A match between India and the Netherlands would not be considered box-office material, but a certain Virat Kohli has ensured that the eyes of the cricketing world would be fixed on the Sydney Cricket Ground on Thursday.
After his monumental match-winning innings against Pakistan, every move of the charismatic master batsman will be followed by the legions of fans, and not just those from India. Aussies are also fascinated by the former India captain, who plays the game with an approach traditionally associated with champion sides and players from these shores.
The other day, among the multitudes of Pakistan and India fans was a section of Australians, chanting aloud Kohli’s name. This was when he was fielding, before he struck the two most historic sixes he had ever hit.
It’s understandable that a cricketer of his stature is universally loved. But in Australia, they consider him one of their own. His traits are their own — the in-your-face machismo and the you- don’t-mess-with-me attitude, the single-minded determination to win, what they call Australianism.
So feels former Aussie cricketer Lisa Sthalekar. “The way Virat Kohli plays his cricket is actually Australian. You look at what he has done to Indian cricket, he has pushed the fitness element and prioritised fielding. That core principle is what Australian cricketers admire and not just his ability,” she tells The Indian Express. Add to that the manic running between wickets and aggressive body language.
“His is a name that even those who don’t follow cricket will definitely know. And needless to say, he captures the imagination of people who love cricket,” the former all-rounder adds.
Kohli, for them, is as Australian as it could be. Which other cricketer could win the affection of the same crowd that he had snapped his middle finger at, as he did on his first senior tour of Australia in 2011-12? Which other cricketer could be admired so much despite him picking a verbal altercation with their captains (Tim Paine and Steve Smith)?
They have loved Sachin Tendulkar and Sunil Gavaskar too, Brian Lara and Viv Richards also. Yet, none was one of their own. Kohli is their own.
A raft of former Australian cricketers have expressed the same sentiment in the past. Declared Greg Chappell in a column for the Sydney Morning Herald two years ago: “Kohli is the most Australian non-Australian cricketer of all time.” He struck a Gandhi metaphor to drill his point: “Many previous Indian cricket teams tended to play with undue deference to their opponents, as if in accord with the Gandhian principle. Virat Kohli does not believe in passive resistance. He is a proponent of all-out aggression.”
For the Pakistan-India match in Melbourne, Sthalekar had tagged along a couple of her Australian Football League friends to experience the electric atmosphere of the game as well as watch Kohli.
“The two guys who I was with were saying that the AFL Grand Final is all about corporates, just want-to-be-there-to-be-seen type of scene. When they saw this match, they said everyone is so emotionally invested in this match. I said, ya. Live and die by this result on who wins and who doesn’t,” she narrates.
In Sydney, where India play the Dutch, the occasion would not be as overwhelming as it is expected to be a mismatch. But there has been no shortage of buzz to watch Kohli.
The trams in the SCG line have been warning passengers about a busy Thursday and to plan their travel accordingly. Needless to say, the trams and buses, the alleys and roads that lead to the SCG on Thursday would be packed.
Social media too has helped forge an emotional connection between Kohli and fans from different countries. Cricketers of the past were aloof and detached, whereas Kohli is active on social media. “Virat is more accessible than any of those guys because of the technological age we are in. People have deeper connections and at the same time, more cricket has been played. When Sachin retired, he had played only one T20 International. The game has changed so much and Virat is more accessible and that is (a reason) why the love affair continues,” Sthalekar says.
It’s not just that Australia loves Kohli, Kohli has loved Australia back too. It was here that he first stamped his world-beating class, during the hurricane chase against Sri Lanka in Hobart. On these shores, he scored his first Test hundred, became 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 games that seemed lost at one stage. A knock peak Mike Hussey or Michael Bevan would have scripted.
Sthalekar is still in awe of that innings. “What ability!” she gushes. “Those two balls at the end of the 19th over will go down in history. It’s a shot not many people in this world can play — on the up, weight going backwards, and to deposit it straight up over the bowler’s head for six. It’s amazing what that gentleman can do,” she says.
And amidst the swarms of blue at the SCG on Thursday would be those in yellow and gold jerseys, chanting and singing aloud Kohli’s name. For, he is one of their own.