KNOWING VIRAT KOHLI was to be in Kolkata in May 2016 for the game between Royal Challengers Bangalore and Kolkata Knight Riders, I asked him for a time to conduct the interview. I was apprehensive if he would readily agree or not. A detailed television interview will mean a clamour for more interviews from rival networks and, as Indian captain, it might well be impossible for him to say no to a few others who have closely tracked him over the years. Hence, a refusal would have been understandable and I had prepared myself for it. To my delight, however, Kohli agreed.
He answered each and every question in detail. Speaking on possible comparisons with Sachin Tendulkar, he said, ‘It is unfair on Sachin. He played for 24 years with amazing consistency and I have just completed five,’ was his candid response. Clearly, here was a man who was at peace with himself. Indian cricket, more importantly, seemed to be in safe hands.
And then I asked him about Test cricket and whether he still considered it the format to excel in. He was, till May 2016, a better limited-overs player than he was in Tests, and knowing so, I had deliberately tried to bowl him a doosra. ‘There is no doubt I need to do better as a Test cricketer. That’s what we are remembered for and I am no different. Getting a Test hundred for India is the most special feeling of all,’ he had dismissed the delivery with a simple swat of the bat. Yet again it was apparent to me that Indian cricket, going forward, could not be better placed.
The 12 months, between May 2018 and June 2019, with tours to England, Australia and the 50-over World Cup scheduled, will define Kohli’s legacy as a captain. Seeing Kohli up close I feel a real sense of hope and anticipation.
As the clock neared an hour, I asked him my most important question. How could he deal with the kind of pressure we put on him day in and day out? To what extent does it entail being left with no ‘me time’ at all? Is it impossible to be living a life dictated by having to deal with the 24x7 news media, who want to know everything about his private life?
Kohli, it seemed, was ready for the question. He said to me with a smile, ‘I try to be like a monk living in a civil society, you know and I don’t have any regrets.’ Here was a twenty-eight-year-old national icon speaking to me with the maturity of a forty-year-old. I had got my headline, and the statement resonated all over the media for the next few days. But it had a far deeper effect. It helped me understand Kohli better than I had ever done. Here was someone so deeply invested in his craft that all things happening in and around were of little consequence to him. He could cocoon himself from it all and do what has been asked of him—lead the Indian cricket team with infectious passion in all formats of the game.
His ‘monk in a civil society’ comment, however, would come under real test in June 2017, when in the aftermath of head coach Anil Kumble’s resignation, he was the subject of a severe social media backlash. And, to be honest, it did test him and his resolve. While he has not spoken on the issue as mentioned earlier in the book, people in the know have confirmed to me that Kohli did feel let down and disappointed; more pained than anything else. He had been held guilty without being heard.
Until February 2017, Kohli could do no wrong. Four double hundreds in the Indian home season between September 2016– January 2017 and winning back-to-back series against the West Indies, New Zealand and England, Kohli was the media’s blue-eyed boy all round. Not one to hold back in press conferences, he would give the media what they wanted, and journalists welcomed the onset of the ‘Kohli era’ in Indian cricket with open arms.
And then came the dip in form against Australia in the last leg of the home series, followed by the injury sustained while fielding at Ranchi in the third Test which sidelined Kohli from the first few games of the IPL. RCB finished at the bottom of the table in the 10th edition of the tournament, but with the Champions Trophy around the corner, many felt India’s talisman would soon be back to his flamboyant best. And if the start of the Champions Trophy was any indication, things did seem to have fallen back into grove for captain Kohli. A match-winning innings against Pakistan and thereafter another half-century against South Africa in a run chase, leading India to the semi-finals before hammering Bangladesh with panache, batsman and captain Kohli could again do no wrong.
Debate over the rift between him and Kumble, a reality of Indian cricket for a while, was pushed to the background, thanks to strong on-field performances taking centre stage. So much so that officials and players could brush aside talk of the rift without the media forcing their hand. All of this before the much-awaited final against Pakistan.
AND ONCE INDIA lost, and lost badly, things started to unravel for Kohli. A dressing room exchange, with Kumble giving Jasprit Bumrah a dressing down moments after the loss did not help and then the very next day Kumble resigned as coach, making matters worse. The media, which was all in Kohli’s favour, all of a sudden started questioning the Indian captain and his conduct. He was subsequently perceived as the big bully and the man who had let success get to his head. Unable to defend himself with the BCCI’s media gag in place, Kohli suddenly had become the big egotist who had forced out the legendary Kumble to take control.
During the fall-out with Anil Kumble, social media, as I have emphasized, had branded Kohli arrogant even without knowing his side of the story. How can a super rich, tattooed, hugely successful man with a beautiful actor girlfriend (now wife) not be arrogant was the notion
How can a legend like Kumble be treated like this, was the common refrain and some even went on to suggest that Kohli was perhaps becoming too powerful to the detriment of the sport in India. A couple of media reports also suggested that Kohli had taken the biggest risk of his life by pushing the ego tussle against Kumble as far as he had. The overwhelming sentiment was that he should have backed down and made peace with Kumble.
