Keeping Up With Kohli

To be India's best cricketer is to live with the suffocating, infuriating, frightening trappings of fame. But for Virat Kohli, it's seductive all the same.

This is one of four cover stories to appear in ESPN The Magazine's June 8 World Fame issue. Subscribe today!

A riot awaits Virat Kohli once he opens the door of his Range Rover. It's a warm Tuesday in Mumbai, and he seems at ease with the madness swirling around this shopping mall, where crowds wait for him to talk about luxury watches they can't afford. As the captain of the Indian cricket team, he's probably the most famous person in India, which makes him one of the most famous people in the world. He lives a strange life, but like the frog being boiled alive, he doesn't seem to grasp its weirdness. Exhibit A: the unflustered look on his face as he steps out of the car and 50 security guards muscle him through a screaming, swaying, chanting crowd and deposit him in a narrow Tissot watch boutique for an event. People outside push toward the door. Looking at the unbroken wall of bodies, I ask nervously how we will manage to leave this store. For the moment, we are barricaded inside. Kohli doesn't like tight spaces; he is so claustrophobic that he says he must have drowned in one of his past lives. Even in a car, sometimes he'll roll down the window and risk aggressive fan encounters. "Honestly, you can ask the people who have been around me," he says, "if I see two people coming at me with a phone, I panic."

He's learned to keep his cool in the unbreakable grip of adoration, which took some time. Like nearly all famous people, he hates being famous. Celebrity photographers stake out the apartment he shares with his wife, Anushka Sharma, one of Bollywood's most successful actresses and producers. He says their individual experiences with handling fame are a "massive, massive" part of their bond; there aren't two dozen people in the world who can understand the calculus of their lives. She's staggeringly beautiful, and he performs best when his team needs him most, both cultural ideals.

Together, they are India's ur-couple, their courtship tabloid fodder for years. The two finally got married six months ago in Tuscany and escaped to Finland for a honeymoon. They picked the Lapland capital city of Rovaniemi, 4 miles from the Arctic Circle, about as close to the North Pole as you can go while still enjoying room service. They checked into a snow-topped chalet and in the morning walked through the cold into the center of town. They felt astonished to have this freedom. None of the gossip writers or photographers knew where they were, and the locals didn't care. They went looking for coffee and, "We bumped into three Indians at a coffee shop," Kohli says, laughing. "What are the odds?"

He and Anushka asked the three people to not say anything on social media and they agreed. Kohli understood once again that his celebrity was inescapable, and because India is evolving and modernizing in real time all around him, he can actually point to the time when he felt his fame shift the ground beneath him.

"It's grown drastically in the last two years," he says.

The most likely reason for this upheaval is an Indian billionaire who lives in a private skyscraper. In 2016, Mukesh Ambani launched a cellphone company named Jio. On the day his company launched, only a third of the nation's 1.3 billion people had access to the internet. Then Jio offered free data for six months and cheap data after that. Other companies needed to compete, and prices plummeted. Business writers and foreign correspondents have authored thousands of pages on what happened next, using stats such as the 50 million customers who signed up in the first three months alone. The Facebook growth since the launch of Jio has been remarkable; the company expects to add a projected 77 million users by the end of next year. In a few years, India will have more Facebook users than the United States has citizens.

Of course, there's a more visceral way to quantify the revolution. Just ask the most famous man in the country, who is married to one of the most famous women, what happens when nearly a billion people gain access to smartphones and the internet. Imagine Mickey Mantle starting his career with the backslapping writers on the train and ending it with TMZ chasing him through the streets. It's disorienting. Jio accidentally dropped a bomb into Virat Kohli's life. "That is great for a country that is developing," he says, "but as a known person, you get hunted in a way."

Thanks to the growth of internet access in India, Kohli has a staggering 36.9M followers on Facebook. Altaf Qadri/AP Photo

It's getting hotter in the watch store. Not much air is circulating.

