In the middle - An exclusive interview with Virat Kohli

In an exclusive interview, Virat Kohli reflects on his experiences this year, and reveals how he manages an elite career and a commercial profile under intense public scrutiny.

In the middle - An exclusive interview with Virat Kohli

After producing some of the best cricket of his life in 2016, Indian batsman Virat Kohli is back up the order to number three in SportsPro's list of the world's most marketable athletes. In an exclusive interview, he reflects on his experiences this year, and reveals how he manages an elite career and a commercial profile under intense public scrutiny.

 

By Eoin Connolly

 

Cricket, especially batting, is about timing – and time. Fractions of seconds build one after another into long, decisive passages. On one level, winning is about negotiating each momentary judgement and managing the extended periods better than the opposition.

Virat Kohli’s time is now, and his timing could hardly be better. A fixture in the Indian national team for several years now, he is a batsman of classical gifts but one attuned to the tempo of the modern game.

In 2016, however, he has evolved into a player who may now be out on his own as the best in the world – though he personally reserves that accolade for AB de Villiers, his South African teammate at the Indian Premier League’s (IPL) Royal Challengers Bangalore. Though he is India’s Test captain, and an avowed defender of that lengthy old format, it is in the three-hour bursts of Twenty20 that he has played the bulk of his cricket this year, plundering runs in such quantities that some have wondered aloud if he might become the best limited-overs batsman of all time.

Earlier this year, India staged the ICC World Twenty20 for the first time. Kohli blitzed his home tournament, scoring heavily throughout and turning in particularly memorable performances in spookily composed chases against rivals Pakistan and Australia. Unfortunately for him, and the hosts, the rest of India’s much-vaunted outfit could not produce on such a consistent basis – to the extent that, faced with West Indies’ remorseless champions-elect in the semi-finals, captain MS Dhoni tossed Kohli the ball in the hope that his altogether scantier bowling talents might win the day. The gambit only just failed.

Kohli has carried that momentum into this year’s edition of the IPL, that annual celebration of modern cricket at its brilliant, bombastic peak. Four centuries – his first four in the competition – hauled the powerful but perennially underachieving Royal Challengers Bangalore to the final. 

"Even when I came, in my younger days, into the team, I always wanted to get as many runs as possible."

It is the manner of his performances, too, that have caught the imagination. Pitched into some of the most intense situations a cricketer can face, Kohli has seemed to turn everything – the noise, the pressure, even time itself – to his advantage. With uncanny poise, from the middle of the field, he has made himself the master of all he surveys.

Professional athletes, of course, are rarely minded to think in such symbolic terms – only about manner and method. Kohli is no different. As passionate as he is in the field, he is calculating with a bat in his hand. For him, success is not some intangible force to be harnessed. It is a matter of doing the same things again and again. Time after time.

Do you have any reflections on the World T20, both personally and in terms of what it meant for Indian cricket?

Firstly, the tournament in itself was a big success. All the players that played in it say the same thing, that it was one of the better Twenty20 World Cups that we’ve had – probably the most exciting one after the first one in South Africa. The energy, the excitement shown by the fans – people all over the country – was truly magnificent, and that’s what made it such a great tournament.

On a personal level, yes, it was really satisfying for me. Winning man of the tournament was something that I wasn’t really expecting, honestly, because I thought it could go to someone from one of the two teams qualifying for the final. It came as a pleasant surprise. Probably, Joe [Root, of England] would have got the award had he got more runs in the final, you know, he played outstandingly well as well. But eventually I was pretty pleased that they awarded me that particular prize.

For me personally, it was a really satisfying tournament in terms of the way it tested me as far as my temperament is concerned, under high-pressure situations. In a tournament like a World Cup, playing at home, a lot of expectations, two or three crunch games that we had to get runs in – I was grateful that I was able to perform in those matches and it felt really satisfying. As a cricketer, you know when you’re putting in performances that actually really satisfy you and I think that T20 World Cup was that particular tournament for me.

Do you think something changed in terms of your profile within the team during that tournament? Do you feel like, at least on the batting side, you’ve assumed the mantle now as the leader of that Indian team?

Even when I came, in my younger days, into the team, I always wanted to get as many runs as possible and win games for the team. So I always had that hunger, you can say, or that characteristic inside me of wanting to do that.

