ICC World Cup 2019: Virat Kohli – The man behind the mask

Virat Kohli is acutely aware of when the camera is trained on him because the camera is always trained on Virat Kohli.

Out in the middle, Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan are batting for India but the camera, always inquisitive, wants to know what Kohli is doing in the confines of the dressing room.

His face is now on the big screen, an impish, expressive face; a West Delhi face, a Cheeku face, chortling away amidst many faces that closely resemble his own—manicured beards and funky hairdos and glossy mouths, all of them contorted and cackling a little too hard at a joke cracked by their master.

Then comes the roar of many thousand throats; Kohli’s alarm. He side-eyes the big screen and he side-eyes the camera and, like a school kid caught with a chalk mid-hurl, the mirth and mischief drains from his being. Now he is stone-faced and voyeur-proof. Now he is alert and wide-eyed and his fingers pick his beard. Now he is not Cheeku and now he is only Virat Kohli, and he is going out to bat.

Kohli lives in a world where all lenses and eyes are on him. Kohli inhabits a world where he tells you every day what shoes he wears and what foods he avoids and his favourite holiday destinations and yet reveals nothing about himself. Kohli occupies a world where he needs a security officer to escort him a few yards from one hotel room to another; in a world where he takes a freight elevator to eat his meals in the hotel kitchen because he has already foreseen children getting hurt in the ensuing stampede in the foyer if he walks into the restaurant.

Kohli also lives in a world where when the first Indian wicket falls, everyone except the dismissed batsman feels a sense of elation. Everyone—Indians, Pakistanis, Zimbabweans, and even Harry Kane— briefly united in a zone straddling admiration and expectation; this is the zone that Kohli truly thrives in; this is the space that Kohli calls his world.

If Kohli’s existence beyond the Toblerone-shaped boundary is defined by the frenzied following usually reserved for pop stars, then his life within the circle is akin to a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan performance on loop; the rhythm, the energy, the effort, the highs and the higher highs, the reined in rage.

For, when the first wicket falls and he rises from his chair and clip-clops down the stairs, Kohli has already shed his public avatar. Under that helmet and behind the grille veiling his beard and inside his sleeves hiding his tattoos, Kohli truly reveals himself; and his meaning.

Now he is again that boy from Meera Bagh who first picked up a cricket bat, marvelling at his own set of superior skills. Now he is that teen at the Kotla who dried his eyes with his gloves and buried the sorrow of his father’s untimely death in his willow. Now he is again that young man standing unblinkingly at Mohali and 22 yards away from his hero for the first time and wondering what makes Sachin Tendulkar’s bat loftier to his own. Now he is again a veteran, a superstar and a legend at 30, using his blade with cunning to stab at runs and records and even legacies.

Unlike Tendulkar, Kohli’s tryst with cricket wasn’t born out of a moment of epiphany. Everyone knows the tale: a 10-year old, and a mischievous one at that, saw Kapil Dev hoist the trophy in 1983 and decided to channel his abundant energies into becoming the best batsman he could possibly be so that he, too, could one day hoist the trophy.

And, unlike Tendulkar, Kohli will never have a legacy World Cup mainly because the first time Tendulkar lifted it, in the twilight of his career, Kohli lifted it as well, in the very nascence of his (fact: Tendulkar is the oldest Indian to have won the World Cup; Kohli is the youngest).

So, what does cricket’s most significant personality of today expect from cricket’s most significant tournament, one that he has already conquered? Lighting it up, for one. In neither of the two World Cups he has featured in, both of which he began with hundreds incidentally, has Kohli pierced the cluster of the tournament’s top run-getters—18th best in 2011 and 21st on the list in 2015—unpardonable positions for a batsman of Kohli’s current stature.

To be fair to him, he wasn’t then the epoch-defining Kohli that he has been since the 2015 World Cup, where, for four long years, he has averaged a frankly ridiculous 78.29 runs in ODIs and in four short years he has struck 19 hundreds in the format; as many as Brian Lara or Mahela Jayawardene did in their entire careers. (Another fact: in just his last 28 ODIs, Kohli has hit as many centuries as Viv Richards and Matthew Hayden did in their lives, 11.) Both the outlandish performances and the mesmeric consistency of the outlandish performances have been breathtaking; quite the opposite of his process of getting those runs in the first place.

The two foundations of Kohli’s post 2015 batting are simple: self-belief and basics. Weeding out complexities from his game has helped with maintenance and upkeep. He isn’t a daredevil and perhaps because of that, he is invincible. To achieve this almost tedious brilliance, Kohli carries in his mind a map of mental landmines. He doesn’t dance down the track. He seldom cuts the ball. He never sweeps. He doesn’t know what a hook is.

To quarantine one’s instincts the way Kohli has, often in the face of devious temptation, is not for everyone. A lesser man would’ve given in to his gut, or self-destructed. But Kohli has made that mind, full of treacherous contours, his comfort zone; his safe space. Sometimes, and strictly from afar, he lets the world take a peek at his genius. But if we get too close, with our probing glass lenses, the man slips on his mask and from the corner of those uncovered eyes, he watches us watching him.

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