At 24, Virat Kohli has achieved a lot. He is hurtling towards 5000 ODI runs, has just notched up his 17th century, has 4 Test centuries to accompany them and a lucrative deal with his IPL franchise, the Royal Challengers Bangalore, sees him captain a group of superstars. His brash manner on the pitch and his mannerisms off it have earned him a reputation as a bad boy, as well as plenty of adoring fans. He is the modern day Indian rock-star – with all the skill to set the world alight.
And it all started so gloriously inauspiciously, too. He scored 10 on his First Class debut against Tamil Nadu in 2006 (aged 18), did not bat on his List A debut and made 35 on his T20 debut a year later. In 2008 he made his ODI debut, and again failed, scoring just 12 against Sri Lanka. Two years later on his T20 international debut he scored 28* to win the game against a weak Zimbabwean team and when he got his Test cap in 2011, again, it was an occasion to forget. He scored 4 and 15 against the West Indies, and it didn’t get much better in the 2nd and 3rd games of that series – a sum total of 57 runs in 3 innings summed up a miserable start to his Test career.
However, these failures were really a blessing in disguise. Following the West Indies series, India came to England and were whitewashed 4-0. Kohli, dropped for that tour, was spared the mauling. The BCCI demanded an overhaul of the ageing side and in came Kohli – the great white hope of Indian cricket. Up to that point he had scored 5 ODI tons and 14 half centuries, with a highest of 118 against Australia. At an average of 43, this wasn’t bad going.
Indeed, between 2009 and 2011, he scored nearly 2000 ODI runs for India and swiftly became an integral part of their redevelopment. Old changed to new and Kohli was the poster boy for a new era of Indian cricket. He was the perfect antidote to years of careful, precise ODI batting, and his quick feet and even quicker hands became his trademark.
In 2012 he scored 133* off just 86 balls against Sri Lanka, in a successful chase of 321 – an innings that had tones of his future brilliance in ODI run chases. This aspect of his ODI game is just as impressive as the way Sehwag or Gilchrist would launch an innings, or the accurate pacing of a chase that is the hallmark of a Misbah-ul-Haq innings. In situations that seem infeasibly tight, more often than not Kohli can flick a switch and turn the game around.
He has that most mercurial of talents – that of making batting look easy. Rarely does he look troubled; rarely does he look flustered. When he does decide to turn it on, there are few who can contain him.
This is the age of revolution. Whilst cricketers 10 years ago learnt to build an innings, to occupy the crease, and to put a price on their wickets, today’s breed are a totally different beast. Taught to take the attack to the bowlers, to be aggressive and to play ‘percentage’ cricket, safe in the knowledge that there are batsmen in the pavilion who can do just as good a job, we are seeing a new era of cricket not so much ushered in as catapulted in. And Kohli is at the forefront of that.
With his back foot slaps over cover, or his lazy pulls in front of square, he strikes with the lackadaisical panache of a comatose tiger – and has earned a reputation (perhaps unfairly) as a flat track bully – the majority of his ODI centuries have been scored in India. Whilst he enhanced his reputation on India’s tour of Australia in 2011/12, he will struggle to match up to the greats until he proves his worth on a variety of wickets around the world.
The most interesting aspect of Kohli, and one that has been woefully absent from Indian cricketers of late, is that he is controversial. Unlike Sachin Tendulkar, his most natural predecessor, he seems to gravitate towards conflict, and feeds off it. This has brought him enemies, but also admirers in equal measure. He was fined half his match fee for swearing at the SCG crowd in 2012, with the Australian crowd stunned to see an Indian cricketer returning the abuse they hand out.
In 2003, Sachin Tendulkar was at his brilliant best in the blue of an Indian ODI shirt. His cut over deep backward point for six off Shoaib Akhtar at the World Cup remains my favourite shot, probably of all time. But the way in which Virat Kohli displays a pure disregard for the cricket ball and, even more importantly, who has delivered it, is a wonderful, arrogant trait. He is the perfect tonic to Tendulkar’s retirement – he is the flawed hero India didn’t need, but wanted.
And all of this before he is 25. His bold tattoos, 16 (and counting) brand endorsements, current net worth of $60 million and Brazilian model girlfriend tell you only half of the story of Kohli. He is a truly brilliant batsman who has stepped up, just as 350 has become the new 280 in ODI cricket. He now has the first and third fastest ODI centuries for an Indian, and is gunning Tendulkar down. It remains to be seen who can stop him.