As I said, the whole event and the enormity of the games that we won against Pakistan, against Australia, getting runs in the semis… I think it just magnified it a bit because of the importance of the tournament. It happens in every cricketer’s life if you get runs at important times, and when the team wants you to do it, when the whole of the country wants you to do it. If you end up performing, obviously, for me in my head it gave me a lot of confidence.

I did not see a change in terms of the team looking at me differently or guys thinking of me differently, because as professional cricketers we understand that for us it’s just a matter of performance and performing for the team whenever required. I think whenever all the external factors are put together – a World Cup, playing at home, pressure situations – then for the people watching and people who are not part of the dressing room, it looks much more magnified than what it is in a professional cricketer’s head. But yes, as I said, it was a very significant milestone for me personally – in my head, and as far as the way I played was concerned as well.

How important has it been and how helpful has it been through your career to have guys like Sachin Tendulkar and now MS Dhoni in that dressing room with you, who’ve experienced what you’re going through now?

Well, it’s wonderful. I feel so lucky that I was able to learn so much from those people in my early days in the Indian cricket team. I mean, MS, even now, is someone who understands my game, who understands the way I am, and he’s always keen on reminding me of my strengths.

It doesn’t matter how many runs I’m scoring or if I’m going through a good patch, or whatever it is, if he feels like there is a moment where I try to get ahead of myself, he’s someone who will always point it out. So I think that’s been a massive help. When the captain can actually say things to you which will help the team, but at the same time you’re still playing your game, I think it works beautifully all round. And that’s something that he’s consistently done for me since I’ve come into the team, and that’s been a great help.

Apart from that, the guys who’ve retired from the game – Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag, VVS Laxman – all these people, I learned so much from them in my early days. And it’s priceless. I mean, to have those people in the changing room to speak to in pressure situations – what they used to think, how they would react in different situations. You obviously want to gather as much information as you can and then when you’re in those situations, you try to process some of those things into your head and try to bring them into your game.

And eventually you get into a situation where you are under pressure, so you actually understand – after you execute those things – how much it makes sense. At that point you might not be able to understand because they’re talking from their experiences of a very different level but, when you actually experience that yourself, then you understand how important that advice was. So all these things have contributed majorly to me getting to grow my international career along the way.

What about off the field? Particularly given the kind of pressures that there are for cricketers in India – uniquely so.

Obviously, off the field, you want to learn from them as much as you can in terms of how you need to conduct yourself, what the things are that are required as a lifestyle to be at the top. You want to be among the best players in the world, you want to be at the top of your game, so for those things to happen you need to understand what kind of work ethic you require, what kind of lifestyle you need to have and what sacrifices you need to make.

Those are the things that all us youngsters have learned in a massive way from those people – their commitment towards the game, doing boring routines every day of their lives until the time they played their last game.

You know how they say for bowlers in Test matches you have to be boring, literally, bowl that boring length and boring line and wait for the others to make a mistake? It’s a great example of that in terms of your work off the field and how you conduct yourself. I’ve seen those guys do the same thing over and over again, every day of their lives, just because they knew that that is what is required for them to be at the top of international cricket and to contribute to the team’s success every time they step out on to the field.

Kohli's commercial team have built brands such as Indian clothing brand Wrogn around the cricketer

Given how the media has changed and how India has changed, do you think your experience of being an international cricketer and having that kind of fame and public profile is different from that of Tendulkar and Dhoni?

I don’t think so, you know. These days, if you compare the times when Sachin Tendulkar was playing, if you compare those cricketing days to now in terms of media and how much attention there is on the sport – you can’t compare the two.

I mean, there’s so much said and written and displayed on TV nowawadays with cricket and any small issue. I mean, back in the day, to have that kind of attention and that kind of fame is massive, even though the media wasn’t as booming as it is today. So I can’t see the fame part or the success part being compared. Because what Sachin was able to for such a long time was create memories with people that will last forever. In this day and age, a cricketer comes on the block, he does well, suddenly he’s into the thick of things. That wasn’t that easy to get into back in the day, and for him to get that at the very highest level…

So that just tells you the massive amount of love and respect and care that he got from the whole country – and not just India, from the whole cricketing world. So that is a very different sort of situation we’re talking about. For someone to have those kind of expectations and burdens and performance and everything, I mean, that was just something else.

When you look around the dressing at RCB at players like AB de Villiers of South Africa and Chris Gayle of the West Indies, do you appreciate that your experience of being an international cricketer is different from theirs – because you play for India, where there is so much more of a focus on cricket and where the population is so much bigger?

