THE KOHLI PHENOMENON
A quick look at the stats will tell you that Virat Kohli is a great. As the first ever (and likely to be only one in our lifetime) to average over 50 in all three formats at the highest level, Kohli is certainly special. Although sensational, by this simple analysis the Kohli Phenomenon is hardly remarkable – a mere statistical inevitability given a highly competitive environment in a cricket-obsessed nation with a population over a billion.
A deeper breakdown of the stats will show you that Kohli is in fact unique and perhaps the greatest of all time at the limited overs formats. With the most centuries and a Bradmanesque average over 90 in successful run chases, Kohli is easily the undisputed greatest chaser of all time. In tests, his stellar record outside of Asia (barring England so far) sets above your average Indian batting legend. Yet, still this does not capture the full extent of the Kohli Phenomenon.
A true aficionado of the game will recount Kohli’s greatest innings ball-for-ball and tell you that he is something special. They will tell you how Kohli batted with grace and ease, while the rest of his greatly accomplished colleagues struggled to find fluency, at Adelaide on the fifth day in 2014 and then again at the Wankhede in 2016. They will recall the calculated ease with which Kohli chased down 320 in 36.4 overs or the thrilling 82* against Australia in the World Cup, both innings to keep India’s tournament hopes alive. And they will tell you, perhaps with a faint smile on their lips, about the ease with which he dances down the pitch and goes inside out to hit a six over cover or the Ponting-like audacity with which he pulls, shown no better when slammed three successive Mitchell Johnson bouncers through mid wicket.
And yet, in spite of all this, armed with both the stats and an intimate understanding of Kohli’s game, one still will not understand the importance of Virat Kohli to Indian cricket. To appreciate Kohli’s already established legacy, one mustn’t simply examine Kohli himself but the effect he has had on the players around him. As India’s and Royal Challengers Bangalore’s fulltime captain Kohli has expected excellence and lead from the front. While there has been little sympathy for poor fitness and performance – young Sarfaraz Khan was swiftly dropped after stunning the IPL with several sensational cameos after he failed to keep up with Kohli’s physical requirements and little leeway has been shown to the extremely talented Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan in the test arena with regards to form – Kohli has proven himself as the best man manager in world cricket.
Described as the busiest captain, Kohli is constantly shown encouraging and amping up his fellow players. Matthew Wade recently remarked that he was surprised about the aggression and energy, which was shown by India (and led by Kohli). Along with their aggression, comes their athleticism. Jadeja, not only possesses an iron left arm that can hit a dime for forty overs straight, but also remains one of the best all round outfield fielders in the game. Kohli, remains the most energetic in the field, and Umesh Yadav is by far the best fielder of the world’s fast bowlers since the retirement of Mitchell Johnson. No other batting line up could possible imagine their two most junior batsmen having the talent and mental and physical stamina to score 500 runs between them in one innings, when their accomplished seniors failed, as Karun Nair and Lokesh Rahul did at Chennai against England.
Although definitely now a powerhouse in world cricket, India has never had a team to rival the Invincibles, the West Indies in the 80’s or Australia in the noughties. Although these teams are black swans, given the sheer population size of cricket enthused males that India has to draw from, it is disappointing that they have never even produced a side capable of rivalling those teams. Sure, India’s had line ups filled with talented individuals - I was introduced to the game where India’s weakest batsman was the extraordinarily gifted VVS Laxman, and the number two spinner was Harbhajan Singh at the peak of his powers – but never has it had a unit which could dominate at home and abroad. Now, with Kohli at the helm, although far from the finished product, India at least has the potential to produce a great team.
Indian cricket under Kohli values ethic over talent, function over sentiment, athleticism over performance over potential. India with Tendulkar as her flagship player left a series of great highlight reels but no great stretch of dominance for fans to reminisce about. Kohli’s India is as fit, fast and strong as any in the world game at the moment, and has the ability to correct this.
Although a fitting symbol for this change, it would be naïve to say that Kohli is the sole cause. Sanjay Manjrekar commented that Dravid declaring while Tendulkar was on 194 in Multan was a sign of the changing dynamic in Indian cricket to value team results over personal milestones. MS Dhoni was the first to identify that athleticism in the field was the confounding variable in India’s relative lack of consistent success. More broadly, the BCCI has undergone has shift from appearing as a private boy’s club to an institution which more closely resembles a corporation, introducing a CEO last year to improve accountability of both performance on the field and the ethics off it. Arguably, India itself is in the midst of social reform. Once a country crippled by love of archaic tradition and preconceived social hierarchy, India as an economy is modernising to reward work ethic over birth rite. Education is more accessible than ever, the gender gap is diminishing, and Gandhi’s (the man who once said “work is worship”) birthday is no longer celebrated by a holiday. Overall, there is a growing trend to value merit over history across India. While these shifts have been gradual, the effect Kohli has had on Indian cricket has been explosive.
Kohli brings the flair, charm and brand name that India’s greatest batsmen before him were renown for, yet he also brings the aggression, tenacity, competitiveness, and desire to win that made the Australians such a force to reckon with ten years ago. ESPNCricinfo recently published an article listing the top ten centuries in ODI’s in a losing cause while chasing. It is no coincidence that Sachin Tendulkar features twice and Virat Kohli is not to be seen, despite having the most centuries in the second innings of all time. Despite initially seeming brash and arrogant, the overwhelming evidence suggests that Virat Kohli does not enjoy self-aggrandisement. He enjoys his team winning, and under his captaincy, and beyond, India, across the world and across all formats, has the ability to dominate.
Yash Diwan is a senior at Georgetown University's College of Arts and Sciences majoring in Economics. Although Diwan hails from Sydney, Australia he is a big Indian cricket fan and an even bigger Kohli fan.
(The views expressed by the author are the author's alone and do not express the views of GU India Ink.)