A match between India and the Netherlands would not be considered box office material, but a certain Virat Kohli made sure that the eyes of the cricket world are on the Sydney Cricket Ground on Thursday.
After his monumental match-winning innings against Pakistan, the charismatic master batsman’s every move will be followed by the legions of fans, not just those from India. Aussies are also fascinated by the former India captain, who plays the game with an approach traditionally associated with champions and players from these shores.
Recently, among the crowds of fans from Pakistan and India was a group of Australians who chanted Kohli’s name aloud. This was when he was fielding, before hitting the two most historic sixes he’d ever hit.
Understandably, a cricketer of his stature is universally loved. But in Australia they consider him one of them. His traits are their own: the in-your-face machismo and the don’t-mess-with-me attitude, the uncompromising determination to win, what they call Australianism.
That’s how former Australian cricketer Lisa Sthalekar feels. “The way Virat Kohli plays his cricket is actually Australian. You look at what he’s done with Indian cricket, he’s pushed the fitness element and prioritized fielding. That core principle is what Australian cricketers admire and not just his ability,” she tells The Indian Express, adding the manic running between wickets and aggressive body language.
“He is a name that even those who don’t follow cricket are sure to know. And it goes without saying that he captures the imagination of people who love cricket,” adds the former all-rounder.
Kohli to them is as Australian as can be. What other cricketer could win the affection of the same crowd he had snapped his middle finger at, as he did on his first senior tour of Australia in 2011-12? What other cricketer could be so admired despite provoking a verbal altercation with their captains (Tim Paine and Steve Smith)?
They also liked Sachin Tendulkar and Sunil Gavaskar, Brian Lara and Viv Richards. Yet none of them was their own. Kohli is their own.
A string of former Australian cricketers have expressed the same sentiment in the past. Greg Chappell stated in a column for the Sydney Morning Herald two years ago: “Kohli is the most Australian non-Australian cricketer of all time.” He quoted a Gandhi metaphor to make his point: “Many previous Indian cricket teams tended to play with undue reverence for their opponents, as if they were in accordance with the Gandhian principle. Virat Kohli does not believe in passive resistance. He is a proponent of total aggression.”
For the Pakistan-India match in Melbourne, Sthalekar had brought some of her friends from the Australian Football League along to experience the exciting atmosphere of the match and watch Kohli.
“The two guys I was with said the AFL Grand Final is all about corporates, just about the kind of scene you want to see to be seen. When they saw this match, they said that everyone is so emotionally involved in this match. I said yes. Live and die by this result on who wins and who doesn’t,” she says.
In Sydney, where India plays the Orange, the opportunity would not be as overwhelming as expected. But there’s no shortage of buzz to watch Kohli.
The trams in the SCG line warn passengers of a busy Thursday and to plan their journey accordingly. Needless to say, the trams and buses, the alleys and roads leading to the SCG on Thursday would be packed.
Social media has also helped to forge an emotional bond between Kohli and fans from different countries. In the past, cricketers were aloof and distant while Kohli is active on social media. “Virat is more accessible than all those guys because of the technological age we are in. People have deeper connections and more cricket is being played at the same time. When Sachin retired, he had only played one T20 International. The game has changed so much and Virat is more accessible and that’s (one reason) why the love affair continues,” says Sthalekar.
It’s not just that Australia loves Kohli, Kohli has loved Australia too. It was here that he first made his mark on his world class, during the hurricane hunt against Sri Lanka in Hobart. On these shores, he scored his first Test 100, became a Test captain for the first time and later became the first Indian captain to win a Test series Down Under. Here he averages 54 in tests, 47 in ODIs and 64 in T20Is. Add to the list of his epic performances the 82 not out against Pakistan on Sunday – a knock straight from the Australian playbook of winning matches that seemed lost at one point. A knock on Mike Hussey or Michael Bevan would have written the script.
Sthalekar is still in awe of those innings. “What a power!” she gushes. “Those two balls at the end of the 19th over will go down in history. It’s a shot that not many people in this world can play – on top, the weight backs up and puts it right over the bowler’s head for six hours. It’s amazing what that gentleman can do,” she says.
And amid the swarms of blue at the SCG on Thursday would be those in yellow and gold jerseys, chanting Kohli’s name and singing aloud. Because he is one of them.