Virat Kohli is in the form of his life, having scored double centuries in three consecutive series and beaten a record held by Sir Donald Bradman and it feels like just another day at the office for him. He is, ‘from another planet’ as Michael Vaughan tweeted, as he carries on with his incredible run of form. There is an inevitability about Kohli, an absence of anxiety that surrounds him when he bats that is quite remarkable.
However good the great Indian batsmen have been, when they batted, one was never quite certain about how long they would last. They were godly when on song, but always quite mortal. At anytime, a late in-swinger would do them in as they shuffled across or an attempt to run the ball down to third man would result in the senseless loss of a prized wicket. When Kohli bats, somehow one is seldom worried about him getting out; when he does so, it is almost always a surprise.
In the last few years, Kohli has outstripped all heroes of the past, and yes, that includes Sachin Tendulkar in terms of performance. The numbers tell an eloquent story and it feels as if he has just got into his stride. He has matured at a personal level too, having channelized his earlier impetuousness into a highly productive form of aggression on the field. He seeks out challenges, vying to insert himself into the toughest situations in order to test himself. As a captain too, he has found a way to make his aggression work for the team, and the results have followed.
Along with his jaw-dropping performance, he is at peak fitness, having chiseled his physical appearance to a point where he looks like a compendium of flattering contemporary adjectives. He is in a relationship with a top Bollywood star, and promotes any number of local and international brands – and, as expected – basks in the attention showered on him by adoring fans wherever he goes.
For all that, something is missing in our relationship with Virat Kohli. The crowds do chant his name when he walks in to bat, but he does not make their heart stop. He can be applauded, but his success is somehow not our success in the same way as with other players in the past. He evokes awe, but does not evoke superstition. Sachin, Dhoni, Sehwag, Dravid, Ganguly, Gavaskar and Kapil Dev in an earlier era- are some of the players who enjoyed a deep connection with the fans that Kohli does not quite have. Many might contest that, but Kohli does not get under our skin and stir up our emotions the way the greats of an earlier time did. We make up in fulsome praise what we cannot in emotion.
Part of the reason lies in the fact that cricket itself does not evoke the passion it once did. Too much cricket, peppered with too many sixes, too many 300+ scores in one day matches accompanied by the exact same commentary that was born in the early 90s, has robbed cricket of some vitality. Watching cricket is a habit, but the involvement is becoming more passive. In most cases, even diehard fans keep track of the score, rather than follow it actively. One series blurs into another, and one tournament erases memories of previous editions.
But the larger reason is that Virat Kohli lacks a narrative. His performance works for himself and the team, and by extension for the country but it does not reveal any cherished truths about us as a collective. It does not feed into any deep seated anxiety, nor does it help us believe in an incredible dream. Sachin Tendulkar spoke to a nation’s need to be taken seriously. He was our cherub who could take on the world effortlessly. The Sachin narrative was always about us, never about him- we owned him and willed him to succeed.
Dhoni and Sehwag, in their own ways spoke for the nothing-to-lose fearlessness of small town India. Dravid’s narrative was a more archetypal one. The idea of commitment and integrity honed till it shone bright, offered us hope that decency is still relevant in today’s transactional times.
Virat Kohli does not have the same effect on us- he does not tap into a larger storyline. He has a story- of his transition from a hot-headed brat into an aggressive but mature sportsman, but it is one that lacks both cinematic scale and an emotional hook . He makes us admire him, but what we really want is a reason to admire ourselves. Here, the Kohli story falls short. By the time he hit his stride, India had already reached the pinnacle of the sport more than once, and we did not have that much to prove to the world through cricket. His journey does not easily represent something larger, and Kohli’s greatness turns statistical far too easily. Kohli is a superstar we admire, but not quite a symbol that we need.
It is unfair, but true. For in Kohli’s efforts there is not a trace of selfishness; he does not allow his celebrity status to intrude into any aspect of his performance. He gives more than what can be asked on the field, for the Indian team. ‘There is no enough to Kohli’, as the sublime Rohit Brijnath put it.
Sometimes, being a hero has less to do with one’s own achievements and more to do with what the audience lacks. Amitabh Bachchan became a superstar because his audience wanted a voice for their repressed feelings. Sachin became a liberalization-era hero because the country wanted to see a more assertive self in the mirror. Today, it is possible that Kohli’s brilliance does not give us the answers we need or perhaps cricket has itself stopped being a vehicle of anything more than itself. At its best, cricket is a thrilling spectacle, and Virat Kohli its headline act.