No, you know, that’s one really good thing about the IPL, when people get together. Obviously, playing for our respective countries is a major part of our cricket – IPL is a part of what we do as professional cricketers, but a major chunk is obviously playing for the country. And you do have set patterns, you do have a certain way that you like to play for your national side, and that depends from country to country on how they like to play their cricket.

But the good thing about the IPL is that as soon as the players come and there’s a culture that’s set for the team, players are more than willing to follow it. That’s what professional cricketers are all about: adapting to different situations, understanding the needs of different teams, different squads, and blending into it and still being able to keep their performance consistent and up there.

It’s been a great experience having those two guys in the changing room for so long – the experience and the skill they bring into the whole team is magnificent. I’ve interacted a lot with AB in the last couple of years, knowing that he’s the best going around now. I talk to him about the game as much as I can. Even in general, you learn so much from him – how to conduct yourself, how to be committed towards the game but at the same time not being too hard on yourself. I think that he’s just struck the right balance and that’s why he’s so wonderfully great.

He’s performing as well as anybody in the world and he’s been doing it for so long, knowing the burden he has on his shoulders. So I’ve learned a lot from both of those guys, and their experiences have been very different but they’ve brought in all the positivity to this team. And for me personally, it’s been great to interact with them.

 

*****

 

There is one way, inevitably, in which Kohli’s nationality has a huge effect on his career. Probably more than any other international sport, cricket is dominated commercially by one market: India, with its 1.2 billion population. So for a star of that country’s national team, an outsized level of media and corporate interest is only to be expected.

Kohli’s popularity can be measured handily in the modern currency of social media audience numbers – 10.8 million followers on Twitter, four million on Instagram, and 28.8 million likes on Facebook at the last count – but that is not the only way in which he is a thoroughly modern figure in Indian terms.

His is a fashionable, camera-friendly image, and while a model professional, he is unapologetic where some predecessors have been diplomatic. In a giant country with a voracious media, the conditions are rarely conducive to a quiet life – not least given Kohli’s romantic links to Bollywood actress Anushka Sharma.

Since 2008, Kohli has left his commercial affairs in the hands of agent Bunty Sajdeh, the founder of Cornerstone Sport and Entertainment. Sajdeh first spotted Kohli as a rising prospect in India’s youth teams; their prospects have been twinned and have grown together ever since. For much of his career, Sajdeh led Kohli down a path familiar to India’s leading stars – personal endorsements, and lots of them, with a wide range of consumer brands, from bat supplier MRF and apparel partner Adidas to the likes of Pepsi and Audi. Earlier this year, reports in India claimed that he could now charge more per day for such appearances than any of his peers.

"If I can inspire children to play Test cricket, that will make me very happy."

Over the past 18 months, however, a more sophisticated strategy has emerged. Sajdeh and his team have begun to build businesses around their client, with fashion brand Wrogn and the Chisel chain of gyms among the first to go to market. It is an approach created with a longer timeframe in mind, and one that could also expand Kohli’s profile in a way that could appeal to more conventional partners.  

Let’s talk a bit more about life off the field. How much do you feel that your personal story is a part of your public profile, and what’s been your reaction to the way that your personal life is covered in the Indian media?

It’s a very general question that you want to ask back to the guys who actually are so keen on people’s lives. I mean, forget about someone being known or someone doing a particular thing. We go out there and play as professional cricketers. It’s not that we play for fame, it’s not that we play because we want to be seen on TV.

It’s very difficult for people to understand why but we fell in love with the game and you want to compete at the highest level. Along with those things comes the media attention: games being covered all over the world, your life being under the scanner. So I understand that that’s all part of it, but I think it’s a very thin line between overdoing and wanting to be curious about something.

If you’re covering someone for what they’re doing in their sport, I mean, I’m not going to sit down and give someone an account of what I do from when I wake up in the morning to when I sleep at night. So it’s a very basic thing in terms of letting the person be, in terms of what they want to talk about and what they don’t. It’s a very personal choice for the individual.

How would you define your relationship with Bunty?

