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Feature

Virat Kohli at RCB: Witnessing a hero in the flesh

He will always be associated with this team, a team that has created its brand and its identity around him

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
27-Apr-2023
Virat Kohli walks off after finishing the job for his team, Royal Challengers Bangalore vs Mumbai Indians, IPL 2023, Bengaluru, April 2, 2023

"When I say 'King', you say 'Kohli'!", the PA at Chinnaswamy knows who is in charge of this city  •  Associated Press

Walking along Cubbon Road in Bengaluru at six o'clock on Wednesday evening, I had a stray thought. Is this what Naples was like in the time of Diego Maradona?
Everyone in front of me has the same thing written on the back of their shirt: 18 VIRAT. Every ten metres I walk, someone else is trying to sell me a cheap replica of a Royal Challengers Bangalore jersey, each and every one emblazoned with the same print.
If it was not already clear who the 40,000 fans at the Chinnaswamy Stadium had come to see, it was confirmed by his emergence for the warm-ups. As he walked on to the outfield, Virat Kohli's face popped up on the big screen, and the crowd came to life.
I had witnessed the same love for Kohli during the previous Sunday afternoon's game, a hard-fought victory over Rajasthan Royals. After his dismissal, pinned lbw first ball by Trent Boult, the ground fell silent. The TV broadcast cut to an older woman in the stands, who put her hand on her head then turned to her neighbour in utter disbelief.
But all was forgotten by the time he was patrolling the long-on boundary, temporarily back as RCB's captain, with Faf du Plessis managing an injury. Kohli blew a kiss to the crowd, towards the executive box where his wife Anushka Sharma was sitting; the big-screen, slow-motion replay drew a louder cheer than the catch itself.
Having witnessed Sunday's game behind the insulated glass of the press box, I moved to the stands on Wednesday night to hear the crowd at full throttle. The Chinnaswamy is an old, enclosed, concrete stadium with remarkable acoustics; it seems to amplify the noise created by its crowd, which is invariably a sell-out for IPL games.
As Wanindu Hasaranga bowled the fifth over of Kolkata Knight Riders' innings, Kohli positioned himself at mid-off. After each delivery, as he walked back towards the edge of the ring, the lower tier of C Stand cheered as one, hoping beyond hope that he would acknowledge them. He only touched the ball once, but was still the centre of attention.
The PA announcer knows who is in charge of this city, and plays up to it. In the previous over, he had declared to the fans that it was time for an apotheosis: "When I say 'King', you say 'Kohli'!" he instructed, and so they did. It is a remarkable status for anyone to even begin to live up to.
But Kohli is RCB, and RCB is Kohli. He is the only player to have featured for the same franchise in all 16 IPL seasons, playing in all but four of their 235 IPL matches. He was here as a 19-year-old boy on the competition's opening night, playing for the same team against the same opposition, and he is still here now as a 34-year-old man. He will always be associated with this team, a team that has created its brand and its identity around him.
When Kohli gave up the RCB captaincy 18 months ago, he appeared to unilaterally and indefinitely extend his contract with the franchise: "I will only play for RCB until my retirement," he had said in a statement. Nobody batted an eyelid. As if they would ever dare to let him leave?
He is front and centre of every sponsorship photoshoot, his face plastered on every billboard in the surrounding area. Kohli is not only a cricketer, but also a brand: you can buy suitcases, tyres, wellness supplements, orthodontic aligners and air-conditioning units which come with his seal of approval, and are reminded to do so every time you switch on your television.
So when Kohli came out to bat alongside du Plessis, a 201-run target in their sights, there was a sense that this was why everyone was here. KKR's innings had felt like a necessary inconvenience, a support act to warm the crowd up before the main event.
As he has throughout this season, Kohli started positively. He slashed the first ball he faced to deep third for four, and after hitting Suyash Sharma for back-to-back fours at the start of the fifth over, he had raced to 30 off 15 balls with five boundaries, strutting around the crease with a characteristic swagger.
In doing so, Kohli set a new record for the most runs by a T20 batter at a single venue. The landmark went largely unnoticed, but was fitting: along with MS Dhoni playing for Chennai Super Kings at Chepauk, and Rohit Sharma representing Mumbai Indians at Wankhede, Kohli playing for RCB at Chinnaswamy is one of this league's iconic combinations.
But after the soft dismissals of du Plessis and Glenn Maxwell, the two other superstars in this RCB batting line-up, Kohli was almost on his own. There were few qualms about his now-characteristic slowdown against spin; given the circumstances, it seemed their only chance of hauling down this target was for Kohli to bat deep into the innings.
When Shahbaz Ahmed, Mahipal Lomror and Suyash Prabhudessai's names were read out, they hardly drew a response. The contrast in reception for RCB's big three and the rest of their middle order emphasised the over reliance on a select few that this franchise has always faced, one reflected in their supporters' adoration of their established stars but apparent ambivalence towards their young players.
Lomror provided an effective foil. He dominated a 55-run stand with Kohli for the fourth wicket, hitting 34 off 18 balls before he was caught on the rope, falling just short in an attempt to strike back-to-back sixes off Varun Chakravarthy.
Kohli's method - trying to build a partnership to attack at the death after losing three early wickets - left the game in his hands. And when, on 54, he swung Andre Russell out towards midwicket after a lull, there was a brief moment when he seemed to have got enough power into his pull shot to clear the ropes.
He hadn't. Venkatesh Iyer dived forward and clung on to a difficult catch, and the game was as good as done. Silence enveloped the ground as the TV umpire confirmed that Iyer's catch was clean. Kohli trudged off, taking a realistic chance of a third consecutive victory with him.
Forty-five minutes later, Kohli was in front of the cameras again, sending his team a rocket after a sloppy performance in the field. As he spoke, Cubbon Road was full of people again. They traipsed towards the metro station or hailed auto rickshaws, having witnessed a defeat that must have been all too familiar for supporters of a franchise who have always fallen just short.
But those same supporters had witnessed a hero in the flesh, cutting and pulling, living and breathing. And in three weeks' time, when RCB return home after five consecutive away games, there is no doubt that the road will be filled with shirts emblazoned with '18 VIRAT' on their backs once more.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98