Bloke On Top
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.”
“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.