Those at the front of the crowd are pressed up against the glass windows: girls wearing caked-on makeup, old men in prayer hats, middle managers in ill-fitting suits, wealthy families, migrant workers, young men too old to be this excited about seeing another grown man. The crowd hums with obvious and uncomfortable religious overtones. All celebrity in India is infused with something powerful and particular to the nation: literal hero worship. Fans build actual shrines to movie stars and politicians. An average of 171 people kill themselves a year in response to the death of an idol, according to a top Indian psychology journal. In 1949, two years after India gained independence, the leader of the movement for the oppressed classes, B.R. Ambedkar, gave a warning about the nation's hardwired desire to turn men into gods, much in the way that Dwight Eisenhower used his final address to spell out the dangers of America's military-industrial complex. A unique threat to Indian democracy and society, Ambedkar argued, was the urge to hero-worship. The word to describe this desire is bhakti, and when a columnist in The Telegraph recently criticized Indian cricket officials for "worshipping" Kohli, he called them bhakts. Volumes have been written about the history of this national trait, and it can be observed whenever the Indian cricket stars go out in public, like this event to sell Tissot watches in a mall. "It's suffocating at times," Kohli says. "On the inside, I'm still a guy from Delhi who used to chill on the streets, and I still crave that. It's a very strange feeling for me."

Kohli is at the mall to promote one of his corporate partners. The few granted access to the store wear special credentials around their necks. Mostly, they seem like friends and families of the owners or managers. The drone of crowd noise becomes high-pitched and danger-close whenever the door cracks open to let another member of the chosen inside for an audience.

His back to the crowd, Kohli looks at expensive watches. A small group gathers around the counter to hear him talk about three selected pieces. They hold up phones in front of their faces. Kohli can't see much of anything but the screens. The fans wear Truman Show smiles as they film, and Kohli is lumbering through his presentation when he suddenly stops talking. The pause lasts only a second or two but feels longer. He seems lost. The fans don't notice or move their phones.

Soon he starts talking again, and when he finishes, they all applaud like they might in a darkened theater-only he's standing 2 feet away with an awkward look on his face. Nobody tries to engage him in conversation. In the past two years, he's successfully figured out that most people aren't interested in meeting him as much as needing his avatar for their curated social media lives. Nearly every moment of his public existence is built on a foundation of structural phoniness. It eats at him. He waits patiently as people take and retake selfies, hunting for the best light. "I'm standing there thinking, 'I thought this was about you being my fan? I thought this was about you wanting to meet me?'" he says. "I don't trust that anymore. I always entertain children because they are so pure in their feeling. If they like me, I can see it on their face. Others? I do not trust because they are only worried about how they look in a picture and if the angle is right because they want likes."

In the Tissot store, another group gets ready to take a picture and hear about watches, moving through his orbit in small units. Kohli looks down and for just a moment hides his face with his hands.

His manager, Gagan Gujral, correctly reads his boss's mood.

"Whoever does not have a badge cannot come!" he says, his voice rising.

Gujral and Kohli's head of security usher people out while the store owners find more to bring in. This goes on for a while, one group emptying the store as another fills it. Finally, after the security's cajoling turns to aggression, the room is cleared. It's time to move. Kohli's head of security swings the store door open.

The noise hits Kohli in the face.

There's a stage in the middle of the mall where he will answer questions for a standing crowd of fans and another preselected group that has been ushered through the police barricades to chairs. Fans lean over the second-floor railing, creating an amphitheater. All those guards form a circle around Kohli and clear a path. His manager and I are inside the circle too.

People hold their ground, content to be physically moved.

They scream his name.

Fans farther away start a chant: VEEEE-rat. VEEEE-rat. Others closer say the word "please" over and over. Some try to hand Kohli hand-drawn pictures of himself, while still more hold up drawings of Kohli and his wife. We are jostled, but nothing breaks the momentum. I'm wide-eyed. About halfway to the stage, near the sign for the Swarovski boutique, Kohli catches his manager's attention and nods back at me, as if to say: The American doesn't know we do this every day.

