Sachin Tendulkar was revered in Australia. Watching Sachin walk into the middle with the whole Australian crowd giving him a standing ovation gave Indian fans goosebumps. We took immense pride in watching one of our own earning so much respect in foreign shores.

In contrast, Virat Kohli was labelled a “spoilt brat” by the Australians in 2014. Even on his first tour to Australia in 2012, Kohli showed no remorse for showing his middle finger to a group of hecklers in the crowd at Sydney Cricket Ground. After the recently concluded Test series, Australian ex-players and media have gone all hammer and tongs, painting him as an outright villainous character. Yet, in some strange way, all this hate has made him all the more popular in his homeland.

India’s biggest celebrity

Virat Kohli was Forbes India’s most popular celebrity in 2016. The list puts him not just above cricketing icons like Sachin Tendulkar and MS Dhoni, but also Bollywood superstars like Shahrukh Khan and Salman Khan. Nothing sells like brand Kohli in India. Earlier this year, he signed a Rs 100 crore endorsement deal with Puma, making him the first Indian sportsperson to do so.

It’s easy to see why Kohli is so popular in India. He is the best cricketer in a country that adores the game and its stars. He is a fitness and style icon. He dates a famous Bollywood actress. He talks like a statesman and parties like a rockstar. He is what every youngster in India aspires to be.

An uncompromising and emotional leader

Captaincy has brought out Kohli’s personality even more than before. He has built this team in his image, a team that plays tough, uncompromising cricket. The youngsters in the team look up to him and want to be like him. KL Rahul has often credited Kohli’s mentorship in the Indian Premier League and Indian team for his rise.

As captain of the Indian team, Kohli is unlike any of his predecessors. In a way, he is the first unabashedly desi captain of the team. Kohli’s personality is not without its flaws, but his flaws resemble our flaws and that makes him so endearing.

Tiger Pataudi taught the team to not get intimidated by the opposition and play to win. Sunil Gavaskar continuously stood up and spoke against Western hegemony in the game. Saurav Ganguly was aggressive, in-your-face and encouraged his team to fight fire with fire. But they were all still cricketing aristocracy. We admired them but didn’t identify with them as much.

Kapil Dev’s tendency to wear his heart on the sleeve every time he played for India made him immensely popular. MS Dhoni was the rustic, small town guy who countered intimidation with a smile rather than confrontation.

Kohli takes things more personally than anyone before him. He had said in one of his interviews, “You don’t really go out there and take unnecessary things being said to you from anyone. I follow that in life, I follow that in cricket as well.” Kohli is the angry Indian man on the street. Kohli is us.

Cultural ethos of sport

When it comes to sledging, we often hear cricketers talking about “not crossing a line”. Trouble is, there is not a single universal line but many lines that depend on where you come from. Tell an Indian man on the street a “Yo mama” joke and he would find it anything but funny. The traditional way to play the sport was to leave everything that was said in the heat of the battle on the field. It was considered the honourable thing to do. Indians never found it comfortable but still tried to fit into this culture as they craved acceptance. Kohli doesn’t bother with acceptance.

Indians expect the same standards on and off the field from friends. A lot has been made of Kohli’s statement about not being friends with Australians, but he isn’t the first one to get offended by their on-field personal abuse. AB De Villiers, in the aftermath of the 2014 Test series against Australia, had said, “I see that it’s part of the game, but they can’t expect us to be mates with them off the field then, if they get very personal”.


On the same tour, most South Africans refused to venture into the Australian dressing room for a customary beer. David Warner, who had accused AB De Villiers of ball tampering on that tour later retracted his allegation but still defended their behaviour by saying, “We do like to be aggressive and sledging is a form of the game when we’re out there.”

If cricketers want to restore some harmony to this game, then they must learn to acknowledge the lines of their opponents. The respectable and tolerant way is to appreciate the cultural difference and be more careful about not crossing someone else’s line.

This is where Kohli himself can improve as a captain. He doesn’t need to leave his own aggressive ways, but he needs to acknowledge and understand that a lot of offensive things said on the field are not intended to personally hurt anyone, they are just part of someone else’s ethos, it’s probably the only way they know to play.