Virat Kohli looks most peaceful when he’s poised to receive a 90mph missile. In these seconds, the Indian cricket captain’s chiselled head is still, his face softens and his eyes fix dead on the incoming ball.
The rest of the time, Kohli struts about the field in his size-nine boots like some livid musketeer. His affronted face bristles at the slightest provocation. His chin pops out, his eyes widen, he bares gleaming white teeth. Even in his celebrations — when all the world belongs to Kohli — he is a vision of caffeinated fury. Yet no one hits a cricket ball better. Kohli is the best — and best-paid — batsman in the world.
Let’s go back three years. Back then, there were four great batsmen in the world, all in their mid-twenties and captains of their respective Test sides. In terms of the runs they scored, it was difficult to separate them. In terms of style, it was easier.
Joe Root — the most gifted English batsman for a generation — was all touch and placement; elegant but not sublimely so. Kane Williamson — New Zealand’s greatest-ever batsman — batted like a swot acing his homework.
Steve Smith was first picked for Australia partly for his vague leg-spin bowling and partly for the morale-boosting quality of his jokes in the dressing room. His batting looked awkward and illogical, but it was weirdly effective.
Kohli was a combination of perfect technique, princely flamboyance and a seething desire to win every passage of play.
Today, the pitch has changed. Like Alastair Cook and Andrew Strauss before him, Root is a company man who bats for his country, his team and himself; he does not look like a man batting for his life. More significantly, few of his compatriots have heard of him, since few subscribe to expensive cricket channels on TV.
Williamson continues to thrive unsexily for New Zealand; no one’s heard of him either. Everyone’s heard of Steve Smith, alas. A year ago, the Australian captain was the number-one batsman in the world. Given the ugliness of his batting, his climb to the top defied gravity, yet there he’d sat for almost three years. Then he was brought back to earth.
In March 2018, Smith turned a blind eye — at best — to a ludicrously cack-handed attempt by two teammates to cheat during a Test match against South Africa. One rubbed sandpaper on the ball to scuff it up and then concealed the evidence down his pants — all, wonderfully, caught on camera. Smith lied about it, lost the captaincy, cried copiously on TV and was banned from playing for a year.
Meanwhile, Kohli joined his team at the pinnacle of the world rankings. This isn’t just any team, of course. It’s India, with an obsessed fan base of 1.3 billion. Kohli can’t walk down a street in India. He is under more pressure than Smith, Root and Williamson put together — and he clearly gets a kick out of it.
Kohli, the son of a Delhi lawyer, tops the rankings for Tests and One Day Internationals (ODIs). In 2018, across all formats of the game, he outscored the second most effective batsman in the world (Root) by more than 700 runs. He earned Rs228.09 crore (c£25m).
He is married to Bollywood actress Anushka Sharma. He has won the World Cup. He has won more often than any other captain in Indian history. Last winter, his team beat Australia in a Test series in Australia, the first time an Asian team had done so.
Compared with other sporting megastars, he isn’t even that objectionable. He might be seen as a fighter on the pitch but he has never been seen fighting outside a nightclub in Bristol at 2am like England’s Ben Stokes, for example.
How has it happened? No one told Kohli cricket is just a game.
He’s competitive about everything. In 2006, he scored 90 for Delhi — just 12 hours after his father had died — then attended the funeral. His beard — a dense mass of closely cropped thorns — is competitive. As is his body. Much has been made of his former fat — not least by Kohli (he was once faintly chubby). Today, his 5ft 9in frame is built like a piece of artillery. (It can be viewed in inspirational tear-jerkers online in which Kohli scales unspeakable peaks of heroism and fitness.)
In the wake of the sandpaper farrago, both captains promised to behave during India’s tour of Australia last winter. But Kohli couldn’t resist querying Tim Paine’s batting technique. Paine, who replaced Smith as captain, was so upset that he started asking Indian players if they even liked their skipper “as a bloke”. “I don’t mind an argument on the field,” Kohli has said in the past. “It really excites me and brings the best out of me.”
Increasingly, Kohli is compared to India’s greatest-ever player, Sachin Tendulkar. Wisely, he has been shy of these comparisons because the great Sachin is sacred. Yet there are signs Kohli is catching up. By certain measurements, he is the better batsman already, especially in ODI cricket. He’s certainly the better skipper. Tendulkar clearly favoured batting over bossing; Kohli was born for both.
In the future, we might wonder why someone so gifted bothered with so much pantomime. But the panto is indivisibly part of Kohli.
It’s an expression of his dauntless will to win, no less key to his success than his eye for the ball, his footwork and his timing.
In two weeks’ time, the World Cup will roll into England and Wales. Root, Williamson and the rehabilitated Smith will all be there. England are favourites to win it.
But this is surely Kohli’s show.
The cricket World Cup begins on May 30
In recent years, cricketers attuned to quick-fire “Twenty20” matches have begun to score more heavily and quickly than ever before. At this summer’s cricket World Cup, none is more prolific than Virat Kohli. Meanwhile, tournament favourites England have a cast of destructive batsmen, led by Jos Buttler, who scores more rapidly than rivals. Quickly, the world’s best players are hitting their way to what would be another record: the first-ever One Day International innings where a team makes 500 runs.
Get alerts on Sport when a new story is published