Kohli laughs as we walk through the manic crowd.

"On the inside, I'm still a guy from Delhi who used to chill on the streets, and I still crave that," Kohli says. Erik Madigan Heck for ESPN

In private he's funny, thoughtful and kind. He deadpans jokes and then peers over to see if you're paying attention. It's a weekday afternoon, and he's got some promotional work to do. A man brings his two children to meet him, and Kohli is great with the kids, coaxing them out of their nerves. We hang out in the back lounge of a tour bus, talking about documentaries he's recently watched and about the lessons he's learned during the past decade. He has been asking himself tough questions, about why he lives such a wonderful life while surrounded by people who do not. "There are many human beings around me that have eyes, ears, legs and hands, and they could be doing the same thing," he says. "Why am I the one who's here? Now I understand I have a larger responsibility toward the team, the nation, the society."

The bus is a cool 71.6 degrees. Outside it's about 98.

Even behind locked gates on a secure studio lot, young men mill around outside asking "please, please" to meet him. Inside the bus, Kohli is at ease, telling a funny story from the Indian team's recent tour of South Africa: A group of cricketers had eaten lunch near the water outside Cape Town. One of the waiters had shaken Kohli's hand and told him how much he appreciated his game. Kohli was, as usual, gracious. Then another waiter approached with his arm out. Kohli reached to shake his hand. The waiter picked up a dirty plate. Kohli's Indian teammates fell out laughing, digging into him about thinking he's so famous. "These guys went mad," he says, laughing hard himself now. "I felt so embarrassed. He didn't even look at my hand!"

The underlying point is clear: Kohli doesn't take himself as seriously as the people who fill up shopping malls. That's been a journey too.

He's got a reputation as angry and arrogant because of his behavior as a younger man and because he is often fighting a running battle with the Indian media. (One of his wife's social media bios is Latin slang for "don't let the bastards get you down," which feels like a family motto.) When Kohli first got famous, before becoming the best player in the world five or so years ago, he loved the glamour and celebrity. His game suffered. "I lost my way," he admits.

Now sitting on a couch, he draws an imaginary circle on the cushion with his hand. For someone like him, there is always a battle between craft and fame. He works hard at his job, treating it like a gift he was given to nurture and not some birthright; he famously played the day after his father died. In his time at the top of the mountain, he's earned a reputation for playing with fury and aggression, famous for being able to chase down any deficit. That's important to him.

The trick, he says, is understanding what is real and what is fake. The biggest part of the circle is his cricket career-he still loves the tiny transcendent moments on the pitch, like the sound a ball makes when it hits the center of the bat-and a much smaller piece is his business obligations and ensuing celebrity. He can't let anything impact his ability to be great at his craft. Few athletes have been given his unique gift of both technical skill and an aggression that inspires his teammates and intimidates their opponents. "I need to be true to this," he says, pointing to the cricket part of the circle. "I just have to ...," and he pauses, searching for the word, "... accommodate the other part."

There's a palpable hope in him about the kind of normal world he's protecting inside the machine and circus of his profession. He believes he can have his career and make his endorsement money while maintaining enough control to give his celebrity back once his playing days are finished. That feels like the real battle at the center of Kohli's daily life: his idealism versus a culture obsessed with him as a proxy and not a man.

“It's literally living in a royal jail. That's what I call our hotel rooms: royal jails. You can't do anything.”

- Virat Kohli

I think back to the first time I saw him and, once again, the story of the boiling frog. Seven years ago, while I waited at the Indian team hotel in Bangalore during the World Cup, he sat basically unbothered in a restaurant, except for a few young fans who waited patiently outside for him to finish eating. He was becoming the star of the team, replacing Sachin Tendulkar as the best player in the world, and only one or two reporters hung out in the lobby. No paparazzi. That was a different time. Now he eats all his meals from room service and sneaks through the staff corridors of hotels. "It's literally living in a royal jail," he says. "That's what I call our hotel rooms: royal jails. You can't do anything. I can't even think of going down to the hotel restaurant to eat. Forget going out of the hotel."

