Virat Kohli is box-office viewing but is India’s hype man becoming a liability?

In the film Crank, Jason Statham stars as a hitman who – as a result of being poisoned by a rival gangster – will die unless he can maintain his adrenaline above a certain level. To this end he is forced to engage in constant acts of self-stimulation, from taking cocaine to starting random fights to having sex in public.

Not a lot of people outside Hollywood know this. But Statham’s character in that film was based directly on Virat Kohli.

OK, maybe not the cocaine bit. Or the street brawling. Or, indeed, the public sex. But to watch Kohli on a lawless and restless day in Birmingham, as England carved their way towards a famous victory, was to be reminded of his eternal gift, one he shares with his thrill-seeking hitman alter ego: a compulsion to keep moving, to keep chasing the next buzz, to keep feeling something, whatever it is.

There are cherishably few cricketers in any form of the game who can remain the most compelling presence on the field, despite not scoring a single run, bowling a single ball or taking a single catch. And yet the eye is still magnetically drawn to Kohli, whatever he happens to be doing.

Perhaps he is standing low at slip, taking tumbling shadow catches in between balls. Perhaps he is leaping in front of Rishabh Pant to catch a throw from the boundary. Most likely he is simply being Virat: barking orders, sledging opponents, pumping up the crowd, furiously clapping and pointing like a man trying to stave off a hand palsy.

In one respect this is simply part of a growing phenomenon in the modern game: the extent to which players now see themselves as performers, actively invoking the crowd, mugging up to them, inviting them in. Regrettably, Wisden does not compile statistics on how many times wicketkeepers jokingly throw the ball up in the air after a play and miss.

But this summer has almost certainly broken all known crowd catch records. Sam Billings has already celebrated more Test catches than Alan Knott. But with Kohli the performance is something more than a performance. Kohli is not playing up to anything: this is him, and what you see on the outside is simply an externalisation of what he feels on the inside. And in any case, what’s the difference?

Ever since he was a teenager Kohli has lived his life in the gaze of others, the public space collapsing in on the private self until there was no longer any meaningful distinction between them. You can’t shut out the world. So you may as well own it.

The problem is that the stage no longer belongs to him. He has not scored an international century in any format since 2019. He has just endured his worst IPL season for 13 years. Increasingly his teams are entertaining the apostatic thought that he may be becoming a liability. He is no longer captain. And Super V, the animated Disney Channel series bearing his name, was quietly discontinued after one series. So what can he still do?

With England 106 for none after 21 overs, we found out. As Jasprit Bumrah cleaned up Zak Crawley with a vicious inswinger, it was Kohli who seized the moment, spearing the crowd, getting in the ear of Alex Lees as the players walked off for tea. As they emerged again, it was Kohli rather than captain Bumrah who delivered the final words in the team huddle. As Pope edged the first ball of the evening session, Kohli threw a vicious haymaker at an imaginary enemy, reeled across the turf, cupped his ears towards the baying England fans in the Hollies Stand.

And so we awaited the crowning flourish that never came. There are, as it turns out, vanishingly few ways of influencing a cricket game without actually touching the ball. “Sledged out” is not a recognised method of dismissal. “Personal magnetism” has a grand total of zero Test wickets. You don’t get Jonny Bairstow out by standing menacingly in his vicinity.

One senses that on some level there is a part of Kohli that still cannot quite come to terms with this, who still longs to contribute the way he used to. And so this is the result: a Team India hype man with an average of 27 this decade.

The irony is that Kohli’s legacy is already secure. The India team he captained for eight years is now ineradicably cast in his image. Entire generations of Indian batters will adopt him as their archetype. And even his opponents here have rewired their cricketing culture along the lines of pure expression, pure aggression, an outward-facing outlook that brooks no compromise and settles for nothing less than total commitment.

It might be scant consolation to the man himself. But in a way we are all playing Virat-ball now.