fEW POSITIONS in India give equal prestige as captain of the country’s test cricket team, or equal weight. To entertain the hopes of a billion cricket-crazed Indians takes a very broad back. For them, it is not enough that the skipper is an exceptional athlete and inspires a winning team. He should also radiate a sense of national self-confidence to a world that, some say, is accustomed to belittling India.
That is exactly what Virat Kohli, who resigned on January 15, has succeeded. Although his team had just lost to South Africa, Mr Kohli was comfortably India’s most successful cricket leader ever (see chart). Under his leadership, the Indian team jumped to the top of the Test rankings. For a time, he was also considered the best batsman in the world.
On the field, he was combative, sometimes enraging opponents who were more accustomed to Indian teams with less hair. He was obsessed with assembling a battery of growling fast bowlers, something the team had lacked for decades. Hailing from Delhi, a city known for its roughness, Mr Kohli believed that this represented the new India. His teammates absorbed his vision. Many now resemble him in everything from his brash demeanor to his manicured beard.
Mr Kohli’s brash nationalism also fitted well with the country’s political mood. When an Indian fan told him on Twitter that he preferred watching English and Australian batsmen, Mr Kohli told him to “live somewhere else”, a reply straight from the handbook of the ruling Hindu nationalist government. The player made no secret of his admiration for Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India. When he was re-elected in 2019, Kohli said he would take the country to “greater heights”.
All this has made him extremely popular. On Twitter, he has about 46 million followers, more than any other athlete in the world, except football players Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar, and basketball player LeBron James. But the admiration is hardly unconditional. When his form drops, he must endure online abuse. His wife, Anushka Sharma, a Bollywood actress, sometimes makes things worse. And when he jumped to the defense of Mohammed Shami, a teammate who had received anti-Muslim insults, the response from Hindu chauvinist trolls was vitriolic. In their view, he was in any case not aggressive enough for the new India.
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “A Captain Walks”