Welcome back to the planet, Virat. It's been a while. It's not in the best shape it's ever been right now, but it'll have to do, because it is where we all eventually end up.
Although, for a while, it did genuinely look like earth might never be big enough for Virat Kohli
, that Kohli had become so big he wasn't supranational, it was possible to think of him eclipsing multiverses and not traversing them: think Sachin Tendulkar
, add MS Dhoni
, times the sum by Bollywood, all to the power West Delhi.
Kohli was the barometer through which the health of a game - even the health of a nation - could be measured. If Kohli said he loved Test cricket, then Test cricket was still breathing. If Kohli shook hands with Shahid Afridi, it was possible to imagine harmony between the two countries. If Kohli didn't play in a series, that country's cricket economy was doomed. With Kohli, broadcasters happily ripped off the façade that cricket is a team game, training their cameras on him. A Kohli net session became a must-watch event.
For a while, on the field, Kohli was infallible, indefatigable, unquenchable, and above all, inevitable. All the biggest and the greatest go through this one period, and perhaps the only difference ends up being of degrees. We wonder, not only when this greatness will ever stop, but how it can possibly ever stop? With each one of them, we think this one - this one - will surely be the greatest of them all.
And then, without paying it any more attention than what you would to a temporary run of un-great scores, a lean run turns into lean days turns into lean months turns into a lean year turns into the start of the regression back to great, rather than greatest turns into the start of the end. Because - and this is a lesson we happily forget every time - gravity gets us all (the Don excepted) in the end.
Massive caveat: this is Kohli, who is 33, and has been the gold standard when it comes to fitness. In a time when more athletes are being great deeper into their 30s, it's entirely plausible to see a whole new coda to Kohli's career over the next five, six years. He is Kohli after all, who will never be done with proving somebody, anybody, wrong.
But when you burn as intensely as Kohli has done, there's always the risk that burnout happens quicker. In which light, this phase of Kohli, ticking over two years now, is beginning to feel a little bit more loaded than just a phase. A phase is what a teenager passes through; for adults, it may need a more serious diagnosis.
Kohli is now sparring with administrators. Two years ago, this was unthinkable. He was untouchable. Nobody could have picked a fight with him. They all let him be so that the idea that he would one day have to take to a press conference to fight back against a BCCI press release seemed comically beneath him
Two years without a hundred of any kind, two years in which his Test average has fallen five runs. If he bats every innings this series, is dismissed each time and scores less than 198 runs, his Test average will fall under 50. Meaning that by his 100th Test, Kohli's Test average could be under 50. Little says batting mortality like an average under 50, in any era.
Kind of like age, though, the average can sometimes also just be a number; it's not always indicative of how one feels, especially when it is flitting around high-end landmark numbers. Still, it is strange to think of Kohli as a sub-50 Test batter; the last time he was that was August 2017, when he'd spent nearly a year hovering around that 50 mark. Two of India's greatest batters before him, Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid, were, by their 100th Tests, both averaging 57.
As with everything, though, Covid-19 has warped the texture of this Kohli run. It feels both like it has gone on for a while but also that it hasn't; two years is plenty of time, but he's played 13 Tests in that time, whereas he played nearly twice as many - 24 Tests - in the two-year period before that.
If it was only a question of his batting, though, it would be simpler because it's not as if he has looked like some struggling, out-of-sorts batter. His last 11 Test innings include scores of 44, 42, 20, 55, 50, 44 and 36. This is not out of form.
But Kohli is now sparring with administrators. Two years ago, this was unthinkable. He was untouchable. Nobody could have picked a fight with him. The Committee of Administrators let him be. The coach let him be. The players let him be. They all let him be so that the idea that he would one day have to take to a press conference to fight back against a BCCI press release
seemed comically beneath him.
He's no longer captain of all formats. And because he's been pushed out in one, it allows the germ of another previously unthinkable thought to slip in - that there may even come a time soon when he is no longer a part of at least one white-ball side. Hell, if the BCCI wants to get vindictive, he may no longer be part of the other. Far-fetched still, but then this is now a regular, worldly situation, a scrap between a board and star player. This has happened before. To other stars. Kohli was going to be the one who transcended all this and now he's just another star.
It says something about his impact that he's still likely to achieve something no Asian captain has if India win in South Africa and he then avoids defeat next summer in the re-scheduled Test against England - if he's still captain, no longer perishing that thought. He'll become the first Asian captain to have won Test series in England, Australia, and South Africa.
But the sharpness, the bristle, can't help but be somewhat blunted now. In a happier way, from the other end of the spectrum of life experiences to a workplace scrap, parenthood cannot help but have done the same. Few things can cause a razor-sharp, myopic focus to be diffused as a child can.
This is Kohli's new world, one in which it's possible to see him no longer as the essential figure or as clearly defined against the background. For more or less three decades, Indian cricket, and by extension world cricket, has had one global star. Through Tendulkar, then Dhoni and then Kohli, the game has tried to explain itself to the outside world. Through each it has sought to measure itself against the outside world, to sell itself to the outside world, to find its place in the outside world. Each one has been more burdened than the last. Maybe, the time is coming to start thinking about the next in that line.
All of which, of course, is exactly what Kohli needs, to think that he's being written off, to think that he has enemies to slay. No better time than now, in this new world, to find that old motivation.
Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo