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Unapologetically yours, Virat Kohli

As India's greatest sportsman since Tendulkar goes where no cricketer has gone before, he's done it in a way that's uniquely, inimitably his own

Anirudh Menon
Virat Kohli knows he's the best, and isn't afraid to embrace it  •  Associated Press

Virat Kohli knows he's the best, and isn't afraid to embrace it  •  Associated Press

Fifty now. The big five-oh. Virat Kohli has just cemented himself in sporting history by going past one of the great no-way-this-can-be-touched records of cricket at breakneck speed, zooming past Sachin Tendulkar's 49 ODI centuries in just over half the time it took the great man. For a generation that grew up on Tendulkar carrying India on his shoulders and leading them to the forefront of the world game, this seems such a ludicrous, unfathomable feat.
Ask Kohli, who is of that generation, and he'll tell you that he's nothing without his predecessor, that Tendulkar's feat remains unmatched whatever the numbers tell you, that Tendulkar laid the road upon which Kohli has driven his F1 car of a career on. But he has done it in a style that's his own.
Where Tendulkar was the quintessential '90s hero: soft-spoken, unassuming, someone your parents would look at and go "Why can't you be more like him?", Kohli DGAF.
He wants the spotlight, revels in it, and doesn't care what you or your parents think about that. Where "Saaachin! Saaaachin!" would have been met with a gentle wave of the hand and that melt-your-heart, why-is-he-so-cute smile, Kohli will break into the bhangra. He'll play master conductor to the orchestra that is the Indian cricket crowd. He'll imitate Shah Rukh Khan's signature moves. He'll joke with the opposition, he'll swear at them (Ben Stokes, anyone?), he'll hug them. He's effusive in his praise - telling anyone who'll listen that AB de Villiers is the GOAT, bowing to Chris Gayle's T20 magnificence - but doesn't blush when he is praised in turn.
"Yeah, obviously, I'm great." In every sense of the phrase, it reflects modern India's take on itself. Everyone here wants to be Kohli.
He is the third most followed sportsperson on Instagram (something that always seems to take the average American podcaster by surprise). He commands the highest price for endorsements in Indian sport: BharatPe founder Ashneer Grover claimed earlier this year that he had signed 11 national team cricketers for half the price of Kohli. Any promotional material from any broadcaster in any country that does cricket will feature Kohli. Australia calls him "King". Popularity, cojones, respect from outside the country, and material wealth - Virat Kohli has it all in spades. This is an über alpha male in a country that worships alpha males.
And yet, he's different.
The angry young brat who wanted to pick a fight with anything and everything has been replaced with a wholly different kind of energy… and it's kinda cool.
Kohli now is an alpha male who's unafraid to tell the world that at one point he had been suffering, that he had felt alone. One who admitted that his game needed working on, then worked on it, and broke out laughing when he scored a drought-ending century. The laughter was self-deprecating, aimed at himself: "Is this why I was whining for two years?" Alpha males, Indian ones in particular, do not laugh at themselves. Kohli does.
He celebrates his team-mates' triumphs much more than he does his own, and defends them loudly, louder than he does himself. He may love the spotlight, but he loves sharing it even more.
His obsession is the stuff of legend, sacrificing favourite foods and applying every waking hour to honing his body and his craft in his chase for greatness, but he lets this unending quest for glory go (and what's more glorious than a Test series victory against Australia down under?) so he can be there for his wife and the birth of their child. He is as much Mr Anushka Sharma as she is Mrs Virat Kohli: and he loves normalising that in a society that doesn't.
He gets this generation but doesn't necessarily pander to them, and that somehow makes him even more popular. He is the pinnacle of masculinity single-handedly trying to redefine what that term means in this country.
Well, almost single-handedly. Neeraj Chopra is arguably the only other sportsman in the country who is on the same alpha-male plane as Kohli is. And much like Kohli, Chopra is different. The javelin thrower is an apex predator on the field, but the moment he steps off it, he has all the energy of a lovable puppy. He thanks people for staying up and watching him, when he could just as easily have used the screen time to shout about his own success. He embraces his competitors and does not stand for any nationalistic toxicity.
He is, like Kohli, a serial winner: they are the best at what they do, and they do it under some of the most intense pressure in world sport. Chopra comes out to throw with a country expecting him to win every time, and he wins every time. Kohli comes out to bat with a billion eyes on him, and bats like he's in his backyard, having a throwdown with his kid. Pressure is to them what it is to carbon: the heavier it is, the more they turn into things that sparkle.
Where Kohli is suave and urbane, Chopra is delightfully desi, a country boy at heart regardless of where he is, but they are both relatable. Neither is Tendulkar, but Tendulkar was never them either.
Tendulkar and Kohli inspire the same kind of awe for what they did on the 22 yards. Kohli's takedown of Lasith Malinga and Sri Lanka in Hobart was as audacious as Tendulkar's disassembling of Shane Warne and Australia in Sharjah, Kohli's physics-defying six off Haris Rauf was treated with the same open-mouthed shock as Tendulkar upper-cutting Shoaib Akhtar, Kohli chasing GOAT-ness is as undisputed as Tendulkar's target-setting was. But off those 22 yards, they carry two distinct auras.
If Tendulkar's bravery lay in venturing past sporting horizons untouched by other Indian sportspeople, Kohli's is more all-encompassing. His rise on the field mirrored India's ascent to absolute control of the world game, but he has had the willingness to open himself to more around him, to change his ways when he recognised there may be better methods.
Kohli could easily have become a poster boy for hyper-nationalism, but he isn't now. Gone are the days when he'd lambast you for not having an Indian batting role model. Now, he preaches camaraderie and international brotherhood. Just look at the way he greets a Babar Azam or a Shaheen Shah Afridi. These displays of friendship are more public than ever because Kohli recognises the impact these visuals have. He speaks a language this generation gets, and he wants them to understand his message.
Online abuse - someone recently tweeted, "wondering" why Kohli was wearing green for Diwali, and that's some of the milder stuff he is subjected to - is the proverbial water off a duck's back, because he knows every one of those trolls will be back, proclaiming him king the moment he bends a knee and drives a perfectly reasonable delivery through extra cover, his MRF-stickered bat forming the most delicious arc in this sport.
And so he'll remain who he is, unapologetically. He may get a 51st century in the next match or a golden duck, but he won't change. He'll ask crowds to stop chanting about Shubman Gill's supposed girlfriend and focus on Gill the athlete. He'll run harder than anyone in the team, holding himself to physical standards most would consider alien to the sport he plays. He'll tell you not to light too many crackers, to protect the environment. He'll dance away while his captains make fielding adjustments and rush to their aid when they need any advice. He'll bowl off his wrong foot, take a wicket down leg side and howl at the absurdity of it all. He'll stand up against anyone who abuses a team-mate they think makes for an easier target. He'll look around and see a stadium full of "Virat 18" shirts and bask in the glory. He'll wear his heart on his sleeve, speak his mind and continue to not care what anyone else thinks of any of it. After all, he knows he's the best.

Anirudh Menon is a columnist with ESPN India