It’s been more of us being friends first and then getting the professional side of things into place after. The good thing about working with a person like Bunty is that he understands who I am, he understands the kind of profile that is required of me as an athlete, and he works on the commercial side of things accordingly. At the same time, the company is very wary of my needs and requirements in terms of getting time for myself, taking a break from the sport, giving time for professional commercial commitments but at the same time not interfering in my preparations for the game. So in that way, they’ve been very, very professional and very helpful, and it’s been very balanced. It’s been a wonderful, wonderful association and I don’t see any reason for me to work with someone else. They’ve taken care of me pretty well.

It’s a matter of trust. You’ve got to trust someone to do good work for you, and then the company has got to trust the athlete as well in terms of believing that the athlete will perform but at the same time he will create a relationship with those people and actually have a good working environment as well. So in those terms it’s been wonderful.

How do you strike that balance between maintaining focus on an elite sporting career and doing the kind of commercial and marketing work that you’ve done over the last five or six years?

It’s difficult. It gets tough at times, but you understand that you do have ten, 11, 12 years of your professional cricketing career left, and you want to focus on that 100 per cent, that has to be your priority. But how I do it is obviously a big challenge.

You have to actually figure out throughout the year what you’re doing from the first to the 12th month and figure out your dates, and you have to strike a balance. It can’t be very sudden. It doesn’t work at times if something comes up very suddenly. So it’s pretty difficult to strike a balance but I understand that these are the years where I have to strike that balance to make the most of what I’m doing on the field, but at the same time you want to make a living out of it.

You want to have an infrastructure tomorrow where you can work on things after you’re done with cricket as well. That’s why I get involved with business ventures and I’m trying to set up things that I can be involved with even when I’m done with my career. It’s been working to according to plan and, yeah, that’s why I got into the business side of things, because I understand that I need something to look forward to when I’m done playing cricket. That’s the way I look at it.

How have you enjoyed being involved in that business side of things, where you have a stake rather than just being a brand spokesman for someone else?

I think firstly you feel like you’re appreciated more, because the brand believes that you can actually be a part of the whole brand rather than just promoting it and being the face of it. So in terms of putting in your effort as well, you’re obviously more involved, you’re obviously more keen on working things out for the brand – because you know that you have a chance to grow it and it’s something that you can be involved in even after you’re done.

So it’s just another aspect of life that you get to explore, and you can actually put your energy and effort into it to make it grow. Financially, also, it’s a great step towards planning your future, and those are the things you need. You need financial security, as I said, going ahead after you’re done with your career as well so that you can sustain it for the longest time possible.

That’s the whole idea, to be involved in something that I actually like doing. I’m not doing things that I don’t like or that I’m not keen on. I have a clothing line, I’m involved in acoustics now, fragrance, I’m involved in other businesses in applications and stuff like that. It’s all stuff that I’m keen on and things that I like.

How do you develop those ideas? Do you sit down with your team and say, ‘I’d like to get into a clothing line?’ Or do opportunities arise and you pursue them?

Honestly, the management has done most of the work as far as the business side of things is concerned. I’m doing a few things as well with my brother back home in Delhi, trying to set up some things for ourselves, so that’s a very individual thing, but in terms of these businesses that are out there, that are known to people, the management has done the bulk of the work.

I mean, obviously, it’s not easy for me to sit down and think of business ideas while I’m playing cricket because it requires a lot of work, a lot of effort, a lot of study. You need to do quite a bit of research before you can actually get into something, figure out investors and people who know the business.

It’s a long process but it’s something that I’m keen to learn so that tomorrow, if I want to invest in businesses or start some of my own, I actually have an understanding and knowledge of the same. So that’s why I really like it when some business opportunity comes up – but only for the things that I’m involved in and that I’ll keenly be involved in even when I’m done, as I mentioned before. The management obviously brings those opportunities to me and then we sit down and figure out whether it’s good for us to do it or not, how much it’s going to grow in about five years, ten years, and we take a collective call. But yeah, the stuff is gathered by my management company, which is headed by Bunty, and then it comes to me.

Are there any campaigns you’ve done externally, for other brands, that you’ve particularly enjoyed?

I’ve done a lot of campaigns before. I’ve done a campaign with Adidas that’s done really well during the World Cup. That’s one campaign I really enjoyed. I’m doing a few things with Pepsi here in India; MRF has used me pretty well. All the brands that I’m associated with have used me in a way that has connected me to the masses, to the people in India – and abroad as well. I mean, I see MRF bats being sold in Australia.

So I’m really delighted to be associated with all my brands because they understand how to use me and how to maximise the association. I pretty much go through all the campaigns that I do before I do them, so I can’t pinpoint just one or two because a lot of effort goes into all the campaigns that I do and there’s a lot of thought behind it.

