Virat Kohli flexes his tattooed arms at the MCG. The Swami Army sings about the BCCI. “We’re so rich it’s unbelievable.” There is swearing at Kohli. There is abuse from Kohli. Balls are bowled at him. Balls are thrown at him. He kisses his bat. His movie-star girlfriend smiles at him.
The Sachin Tendulkar era is behind us. We’re in Generation Kohli.
Adelaide. The crest. Middle of the forehead. First ball. The match stops. This was Kohli’s first ball as Test captain.
First ball after lunch to Kohli was the sort of length ball wide outside off stump that Mitchell Johnson bowls a lot. Many of the world’s best batsmen have found an outside edge from the Johnson pace and slant. Kohli paints a cover drive. It is as perfect and beautiful as any of your past loves, grandkids or Audrey Hepburn. The ball leaves his bat like it’s been sent to an alternate universe.
From that point on, Kohli bats in this out-of-world style, for two innings. In England just months earlier that ball would have probably beaten him or taken the edge. Now it beats up the fence. This is a different Kohli. He’s sure of himself again. He’s sure outside off stump. He’s sure he’s going to make runs.
In Australia’s second innings in Adelaide, Kohli is still so sure of himself that he is now sending off Chris Rogers, getting into David Warner, and starting a fight with Steven Smith. He was so confident at this point he could have started a fight with a mirror.
This confidence was all from Kohli. His bowlers couldn’t back it up; their 12 wickets in the Test had no impact on whether India would win. It was Kohli’s batting and a bit of rain that almost won India the match. When he finally mis-hit the kind of ball that he’s hit into stands around the world, all that confidence came crashing down. He didn’t even have the energy to leave the crease. For the second time in Adelaide, he was crestfallen.
India have finished an ODI at the Gabba on their last tour of Australia in 2011-12. The curator Kevin Mitchell jr. and his team are looking after the pitch. Mitchell sees what he thinks is a bunch of fans in India replica clothes playing with a shopping trolley by the race. One guy is spinning the trolley around, while another sits in it. Mitchell yells at them.
When he walks up the race, the only two people there are Indian players waiting for their team bus. Kohli looks dizzy and out of breath, like he was just in a shopping trolley that was spinning around before making a runner when caught.
The next time he was at the Gabba it was after being India’s Test captain. As Nas once said, “It’s like the game ain’t the same”.
The first ball of day four at the Gabba is faced by Kohli. It wasn’t a rip-snorting, toe-curling demon ball. It was a gentle delivery from Shane Watson. But Kohli should not have been out there. Shikhar Dhawan should have been.
Both men had been hit in the temperamental Gabba nets. Dhawan had been retired hurt. Kohli had been sent in.
At no stage did he look comfortable. At no stage did he look happy. And when he left a ball off the middle of his bat back onto his stumps, he was gone. Later he would be back, stationed in the slip cordon, dropping a catch that can’t be seen without hearing the clanging of cymbals in your head.
In Brisbane he wasn’t cheered. He wasn’t booed. He wasn’t much.
Kohli was one of three Indian players to attend Phil Hughes’ funeral. That was on December 3. By December 5 he was retiring on 66 in a warm up game in Adelaide. Kohli is a passionate man, he’ll flip the bird, scream obscenities and laugh in the face of an outgoing batsman, but he seems to be able to put a distance between tragedies and cricket.
In December 2006, Kohli had just turned 19. He was playing his fourth first-class match. Karnataka had made 446 in the first innings. Overnight Kohli’s father passed away. Kohli played on. He entered the wicket at 14 for 3. Dhawan left on the same score to make it 14 for 4. Kohli made 90. From 238 balls. And helped save Delhi from defeat.
Virat’s mother said years later: “Virat changed a bit after that day. Overnight he became a much more matured person. He took every match seriously. He hated being on the bench. It’s as if his life hinged totally on cricket after that day. Now, he looked like he was chasing his father’s dream which was his own too.”
At tea on day five at the MCG, India had the draw in their grasp. The first ball after tea, Kohli was out. It was an effortless and mindless flick, the sort Kohli could play deep in REM sleep. The sort he probably first played when he was an actual spoilt brat. But he found Joe Burns at square leg and gave Australia their last chance of winning the Test.
A couple of days earlier Kohli was felled by a Johnson throw and ended up in a heap on the ground. Johnson was throwing at the stumps and did apologise, but after a day of exchanging sledges, Kohli was not in the mood for an apology. He drove loosely twice, and then was dropped in the next over. Accidental bodyline looked like succeeding more than verbal diarrhea to get Kohli out.
Kohli took on Johnson all day, refusing to take a backward step unless he was running away from a throw. And then just as the day was finishing, he let Johnson and Australia beat him. He gave away his wicket. He gave away any hope of the tail making runs.
Then Kohli turned up at the press conference and kept playing his shots like he hadn’t just given Australia a big enough lead to boss the match. His press conference was given like he was not out, India were in front, and he’d just jumped out of his private jet having launched his new record in Miami. Not like he had wafted at a wide one while India were desperate for stumps.
