World Cup Kohli’s charm offensive begs question who stole the real Virat? | Emma John | Sport

How are we doing? Hanging in there? I’m talking specifically to the cricket fans, a collective who will truly deserve their participation medal when the World Cup reaches its conclusion next weekend. Sure, football lovers may claim their work suffered when England’s women made it to the semi-finals. Wimbledon aficionados will soon be bragging that they’ve done nothing but secretly stream tennis on their phones for two weeks. To followers of the Cricket World Cup, however, they are as the mayfly.

Even the most highly trained of box-set bingers would struggle to keep up with a regime of 58 eight‑hour games (yes, I’m including the warm-ups). You can watch all seven seasons and two presidential terms of The West Wing in six days and 10 hours. If you recorded every game of the Cricket World Cup so far – thank you, series link – and watched them back to back you wouldn’t get off the sofa for a full fortnight. You’d also be a gibbering, disassociated mess.

Even for a sport that has always embraced long-form storytelling, a Cricket World Cup is an absurd epic, a Don Quixote of a tournament full of false starts and nonlinear narrative. We’ve had one major character, South Africa, all but savaged to death on the first page, yet still expected to limp on for five weeks pretending it’s only a flesh wound. Australia are the new favourites, New Zealand’s “clinical” label has long since peeled off and England’s wayward route to the semis means no one can pretend to be able to guess the ending. Early scepticism about the schedule has been overturned, reasserted itself and dribbled away to the margins of our consciousness. There’s been time for entire games to disappear, their memories obliterated by all that’s followed.

Time, too, for characters to assume some unexpected arcs of their own. My favourite player to watch this tournament has been Virat Kohli – and not for the stylish 60s and 70s he chips in almost every game. Instead, it has been fascinating to watch the infamously prickly, can-explode-will-explode India captain transform himself into the most proactively charming sporting visitor Britain has received since Keith Miller landed in ’48 and made a beeline for Princess Margaret.

This World Cup has been full of Kohli moments, tossed like a handful of magic beans up and down the country, fertilising a land of slow, wet wickets with star dust. Last week it was the sight of him walking into the stands at the end of the game against Bangladesh to meet Charulata Patel, the 87-year-old super-fan whose comforting‑granny-presence at India’s games has gone viral. Kohli and Rohit Sharma went out to seek her blessing, and she placed her hands on their foreheads with tender, grandmaternal pride, more than earning her status as the most ’grammable granny in the UK right now.

It was a heartwarming image to add to the digital album Kohli has been compiling – or is the word “curating”? – on his trip to England. Here he is in the field, grinning like a fool in love, conducting sections of the crowd like Sir Simon Rattle. There he is poised atop a nub of moral high ground, commanding those same fans to be nicer to Australians. And wait, what’s this, tucked at the end of the slideshow? An endlessly looping gif of his brotastic handshake with Chris Gayle, capturing the very instant that cricket’s mantle of cool passed from one legend to another.

It has begged the question, what happened to the real Kohli? Only six months ago, we had watched as he spent a day spatting with the Australia Test captain, Tim Paine, narrowly avoiding a chests-out confrontation in the field. This was the Virat we knew. The one who sought out conflict and siphoned it into his veins to give him superhuman strength, whether duelling with Mitchell Johnson in Melbourne or erupting at Steve Smith in Bangalore. The man who, only this May, so wound up Nigel Llong at the IPL that the umpire had to pay for the damage when he dented a door, kicking it in anger.

World Cup Kohli, by contrast, shrugged and laughed, whether in the field or under the helmet. World Cup Kohli didn’t rise to the bait when Kagiso Rabada called him immature; he put on some spectacles, praised his adversary’s world-class bowling skills and said they’d discuss it man to man. World Cup Kohli even walked – walked! – against Pakistan. It was a shame he hadn’t actually edged the ball. Still, one for his scrapbook of sportsmanship and humility.

There are theories about where the new figure of World Cup Kohli has come from. Some believe it to be a clever alter ego, a cunning new way for the India captain to assert himself on the arena. Think of it as weaponised magnanimity: an aggressively alpha male move to dominate the space around him, and to make the tournament about Kohli even when it deserves to be about others.

Or it might be pure brand positioning: Kohli is in every Indian household already, but this tournament is his shop window to the rest of the world. And he has a lot of products to sell, be they his shoes or his clothes or his body sprays for men, or his just-launched, UK-only protein-packed chocolate bars. As a romantic, I prefer Kohli’s own faintly schmaltzy suggestion that his glamorous actor wife has been a calming influence.

Either way, there are hints that World Cup Kohli may be on his way out. Shades of Original Virat – next season’s body spray fragrance, patent pending – are already flickering on to our screens. The throbbing vein in his neck has made a reappearance of late: witness his annoyance at the short boundary in the England game, the lost DRS review against Bangladesh. And as Original Virat’s finger finds itself pointing a send-off to Soumya Sarkar, we shouldn’t be surprised if this six-week saga turns out to have a final plot twist left for the India captain.

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