Kohli is more than just a player and a captain. He is RCB

Kohli has been the only constant, and while the frenzied supporters of the franchise gripe at the end of every unsuccessful sojourn, nothing has dented his popularity or his stature.

Virat Kohli

In March 2008, Virat Kohli’s squad won the Under-19 World Cup in Kuala Lumpur, defeating South Africa in a low-scoring final. Their 16-man squad’s reward – selection to the eight original Indian Premier League franchises through an American-style draft system.

Through a draw of lots, Royal Challengers Bangalore lucked it out — they had the option of the first pick. Unsurprisingly, flamboyant then owner Vijay Mallya went for the U-19 captain; in a team full of elderly statesmen, Kohli was an obvious deviation from the norm. Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble, Misbah-ul-Haq, Jacques Kallis and Shivnarine Chanderpaul constituted a strong, composed core group. Kohli was the brash teenager, reverential but confident, as colourful as the owner and with an attitude that was to resonate with RCB’s ‘Play Bold’ approach.

Few would have imagined that, 12 years on, Kohli would still be with the same franchise, the only player in IPL history to have represented the same team in all 13 editions. Last Thursday, when he walked out for the toss alongside Kings XI Punjab skipper KL Rahul, the Indian captain was making his 200th appearance for RCB, in the IPL and the now-defunct Champions League combined. To say that Kohli has become the face of the franchise is stating the obvious. Devoid of homegrown talent for a few years until Devdutt Padikkal’s stirring entry this season, Kohli’s larger-than-life presence ensured that local interest has remained intact. For the franchise, Virat Kohli is more than just a player and a captain – he is RCB, plain and simple. For Kohli, the franchise isn’t just another team, it’s home away from home, a sentiment and not an entity.

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Kohli isn’t an exception when it comes to franchise-loyalty. His great friend and predecessor as India captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, is easily the most identifiable cog in the Chennai Super Kings wheel. The people of Chennai embraced him with a warmth and affection generally reserved only for their very own; Dhoni has responded in kind, not merely with three IPL titles but also through an extraordinary connect with the fans that has stood the test of time, the vicissitudes of form and even a two-year suspension from the competition.

If it was possible, Dhoni’s popularity reached a new peak during those two years, 2016 and 2017, when CSK were out of action. Even though he was snapped up by Rising Pune Supergiants, Dhoni made no secret of where his heart belonged. He spoke repeatedly of his desperation to wear the yellow of the Lion in rare shows of emotion not evident even during the tightest of international matches. As if to show that he wasn’t paying mere lip-service, Dhoni catalysed a magnificent charge to the title on the team’s IPL comeback, in 2018.

Like Kohli, it’s a given that Dhoni would have spent all his IPL career with CSK if not for the suspension. But the bottom line is that, whatever the reason, Dhoni hasn’t done with CSK what Kohli has with RCB. Play 13 years in a row, through rain and shine, in success and failure, amidst remarkable highs and crushing lows.

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There are intriguing sub-texts that make the Kohli-RCB symbiosis even more fascinating. Unlike Dhoni, Kohli hasn’t taken the team all the way to the crown, yet. He has been captain for a ninth successive campaign now, taking charge from Daniel Vettori midway through the 2012 season. Under him, the team has made the final only once, in 2016, and finished dead-last twice in the last three years. Players have come and gone, as have head coaches and other members of the support staff, as well as owners and CEOs/team principals. Kohli has been the only constant, and while the frenzied supporters of the franchise gripe at the end of every unsuccessful sojourn, nothing has dented his popularity or his stature.

Indeed, when RCB play at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru, life comes to a standstill in the southern metropolis. No matter who the opponent and what the team’s position is on the league table, boisterous thousands turn up faithfully, hoping for a Kohli masterpiece and an RCB win, in that order. Not even in Delhi, his original home, is he worshipped as much as in Bengaluru. Kohli wears his fame and popularity lightly, not unaware of the effect he has on people but accepting the adulation with grace and gratitude.

Dhoni’s graph was already on a high when CSK broke the bank to win his services in the first auction in 2008. Three years young in international cricket, he had led the country to the World T20 title in South Africa in 2007, and taken over the white-ball reins from Rahul Dravid. Despite the Under-19 World Cup success, Kohli wasn’t the finished product by any stretch of the imagination; it will be disrespectful to call his draft-selection a gamble, but he had yet to make his international debut. For RCB, he was an investment. And how unimaginably brilliantly that has paid off.

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Kohli’s stock has exploded sky-high over the last half-decade, and he is hailed as arguably the greatest all-format batsman in the world today. For someone used to success, the temptation to abandon the rocking RCB ship and seek greener pastures – there won’t be shortage of takers, obviously – might appear a natural one, but Kohli hasn’t budged an inch. Unquestionably, commerce does play a part and Brand RCB is inextricably intertwined with Brand Kohli, but it isn’t commerce which is the bedrock of this relationship. Kohli loves the culture and ethos of the franchise, RCB adore their skipper for his work-ethic, fearlessness and exuberance. A title or three won’t hurt, but as history has shown, that is no deal-breaker.

This year, more than ever, RCB have met expectation with performance. If, three weeks hence, Kohli hoists the trophy in the UAE, Bengaluru will explode. If he doesn’t, it will barely make a splash. How do you explain that?

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