Back in July 2011, Virat Kohli spoke of his desire to become the batsman India’s opposition “need to get out”. It sounded an ambitious claim: he had just flopped in his maiden Test series, in the Caribbean, where he had been worked over by Fidel Edwards, and was left out of the squad for the subsequent tour of England. Fast-forward to 2016, and Kohli was very much the man the opposition needed to get out. They just couldn’t fathom how. No matter where they bowled, he seemed to have an answer. In a year when the Indian economy experienced more bumps than an autorickshaw ride, his stock rose steadily, with the odd dramatic spike.
And his eventual figures were eye-popping.In all three genres, Kolhi averaged more than anyone: 75 in Tests, 92 in one-dayers and a phenomenal 106 in Twenty20 internationals. His 51-ball unbeaten 82 at Mohali to send Australia home from the World T20 in March was one of the limited-overs performances of the year, typifying his mastery of the chase. In 13 Twenty20 innings for India, he was undefeated seven times,and scored seven half-centuries.
And by the end of 2016, his career average in all three formats was over 50. It needed something special to outshine team-mate and off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin, who was taking wickets by the bucket load and scoring useful runs too – but Kohli managed it. When a young Sachin Tendulkar had reached the summit a couple of decades earlier, it had been no surprise.
But Kohli was no wonder kid, and you might argue – though not too loudly in his home city of Delhi – that he isn’t as naturally gifted as some of his peers. That he is now the complete package is testament to his will. Like a man possessed, he has simply forced his way to the top. And he is still only 28. Take the 2014-15 Test series in Australia, which he began with a question mark hanging over his ability against seam bowling after struggling in England. Instead, he mastered the likes of Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris by daring to bat outside his crease, and finished with four hundreds. Then there was the2016 IPL, which he started in the shadow of Bangalore team-mates Chris Gayle and A. B. de Villiers. Yet Kohli totalled 973 runs – 125 more than the next best, David Warner – and averaged 81, hitting four of the tournament’s seven hundreds.
And he did it all without obviously changing his game. Where once his puppy fat was conspicuous, today he is the author and epitome of the body-over-mind revolution that has changed the way Indian cricketers prepare. His training videos are all the rage. He attributes his transformation in Test cricket to his approach to fitness, embracing boredom off the field to ensure entertainment on it. It was no coincidence that, in 2016, he turned three of his four Test hundreds into doubles.
Whatever the scenario, Kohli knew what he had to do. Against West Indies in Antigua, he took the game by its scruff and scored 200. Against New Zealand at Indore, he curbed his natural instincts and compiled a patient 211. Against England at Mumbai, he hit a breathtaking 235, and finished a series he had bent to his will with an average of 109. That innings marked him out as Tendulkar’s heir, but he was not finished: in February 2017, against Bangladesh at Hyderabad, he became the first to score a double-century in four successive Test series, beating Don Bradman and Rahul Dravid, who managed three. Being India’s captain – and Kohli is now in total charge, after M. S. Dhoni stepped down as skipper of the white-ball teams in January 2017 – is akin to being a reality star. He lives his life in the public eye, the cameras always turned towards him, the scrutiny never-ending.
Yet Kohli has thrived. By the time England left India nursing a 4–0 defeat, he averaged almost 64 as captain, the best for an Indian, with Tendulkar’s 51 a far-off second. And he capped his gargantuan year with the bat by warding off rumours on social media about his engagement to a Bollywood star, treating the gossip as he had every overpitched delivery during the preceding 12 months: with disdain. A lack of runs in England remains the only blip on his CV, as Jimmy Anderson had the temerity to suggest during the Mumbai Test. The reaction next morning of Ashwin, who questioned Anderson’s sanity as he walked out to bat in the game’s dying moments, said something about Kohli’s standing among his team-mates. And it would take an equally brave man to bet against him setting the record straight when India return to England in 2018.