Prophecy is foretold in many ways. The ancient Romans did trust the words of soothsayers, save for Julius Caesar of course (but let’s table this for another day). India mythologically has been spoken of as the land of plenty and a place that epitomized a sense of spirituality, mythology, theology in the birth of major religions of the non-Abrahamic faith. Those prophecies came from godmen, astrologers, yogis, your local priests and beliefs and superstitions passed down from gerontocratic elders to be codified as sanctum sanctorum in the family.
There is often said to be another religion in India, one that was born in the Anglo-Saxon world, but its largest devotees find home in India. Pandemic era frugality means I have no prizes to give out for such obvious questions. This is a sports article, so back on track (no pun intended).
Yes, the cliched adage comes to mind – cricket is a religion in India. In this there is prophecy too, where many a former upper echelon cricketer, the sport’s finest cognoscenti, do make their prognostications on who will etch their name in cricketing immortality. But more tellingly, in the shorter format, the U-19 World Cup is a good harbinger of things to come (Unmukt Chand disagrees with me, but this again for another day). In 2008, in the unlikeliest of Commonwealth countries for cricket, in Malaysia, a star was born (sorry Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, permit me the lease of this name). Virat Kohli was born in 1988 but introduced to the cricketing world with pomp and aplomb in 2008, when he became only the second Indian to win U-19 honors, exorcising the demons of 2006, when India capitulated to its arch nemesis in Pakistan in the finals.
There is much too much to write about for both the cricketer and character and not enough pages to do justice to either of those treatises. This isn’t a eulogy, a farewell note, or chronicling his legacy, because Virat Kohli hasn’t retired and yet in some strange ways it feels like he has. Kohli’s boots remain very much on, he will pad up, but yet there is a cap, or a feather in his cap that has come off.
Kohli relinquished his role as test captain shortly after falling to South Africa 2-1 in the test series. More salt to the wounds after going 1-0 up in a land where the pitch demons caused rancor to even the strongest willows of Indian batsman. Just ask the famed Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar, he would attest Allan Donald was White Lightning, because he struck more than once and you couldn’t see the meteor from his hands, except the wreckage of the stumps that were left behind.
African Safaris epitomize wild with a hint of danger, but the fiercest lion like demeanor is the non-African in Kohli who displays the ferocity of the beast and yet ironically the role of lion tamer in conquering territories to which he doesn’t belong. It was his final frontier, the one destination that no Indian team had conquered. Historically, India have been a weak traveling side, particularly in the acronymized SENA (South Africa, England, New Zealand, and Australia) countries. But Kohli, a lion himself, had reared a different culture, pugnacious in attitude and apropos of safaris, he now had a fierce coterie of bowlers who could hunt in packs.
Virat Kohli has both enigma and charisma. Ironic, one would assume that the most watched, followed, celebrated, liked, adored cricketer since Sachin Tendulkar could be anything of an enigma or keep any part of his life mysterious, but this phenomenon is different. In a country, where it’s long been lauded that the cricket captain plays second fiddle to only the Prime Minister (perhaps on par with some), there is a lot to be discerned about a country and where it sees itself through the lens of the Indian captain.
Hackneyed to say he wore his passion on his sleeves, but there is a more profound story here. The real hint came in a sit-down chat with Adam Gilchrist where Gilly as the sobriquet goes spoke to Virat about his overt exuberance and alluded it to “the New India, the young India.”
I said it’s a sport article, but I must momentarily digress. Sport doesn’t exist in a vacuum, a society’s socio-economic, cultural, and historical aspects all play a part in shaping the sport. India has had many talented and lauded captains before, all different, but there was one such element common in a Tendulkar, Dravid and even a swashbuckling Dhoni. That sense of unassuming regal stoic gentlemanliness. Yes, Kohli belongs to the millennial generation and no doubt there is a natural course of Darwinian evolution. But my work in reading geopolitics, forces me to draw parallels in seeing India, its Prime Minister Modi and Kohli. The “New India’ that Gilchrist, spoke of, is redolent of a larger sentiment in India and to quote academic Alyssa Ayres’ book, there was an innate level of belief in India that “our time has come”.