When Australia are batting on day five at the MCG, Kohli walks over to talk to Mohammed Shami. An MCC member tells him to get on with it. Kohli looks back at him with the stare.
If you’ve seen an IPL match, an ODI or a Test featuring Kohli, you’ll be familiar with the stare. It’s a face of such anger and coldness. Like in the ad for Sahara Q that was banned, it was the stare he used when he replaced a man’s shopping trolley with a wheelchair. Acting wasn’t needed, Kohli knows how to channel quiet rage.
Kohli has used the stare on bowlers, batsmen, and fielders – both the opposition’s and his own. In Melbourne when he ran on the pitch, he used it on the umpire when he was warned. There is this righteous fury right beneath this cold, hard stare. It’s the stare of someone who doesn’t like to lose, who is on a mission, who is spookily focused. If he was to be in one of his partner’s films, he’d be better suited as the dashing villain than the charming lead man.
Sports fans are odd. When Kohli failed in England this year, some genuinely thought his girlfriend Anushka Sharma had something to do with it. It wasn’t as though Virat was spending his time trying to fund a Bollywood remake of No, No Nannette. He was a professional cricketer, who had a girlfriend on tour.
The satirical website Faking News handled it best when they ran this made up Anushka quote, “Kohli’s form dipped since last six months and suddenly I am responsible for it! Did anybody notice a drop in my acting abilities in last few years and tried to hold Kohli responsible for it?”
When Anushka finally did announce their relationship, she said “We’re not hiding anything, we’re just being two normal young people in a relationship”. Just your normal movie-star-and-Indian-captain relationship.
While he bats, she takes selfies with star-struck crowd members. She’s probably taken more than 600 of them as well; Kohli’s batted that long.
Brad Haddin comes out to bat in the first innings at the SCG. Kohli walks up to him. It seems like he is saying something at first, but another camera angle shows that Kohli is just staring that stare. He holds this for a long time. Even for Kohli, this is really creepy.
Then Kohli moves back into the ring, the bowler comes in, and Haddin pumps him back over his head. As the ball is disappearing for six, Haddin turns his back on Kohli. Stare at this, Virat.
Dean Jones described Kohli as, “almost more Australian than he is Indian.” It has long been thought that one thing Australians can’t stand more than anything else is someone who plays like them.
But that is not the reason Australian cricketers don’t like Kohli. A personal sledge aimed at an Australian cricketer during the 2011 tour cut very deep. It was a low blow.
Sledging Australians when you are not Australian can be a tricky tightrope. They might call you a princess, a brat, a rat, a (insert swear here), but they also have limits. Limits that you need to grow up with to understand. If you break one of the unwritten rules, their secret code, they don’t like you.
You can see how the Australians feel about Kohli every time they talk to him on the field. And they talk to him a lot. Australians talk to Kohli more than they talk to the press, more than they talk to Channel Nine, more than they see their families. When they’re not talking to him, they’re talking about him.
Australia’s coach Darren Lehmann promised even more talk, despite Kohli seeming to love it. The next day they talked about boring him out, assuming with more inane, pointless chatter. Kohli seems to revel in getting under their skin, and that is where he has been since his personal sledge. Since that moment, Kohli has made four hundreds and two half-centuries in six Tests.
And in that time he’s said more things on the field than MS Dhoni has in his entire life.
Shaun Marsh is on his knees, behind him a man smiles.
Just before that, Marsh had shuffled, worried and hoped his way towards a hundred. It was horrible stuff. India stepped up when they saw how worried he was. Marsh had already tried to take off for a run that could have only ended in heartbreak. This time he knocked the full ball straight to mid-off, and just ran.
The fielder moved in quick and sure. He cut off the angle. Got to his right side. Launched himself low. Threw as he flew. Hit the stumps. Marsh looked up at the umpire, who told him it was out.
Kohli ran down the pitch to be adored by his team-mates. He knew. He often does.
The crowd boos when Kohli arrives on the SCG. The previous ball either spun more than any ball ever in the history of Nathan Lyon’s career or was dragged onto the stumps by Rohit Sharma. Kohli’s first ball does less. He half pushes forward. The ball either misses the edge, or takes it, and just misses off stump. Kohli’s head turns around to see the ball, as KL Rahul starts running, but Kohli calls no after a couple of steps. He regains his composure, and gets back in the crease.
Behind him, in the middle of the pitch, his partner is facedown on the turf. Kohli composed, India face down. That’s this summer.
Kohli’s feet are wide apart. His hands are high above his head. His bat is clenched. His face has that stare. Some cheer, some boo. Kohli has his fourth hundred. Australia have beaten India. They haven’t beaten Kohli.
The crowd is dressed in pink. They are raising money for breast cancer nurses. They start chanting, “Kohli is a wanker.” There is no higher praise you can be insulted with by an Australian crowd. “I know you guys hate me, and I like that”.
Spoilt brat superstar.