

“That’s syn­ony­mous with Smith, Wil­liamson. So many of us, com­men­ta­tors, fans, we like what we like to look at. The dif­fer­ence with Vi­rat, Smith, Warner, Wil­liamson, it’s about how they feel. Kohli is re­ally good when things aren’t work­ing. In com­pe­ti­tion, all he wor­ries about is watch­ing the ball and re­act­ing to what the bowler’s try­ing to do.”

Moises Hen­riques says Kohli and Smith are very sim­i­lar as crick­eters. “They both just love batting. They never want to stop batting, whether train­ing or in a game. They’re con­stantly try­ing to find ways to im­prove. Never have I heard them say ‘that’s just the way I play’, which is a bit of a cop-out. They are con­stantly evolv­ing to be­come the best ver­sions of them­selves with the bat. No amount of runs is enough. It’s just how­ever many runs it takes to win the game.”

Wood­hill says Kohli, like Ricky Ponting, isn’t driven by records. “Ponting was the first, I think, who didn’t care. He just wanted to bat.”

But the num­bers are huge. With his 38th cen­tury in Oc­to­ber, Kohli passed 10,000 ODI runs. He has 24 Test cen­turies, plac­ing him fourth among In­di­ans be­hind Sachin Ten­dulkar (51 cen­turies), Rahul Dravid (36) and Su­nil Gavaskar (34). In 200 Tests, Ten­dulkar scored 15,921 runs at 53.78. Kohli’s scored 6331 at 54.57 in 73 Tests. He’s just turned 30. Har­ris be­lieves Kohli is think­ing legacy.

“I reckon he’s chas­ing Sachin,” he says. "No one will re­place Sachin. But I reckon Vi­rat would like to be known as one of In­dia’s great­est.”

It’s not un­be­liev­able.

“WHAT SETS VI­RAT KOHLI APART IS HE CAN CHAN­NEL HIS EN­ERGY TO WHAT HE’S DEAL­ING WITH AT THE MO­MENT… IF HE’S OUT TO DIN­NER WITH YOU, HIS PHONE’S AWAY AND HE’S TO­TALLY EN­GAGED. AND WHEN HE’S BATTING, HE’S ONLY CON­CERNED WITH THAT.”

From petu­lant youth to fiery leader to stylish icon, Vi­rat Kohli can just be a funny bloke on a cricket field, as Eoin Mor­gan knows.

Kohli has pulled to­gether the In­di­ans [ ] with a vig­or­ous ap­proach to train­ing. Let him bat, in the nets or the mid­dle, and he won't stop.

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