This is evinced through either the image that the country’s Prime Minister wishes to display in garrulous speeches on the world stage or to Kohli’s boldness at times brashness, or the larger visceral feeling of a country with a feeling of immense potential and yet not enough global recognition. Tendulkar’s place in the pantheon of many Indian gods will dare not be questioned, but Sachin and his contemporary Dravid, were in an era where India saw itself as somewhat meek and perhaps pusillanimous on the world stage. Kohli is a product of a generation that grew up in a post-liberalized India, the one coming into its own, one that no longer had to find meaning and statistic in “saare jahaan se accha”, but one that saw itself as both a cricketing and economic power whose time had come (the former had been achieved). Kohli’s demeanor and poise is somewhat representative of that “New India”, that sense of confidence in self with abilities par excellence and of course, one that won’t take sledges lying down, but will give it back and perhaps even start it, after all there is ahem, ahem, also just that Delhi brashness.
In a lot of ways, the Australians both loathed and respected him for he was the foe they feared, the most Australian non-Australian to play the game, skillful but belligerent. He would take body blows from Mitchell Johnson, but quite literally brush it off, then hit that Kohliesque cover-drive and walk down the wicket, to look his fiery paceman in the eye, and do the unthinkable for a batsman and that too an Indian batsman, sledge a fast-bowler back.
He was like the finest product in the vineyards of Australia, just got better with age, every time he was in the southern hemisphere. Even during his first tour in 2011/12 and a 4-0 drubbing, he was the lone Indian centurion with some stiff lip. His next series in 2014/15, India reduced its deficit from whitewash to 2-0, Kohli was like the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, tall and majestic, as he piled on four centuries. The Australians tried to get under his skin, but with every sledge, he had the edge. It’s no wonder that cricket writer Jarod Kimber said ‘”Australia have beaten India, but not Virat Kohli”. It was as if the Avengers were facing an Alt Avenger. The Australians in Kohli found an Australian like-attitude, Australian like tenacity and Australian like truculence, except nothing Australian about his loyalty or representation.
As a millennial, I grew up watching Sachin Tendulkar, but as Kohli’s contemporary, I grew up with Virat Kohli, in age. So, I can say, that Kohli, like all Indian generations before was raised in an era where it was forbidden to even be optimistic of winning test series in Australia. But there is a right time to cork that wine, and come 2018/19 series, Kohli had the ingredients. His own batting prowess, a bowling side that could hunt in packs, to an extent a weakened Australia and the “our time has come” factor. India’s rendition to Australia in that series, was as if “Ashes to Crashes, if Kohli doesn’t smash you, Pujara will”. India was Down Under, but Australia went down under, losing their first series at home to a visiting Asian side. Yes, Gabba 2021 was sweeter, but again that’s for another day, this is about Kohli.
There is so much to write about his batting prowess, but he is not retiring, so there is more room for time and pages to fill and paeans to be sung before his final innings.
As I’ve written before, being an Indian cricketer is a complicated cocktail of many layers; handling the board, handling the media, handling the fans and handling the pressure. Sip the cocktail too fast or incorrectly and you’re in for a bad hangover. Virat Kohli hasn’t been immaculate in this regard and his captaincy innings has ended like a blockbuster series that got canceled – abrupt and leaving fans with much to be desired.
But there is comfort knowing that there will be many more Virat Kohli innings to come, even if he has past his prime. He is the epitome of exuberance, energy, enthusiasm on the field, but juxtapose that feisty character with his batting temperament, one where he is lost in the tranquility of his willow wizardry of perfection. Like an astronaut, only he can traverse that space, and explore gargantuan batting galaxies and collect records from another world, the rest of us can live vicariously and watch, for he is definitely out of this world.
He is both David and Goliath, a giant among men as Goliath and yet David, as he survives the attacking onslaught of bowlers who throw everything at him. Kohli is no mental health counsellor, but I’ll be darned if you can say you don’t find therapy in that exquisite cover drive, over and over and over again.