You didn’t need the fist-bump to realise, however, how far Kohli has come as a cricketer, as a human being, as a leader, as a torch-bearer and a role model. He isn’t a statesman yet, but then again, it isn’t for any of these reasons that Kohli plays the game.
He plays to enjoy. He plays to excel. He plays to also entertain and to enthral, which is essentially not the objective but is inevitably the end because of what he is as a batsman, as a fielder, as a captain, as a persona. He is this unbridled mix of aggression and calmness, of instinct and intelligence, of inspiration and innovation; he is also someone the youth of today relate to because while cricket is a massive part of his life, it isn’t entirely his life. He has an existence off the cricket field, he is not merely defined by what happens on it. He has varied interests and is unafraid to live them out, though left to himself, he would gladly welcome a little more privacy, a little less intrusion. But then again, he is aware enough to understand that one of the by-products of being the country’s – not any country’s, but India’s – No. 1 sportsperson is the constant attention and scrutiny and glare that can sometimes be overwhelming.
Unlike Mahendra Singh Dhoni, under whose stewardship he will turn out in coloured clothing in a couple of days’ time, Kohli’s path to the captaincy of the national team was pretty much a formality once he led the Under-19 team to the World Cup crown in Kuala Lumpur eight years back. Dhoni broke into a Test team full of stalwarts – Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman, Ganguly, Kumble, Zaheer, Harbhajan. Kohli’s initiation came with at least a couple of them having retired, and the rest on the final legs of their respective glorious journeys. Dhoni inherited a team of former skippers, though happily for him and Indian cricket, they all pulled in the same direction. When the Test captaincy came full-time to Kohli in early 2015, not only had he served his apprenticeship but most of the others in the squad had made their debuts after him.
He could mould his own team, he could shape his own destiny. The pressure on Dhoni was to maximise the array of riches at his command; the onus on Kohli was to whip an ultra-skilled but relatively greenhorn unit into world-beaters.
Both of them have done that in some style. The process of getting to the summit of the Test rankings that began under Anil Kumble’s brief reign came to fruition in December 2009, in Dhoni’s first full season as Test captain. It is perhaps merely coincidental that Kumble himself is in his first season as coach when India have returned to the top after two barely noticeable stints at the peak earlier this year.
In Kumble, Kohli has a kindred spirit, but also a benevolent, mature, steady, occasionally stern guiding hand that will stand him, and by extension his intrepid young band, in wonderful stead.
In Kohli, Kumble recognises the competitive fire that burnt so brightly during his playing days. He has said more than once that he would do nothing to make Kohli tone his aggression down, but it is obvious that over the years, Kohli himself has found means to channelise his aggression beyond angry words and ungainly gestures. Kohli has shown that while he is willing to imbibe from his predecessors – the leg-slip, for instance, which is such a Dhoni legacy – he is also primarily his own man. Kumble will not prevent Kohli from being his own man because ultimately it is the captain’s team more than the coach’s, but when the need so arises, his stature will allow him to step in and point out to the captain why Choice B might be a better way to go than Option A.
As batsman, Kohli has already done enough to establish his credentials as a quick learner – apart from the obvious. His steadfast refusal to play away from his body during the double-hundred in Indore was almost Tendulkar revisited – the master had refrained from driving through the covers during an innings of 241 not out in the Sydney Test of 2004. As captain and strategist, too, he is rapidly picking up the ropes; horses for courses, No. 3 in Tests is not for me, five bowlers isn’t set in stone, and a winning combination can be changed if the conditions so demand.
Kohli sets the standards when it comes to hunger, to aggression, to work ethics, to commitment, to selflessness. So much so that his lynchpin, Ashwin, calls him the ringleader. ‘Vii-raaat, Vi-rat’ might not quite have the same ring to it as ‘Saaa-chiin, Sa-chin’, but it will catch on, make no mistake.