By Rahul Desai Dec. 19, 2019
The last decade has seen the rise of Virat Kohli. He has made greatness look so routine, so ordinary, that his stature has deliberately eschewed the romance of divinity. Kohli is a human pushing for perfection rather than a deity dabbling in imperfections.
I was 24 years old when India co-hosted the 2011 Cricket World Cup. I hadn’t worked for more than a year. At that point, it didn’t matter. I was jobless for Team India. I was slacking “for Sachin”. Life would wait. I was busy making no plans.
The tournament felt like a wave of warm hugs. For those 45 days, the entire country became a drifter. For once, I felt like I belonged. I was not judged for being the lost one. We shadow-batted together, celebrated together, and promised to mourn together. Those who worked for a living had just started living. Those like me were hailed as higher beings – soothsayers who had sacrificed ambition at the altar of fanaticism. My house became a temple of idlers. It was after all our Indian idol, Sachin Tendulkar’s final World Cup. The tournament was his farewell party and everyone was invited.
What they didn’t know was that the party, for me, was three years in the making. Back then, I was in a long-distance relationship with escapism. Like any self-respecting millennial in the pre-outrage age, I was a confused college graduate. And as it turned out, Tendulkar’s third wind – a phoenix-like rise from the ashes of 2007 – coincided with my phase of artful aimlessness. Every time the voice in my head went “What are you doing with your life?,” I switched on my television set. And he would always be there – the man of blues amid the boys in blue – finding his rhythm and playing for glory. Older, wiser, in the throes of belated destiny. The third act of a career-long magic trick, his prestige, was my comfortable cocoon.
Kohli makes talent look functional and accessible. His hunger is tangible, not hidden behind a deluge of tics and superstitions. Photo by Ashley Allen/Getty Images
Kohli makes talent look functional and accessible. His hunger is tangible, not hidden behind a deluge of tics and superstitions.
Photo by Ashley Allen/Getty Images
But on April 2, 2011, something changed. When MS Dhoni lofted the ball into the Wankhede stands, I anticipated at least a month of tears and madness. The Cup was ours, but this world was mine. I was ready to postpone adulthood some more. Yet, in the weeks that followed, I didn’t see my friends. They had resumed living, calmer and cooler, with a halo over their heads, like journeymen who had finally been acknowledged for a lifetime of labour. Nobody paused. Suddenly, I had no choice but to hear my own silence.
At the stroke of the summer hour, when the world slept, India awoke to freedom. From expectations, from submission, from hoping and praying. But more importantly, from the religion of Sachin Tendulkar. I learnt that when a dream is realised, it also ends. The joy – the drama, the narrative – after all, was in the chase. If I were to pinpoint the exact moment my honeymoon ended, it was when a 21-year-old boy who, after parading an emotional Tendulkar around the stadium on his young shoulders, remarked that “Sachin has carried the burden of the nation for 21 years; it’s time we carried him”. Everyone called it the passing-of-baton moment – the boy, Virat Kohli, next in line for a crown of thorns and roses.
This decade has seen the rise of Virat Kohli. A rise so meteoric that he seems to constantly be orbiting a sun of blinding statistics. I have been watching him closely since that night. But at no point have I turned to him, surrendered to his genius, or embraced his aura with a hope of being rescued from my own life. This, in a way, is Kohli’s enduring legacy: his ability to suspend disbelief by normalising belief. He has made greatness look so routine, so ordinary, that his stature has deliberately eschewed the romance of divinity. He is a human pushing for perfection rather than a deity dabbling in imperfections.
When Tendulkar was dismissed, there was always a feeling of injustice, an incomplete sense of one individual daring to challenge the fate of a doomed collective. We never quite recovered from his failures and never stopped swooning over his successes. I didn’t think much about putting my life on hold in pursuit of a future that felt close enough to want but far enough to need. When his time finally came, it felt like the culmination of the longest chase in the history of cricket. Victory had given his immortality a currency. He was, until then, always a God in search of an earthly story.
This decade has seen the rise of Virat Kohli. A rise so meteoric that he seems to constantly be orbiting a sun of blinding statistics.
But when Kohli gets out, I never feel sad enough to use him as a crutch for my own inadequacies and pine for his next innings. I have in fact felt angrier, and channeled the frustration into my work and personality. Watch, admire, move on, repeat. He has never been a cricket tragic; he walks back to the pavilion with an energy – boyish, defiant, flawed – that suggests he will return louder, cockier, and more determined. There’s a permanence to his machinery. You know the next one is round the corner.
Kohli makes talent look functional and accessible. His hunger is tangible, not hidden behind a deluge of tics and superstitions. When he makes mistakes – and he does, mostly as a captain who cannot understand the complexities of lesser cricketers – they are so blatant and basic that he turns reverence into an unfeasible option. His eyes break the fourth wall, his mouth breaks rules, his gestures invite brawls into his living room. We have seen him transform, between 2011 to 2020, from new-age brat to working-class hero. The evolution has been explicit and naked and visible. He never burst onto the stage, he refused to capture our imaginations – instead, he has turned a generation of dreamers into doers.
Perhaps that’s why India has never quite won a global title in the Kohli era. He falls just short on the world stage. Maybe he doesn’t want us to go all in just yet. This is his chase. The semi-final defeats in 2015, 2016, and 2019 despite being the dominant team is likely his way of telling me to invest enough to feel the hurt and detach enough to survive the pain. And all this, without missing a day of work. Without feeling wronged. Without basking in the afterglow of his light.
When – not if – India wins that elusive title, you can be sure that Virat Kohli won’t be hoisted on anyone’s shoulders. He might yell, jump… and then taunt the media, stopping us just short of worshipping him. Until he wins again. But life won’t wait. Traffic won’t stop. Because victory is simply the currency of his mortality.
A film critic (Film Companion) and columnist (The Hindu), Rahul Desai writes about everything cinematic under Mumbai's hot sun. When he isn't writing, you can find him losing in Fantasy League Sports, or exploring obscure countries to identify locations of his favourite films.