In a year India topped the Test and 50-over rankings, Virat Kohli was the most prominent player across the formats – and seventh in the Forbes list of sporting brands, ahead even of Barcelona’s Lionel Messi. Contemporary cricketers have averages, strike-rates and brand value, and Kohli was doing rather well in all three.
In Tests, his 1,059 runs came at 75; among those with 1,000, only Steve Smith had a better average (by one). Three of his five centuries were doubles; the other two were unbeaten. In one-day internationals, he scored most runs (1,460), and had the best average (76) of anyone who played more than ten innings; his strike-rate was nearly 100. In 46 internationals overall, he totalled 2,818 – more than 700 clear of the next best, Joe Root, and more than 1,000 ahead of Smith. It all contributed to India winning seven of their 11 Tests, 21 of 28 completed ODIs, and nine of 13 Twenty20s. And Kohli became Wisden’s Leading International Cricketer for the second year in a row, emulating Virender Sehwag in 2008 and 2009.
But statistics are only part of the story. The year began with his one-time mentor Anil Kumble as national coach, and ended with Ravi Shastri in charge, having replaced Kumble at Kohli’s behest. With the BCCI reduced to a shambles following Supreme Court rulings that took power from the hands of a few and placed it in the hands of even fewer, Kohli was monarch of all he surveyed.
His marriage in December to Bollywood star Anushka Sharma seemed to confirm his royal status. By leading his side to nine Test series wins in a row, comfortably an Indian record, between August 2015 and December 2017, Kohli became the most powerful man in Indian cricket. No matter that six were at home, and two in Sri Lanka: the success helped turn public focus away from the BCCI.
If Sachin Tendulkar was the symbol of India’s economic liberalisation and greater disposable income for the middle classes, Kohli – who turns 30 this year – is an icon of a country that is getting younger. More than 65% of India’s population is under 35, with all the self-confidence and in-your-face attitude that brings. Perhaps this is merely a synonym for passion, something Kohli has in everything he does.
At Bangalore in March 2017, he suggested Australian skipper Steve Smith was being dishonest (“I don’t want to use the C-word”) when he looked up to the dressing-room for advice on a referral. Smith dismissed it as a “brain fade”, but Kohli had made his point – as he did while gesturing, conducting the cheers of the crowd, telling an opponent off, or showing his disappointment when things were going wrong. If you were to watch a telecast focused exclusively on Kohli’s reactions, you could write a convincing report of the flow of the game. His face mirrors events.
The finest all-round batsman of the year is, in his heart, an old-fashioned Test player, conscious of the sport’s folklore, and his role in keeping the format alive. There is no contradiction in his energetic and innovative displays in white-ball cricket. In the 50-over format, he is the finest chaser in history: by the end of 2017, he averaged 93 when India won batting second, with 17 centuries. His 32 hundreds overall were topped only by Tendulkar’s 49. Both have scored more centuries than their age, like golfers carding a round in fewer strokes than theirs. And in Twenty20 internationals, Kohli has extended the limits of the possible by scoring at 137 per 100 balls, without any apparent strain or ugly strokeplay.
Rahul Dravid summed him up: “He has to do what he has to do to get the best out of himself. I would have been inauthentic if I had tried to wear tattoos and behaved like Kohli.”
Kohli’s psychological influence as captain has also been significant. In his first Test in charge, at Adelaide in December 2014, India were set 364 on the final day, and decided to go for it. Despite the second of his two centuries in the game, they fell short by 49 runs. Not since Tiger Pataudi had an Indian captain been so willing to risk defeat in pursuit of victory. Since then, Kohli has taken ownership of Indian cricket, bringing to it a rare energy and an even rarer focus on physical fitness. His big scores are tribute as much to the state of his technique as the state of his body. “I will not ask anyone to do anything I will not do myself,” he has said.
At the midpoint of his career, he is the only batsman with an average above 50 in all three formats, though his legacy as captain may be settled in 2018, after tours of South Africa and Australia, where India have never won a Test series, and England, where they have won one since 1986. As a batsman, England is Kohli’s last frontier; he averaged 13 on his previous visit, in 2014, some 40 below his career figure. There is more than one score to settle.
THE LEADING CRICKETER IN THE WORLD
|2003||Ricky Ponting (Australia)||2011||Kumar Sangakkara (Sri Lanka)|
|2004||Shane Warne (Australia)||2012||Michael Clarke (Australia)|
|2005||Andrew Flintoff (England)||2013||Dale Steyn (South Africa)|
|2006||Muttiah Muralitharan (Sri Lanka)||2014||Kumar Sangakkara (Sri Lanka)|
|2007||Jacques Kallis (South Africa)||2015||Kane Williamson (New Zealand)|
|2008||Virender Sehwag (India)||2016||Virat Kohli (India)|
|2009||Virender Sehwag (India)||2017||Virat Kohli (India)|
|2010||Sachin Tendulkar (India)|