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The truth about Virat Kohli: The Sporting Life by Rudraneil Sengupta

As Virat Kohli took his last bow as India’s T20 captain — and word is the ODI captaincy may not be with him much longer either — there was some noise about whether he leaves behind a legacy worth something. After all, the man has not won a world cup. Even in the inaugural ICC World Test Championship (WTC), his team finished second-best to gritty, modest New Zealand.

Let’s set aside for a moment the tactical, decision-making merits of Kohli as captain in any format, about which for and against arguments can go on indefinitely, with fair points on both sides.

But legacy? There’s a simple answer to that. The main point that’s deployed to talk about his failures as captain — not winning an ICC trophy — is actually part of the answer. Kohli’s legacy is that he built a team so strong that every one of its fans expected it to stroll through to a big Cup. When that didn’t happen, it hurt, it felt inexplicable, it necessitated a quest for answers.

But set that aside and you see that Kohli, across formats, forged a team in his image — an all-weather unit that could, and did, go to any major cricketing country in the world and beat them there. That’s the hardest thing to do in cricket. It’s what sets great teams apart from almost-great teams.

It takes years, decades, to instil that winning belief, that temperament that does not really distinguish between Wankhede, Wanderers and WACA, but simply treats a game as a contest that’s there for the winning.

Indian cricket has always valued deference to the opposition, a cultural cloak of nicety of dubious moral provenance. That’s why Sourav Ganguly yanking off his shirt in celebration at Lord’s is such an indelible moment in India’s cricket history. It signalled the beginning of a change.

MS Dhoni carried that forward, with his wild and wily success in white-ball cricket, his non-deferential but calm attitude towards opponents — no one was above or below him and that was just a given. But it was Kohli who completely broke with tradition, becoming the in-your-face, all-aggressive face of Indian cricket. This was bound to make some people uncomfortable. That’s usually the effect of breaking with tradition and the cultural norm.

Kohli once told me that he likes to be in “f**k you mode” when he’s playing. “This team, regardless of whether we are on top or not, we speak,” he added. “We take it very well and we give it back even better.”

It is impossible not to draw a direct connection between this change in attitude and the Indian men’s cricket team’s phenomenal run over the last four or five years, where the team made it a habit to win matches overseas, including two unprecedented Test series wins in Australia, a 2-1 Test series lead in England (with that infamous cancelled Manchester Test now set to be played next year), and the run of wins that carried the team to the WTC final.

In 2015, when Kohli was first handed the Test captaincy, he said he wanted to build a team that would “dominate Test cricket”, a team that would be “aggressive together and never back out of a challenge”. That’s exactly what he’s done.

Kohli has been consistent over the years in his love for Tests over all other formats. It’s Test success that really drives him, understandable for a man with such freakish batting talent.

Kohli’s legacy includes the team exiting in the league stage from the T20 World Cup but also the near-implausible victory at the Gabba. Pick the one that means more to you.

In ODIs too, Kohli built a team that’s second to none in chasing down wins and he himself is without equal when it comes to batting towards a target — he averages 68.09 in ODI chases. To give that perspective, the second-best such average in the history of the game is Sachin Tendulkar’s 42.33.

Perhaps, relieved of the burden of white-ball captaincy, Kohli will now find the few pieces that have gone missing from his batting. He is at the age, for instance, when the reflexes drop by just a fraction, and batters have to accept this and make the necessary changes to fix hand-eye coordination.

A few years ago, in a wonderful interview with The Cricket Monthly, Kohli spoke about how he “appreciates” bad times, and how “it is a lovely experience of how things start, they become stable, and when a new thing comes along, they become unstable again, then you get back on track again”.

Kohli is at that cusp again, new things are coming, things are unstable. It brings out the best in him.

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