It is important to state that the media bashing, often unfair and unfounded, was good for Kohli in the long run. Without knowing his side of the story, the media had gone after him and sided with Kumble. In cricket, it is the captain and not the coach who is the ultimate boss and it is Kohli’s team, no matter what the media said or says in future. With India playing away from home over the next 12 months in England and then Australia, Kohli would have the most difficult year of his life as captain. This hardening in the aftermath of the Kumble saga should only help him in these tough times. His honeymoon as captain was clearly over by June 2017 and he knew what to expect from the media in difficult circumstances.
He also knew that it was to be his bat and bat only that could/can save him and speak for him the long run. His series wins and hundreds are his legacy. All he needs to do is conquer those 22 yards like he has done so often until now. Once he starts winning, and does so away from home, all talk of treating Kumble poorly will go out of the window. The very same people who called him a brat will then say he is the best thing to happen to Indian cricket in a long time.
If the Indian captain needed a reality check ahead of his most difficult tenure as skipper, with the Kumble saga he got it in full.
It only made him stronger and got him further ready for the grind. Whoever the coach is, it is Kohli who will have to face up to Anderson and Broad and Starc and Cummins. It is his bat that will have to save games and set totals for his bowlers to defend. He is in the hot seat for good and bad and he is aware of it every second of the day. Maybe one day he will defend himself. And give out his side of the story. But by going after him in the manner that it did, a section of the social media may have inadvertently done Indian cricket a big favour—getting India’s captain and best player battle ready; and perhaps hungrier than ever.
Is Kohli aware of the enormity of the task at hand? Does he know what failure in the next 12 months might even lead to? Two separate news items, both involving Kohli in the last week of October 2017, both of which consumed a lot of newsprint, tell me he indeed does. While the first celebrated Kohli as one of the world’s leading sports brands, the other, yet again, speculated on his then prospective marriage with actor-partner Anushka Sharma. What is interesting in each of these cases is how Kohli was being consumed and appropriated in the media. First, anything Kohli does is news—whether it’s right or wrong. That he might get married to Anushka was considered breaking news. Wonder why? But it was and that’s the ground reality.
And once a news platform puts something out in India, it just gets copied and multiplied, without being given a thought to what Kohli might feel or what his opinion might be on the issue. A concern for his privacy is the last thing in the mind of the media. It is, as if, his life, public and private, will have to be played out in front of the gaze of the 24x7 news media and he, Kohli, will have no agency in controlling things going forward.
‘What can I say to this,’ he wrote to me when I asked him about the media play. ‘How many people can I personally go and correct?
This is their way of selling news,’ he said.
This is an alarming trend. While it isn’t new, its strength is getting multiplied by the day and with a flippant social media machinery behind it, there is no mediation anymore. Icons are deified in India by the minute and in the very next instant they are trolled or abused.
Their private lives aren’t a protected domain and that Kohli wasn’t issuing a statement on the wedding story was considered a failure on his part. Social media, more and more, thrives on being flippant and violating privacy, and if you are an icon of the stature of Kohli, you are public property.
What is further alarming is that perception, more often than not, seems to be shaping reality in India. During the fall-out with Kumble, social media, as I have emphasized, had branded Kohli arrogant even without knowing his side of the story. How can a super-rich, tattooed, hugely successful man with a beautiful actor girlfriend (now wife) not be arrogant was the notion. The die was cast. He was hung without a trial. #ArrogantVirat was trending on Twitter and yet again there were thousands of tweets attacking his relationship with Anushka.
Kumble, older and considered more mature, was wronged by this brash upstart was the sentiment. Without getting into the right or wrong, the moot point here is that in the media deluge, his voice was the last thing anyone wanted to hear.
The same thing had happened when India lost the 2015 World Cup semi-final against Australia in Sydney and the trial by social media had adjudicated Anushka’s presence in the stands as the primary reason behind Kohli’s failure to score beyond a run. The jingoistic outpouring, rather obnoxiously I must say, targeted Anushka for Kohli’s failure and yet again social media was on the boil for days. How she could have impacted his run-scoring, rather failure to score, wasn’t ever given a thought. Intemperate comments were flying around thick and fast, and within minutes, Kohli, the deity, was a fallen hero.
The Kohli–Anushka affair—Virushka as it became known to us all in 2017 when they got married in Italy—it must be stated, is entirely a private matter of these two individuals. The media, page three or otherwise, has no business trying to interfere and arriving at conclusions on them. In the least, such conclusions need to be verified before being put out for public consumption and a thought spared for what the person concerned might feel about the issue. It is a moral and ethical issue at a certain level. An issue of conscience and probity. Of media accountability and uprightness. Anything Kohli can’t be peddled as news. He can’t be our hero at our convenience; we cannot worship him when he scores a hundred and criticize him for not telling us if he is indeed getting married or not. It is his will for god’s sake and we, the media, have no right in trying to interfere and speculate.
Kohli, commenting on such inane speculations, himself puts it best: ‘Everyone makes choices. You choose what you do. Some choose good some choose bad. Bad is easier.’ His concluding statement is, perhaps, most revealing: ‘I am a hero at personal convenience.’
(This is an excerpt from Eleven Gods and a Billion Indians: The On and Off the Field Story of Cricket in India and Beyond)