 

*****

 

As good as Kohli’s year has been personally, his career still seems somehow incomplete. While he has a Cricket World Cup winners’ medal from a home tournament in 2011, he was very much a junior member of that team. At 27, he still has plenty of time to experience such a triumph from the front.

Kohli wants to dominate the cricketing world, but that world is changing. In the T20 era, in particular, its borders are slowly creeping wider. Where those boundaries end up could have a profound effect on the professional lives of Kohli and his peers, even after their playing days are over.

What do you see as being your future? Will that business side of things be something that will dominate your life after your playing career or do you see yourself having a long-term life in cricket?

I definitely see the business side of things growing. You never know. I’m very fond of food so you might see me doing something in terms of restaurants, or bringing a different food culture into the country. I’m pretty keen on those things. I can’t put a finger on anything right now but I’ll definitely be involved in the business side of things and I would like to continue in that particular aspect.

What about the rest of your playing career? Would you like to see cricket develop beyond the borders that it inhabits now, and how do you see that happening?

I would like to see cricket become a global sport. I think that’s one thing that cricket has always lacked, is to become a global sport, particularly because whoever plays cricket, it’s a very natural choice. No one’s forced into it. It’s a sport that you like from when you’re a child, it’s how you pick it up. Otherwise it’s very hard for people to understand the sport in general. So that’s something that I would like to see happening in the future.

Obviously I would love to see Test cricket being right up there until the time the sport is played. It’s one format that is very dear to all the players in the world who play for their respective nations. I would like the kids to understand how important that particular format is. And it’s a responsibility of the players. How they play that particular format, how they play Test cricket, is what’s going to attract kids towards wanting to do that. So I think it’s the responsibility of all of us as international cricketers, not just from India, from all the countries around the world. It’s our responsibility to keep Test cricket right up there as we see it, so the kids can pick it up in the same way.

How would you like to play in an Olympic Games one day?

See, honestly, I don’t see how the Olympic side of things would work. Every sport that you see in the Olympics is pretty quick, it’s pretty fast. I don’t see people having that kind of patience to actually go through a cricket game for so long as a part of the Olympics.

Even a T20?

Firstly, people have to understand the sport to that extent so that we have a world audience. As I mentioned before, it’s not a global sport yet. Once it becomes a global sport, people have an understanding, maybe one day you’ll see T20 cricket there. But I honestly don’t see that happening any time soon.

Would you like to play countries outside of the established cricketing powers?

Yes, definitely, I would love to see that happening, countries outside the known names in world cricket coming up and playing against the major teams. That’ll give them good exposure. That’ll just take the sport across the globe, and that’s something that I definitely would love to see happen.

I’ve heard there’s a lot of cricket being played in America, nowadays, T20 cricket. I’ve heard rumours about people learning cricket in China. So those are the things that amaze you, that people actually want to pick up the sport, and that I definitely want to be a part of before I finish my career.

Leaving that aside, what are some of the things you hope to experience, on and off the field, before your playing career ends?

Well, honestly, as far as my career is concerned, I don’t have any set goals in terms of what I want to do as a batsman. But I know, as a team, I want to see the Indian cricket team play well and dominate world cricket, because I believe that we have the ability to grow as cricketers, and grow as a unit, and be a world force. At least for a period of four or five years, I want to see the Indian cricket team play good, consistent cricket over all three formats, because I believe we have the ability and I believe that we can push towards that goal and actually end up achieving it. So that’s my major expectation out of the time when I play cricket and when I finish it, that’s one thing that I would love to see happen. As far as my personal goals are concerned, as I’ve said, I’ve not set any goals for myself. I want to perform as much as I can, score as many runs as I can, win as many games as I can for the teams.

Off the field, the commercial bit is obviously being taken care of, everything’s running smooth. Apart from that, you know, the sport makes you grow as a person, as a human being, as well – which you might have heard from a lot of people, a lot of players. And I want to become a better person every day. That’s my aim in life. I want to understand things in a better way, in a rational way, in a practical way, and make a difference in people’s lives.

If I can inspire children to pick up the sport, if I can inspire young boys in India to actually go out and play Test cricket and play for their country, that will make me very happy to know that I’ve done something for the society, I’ve done something for the sport, and I’ve made use of this time in my life.