After a while, we just talk about modern fame. He's got strong opinions. Because humans evolved to live in tribes and villages, he and I agree that the inability to control a reputation is doing damage to an entire generation of famous people, and there is almost no academic or medical scholarship to decode exactly what that damage looks like. Only two or three serious studies have ever been done about how fame changes someone's psyche, the most thorough published in 1989, long before social media. The studies say that celebrity forces people to objectively see themselves through the eyes of other people and that the human animal is not designed to handle that. Kohli laughs and agrees that his life is some sort of experiment for future generations to study.

"If you don't have the ability to handle it," he says, "you're gone."

He recently turned 29 and is clinging to his hard-won clarity. "I have realized a lot of things in the past few years since I've been with my wife," he says. "Because she is a very spiritual person and I have sort of drifted on that path as well. Now things are unlocking in a way that is very difficult for me to explain to people. But I understand that I was always meant to do this. If I am meant to do this in every lifetime of mine, I will do it 100 times over. It's a blessing."

His is a fragile and idealistic peace. He considers the coming spring and summer. Playing cricket means living in hotel rooms and spending long stretches of time abroad. But with the Indian Premier League just weeks away, he's facing an extended stay in India, longer than he's been here in more than a decade. His peace is most at threat when he's at home.

"I'm in India until the end of May," he says. "Three months. That's a long time."

Kohli says modern fame is so malignant: "If you don't have the ability to handle it, you're gone." Erik Madigan Heck for ESPN

The reason he's in this trailer is that he agreed to pose for the story you're reading. It's important to show sponsors he can move the needle in America. Upstairs, his manager pulls me aside to say that Kohli has his own "One8" brand that makes athletic gear, casual wear, underwear and, of course, a men's fragrance. He is the spokesman for at least 16 national and international companies and makes a considerable amount of money from all of these businesses, $19 million annually, according to Forbes. He sells the promise of a different and better life to people exactly like the ones who hound him at shopping malls. Days like today are when his idealism gets tested.

Sometimes he zones out, and while he doesn't explain, it seems clear that he disappears to protect or steady the actual person who lives inside the worshipped avatar of Virat Kohli. With a crew of people waiting upstairs, he sits in a chair in front of a mirror. His team is preparing his outside for public, and he's preparing his inside.

Should I start with your hair first or with your makeup?" one of them asks.

He doesn't answer.

"Should I start with your hair or with your makeup?" she asks again.

He doesn't answer again.

"I'll start with your hair first," she says to herself.

The first interviewer starts weaving her way toward cricket.

"I know where this is going," Kohli says.

Gujral, his manager, steps in and gets combative. He and the reporter argue. The interview finishes, and the reporter wants a picture, handing her magazine to Kohli. Gujral stops them. The magazine has a different brand watch on it.

Kohli looks up hopefully when the room clears.

"Are we going to the event?" he asks.

"No," Gujral says. "We have three more lined up."

Kohli audibly deflates. His control is eroding.

"Are you serious?" he asks.

Everyone comes in and tries to ask about cricket, and every time Gujral steps in. People try to ask non-cricket questions that might end up giving them a cricket answer.

"Is there something that gives you happiness?" he's asked.

"Every day is a blessing," Kohli says.

One interviewer wants to know how he handles the pressure of being captain.

"Things are not as complicated as you make them," he says.

The interviewer wants spice.

"How can I give you any spice when I don't have any spice in my life?" he says.

"How do you deal with pressure?" she asks.

"I don't feel any pressure really."

"1.3 billion watching you and worshipping you?"

"I don't feel any pressure," he says.

Then, for just a moment, he gets honest.

"I can't feel any pressure," he says. "I wouldn't be able to breathe."

The interviewer doesn't seem to realize she's been shown the matrix and glibly moves on. Kohli sips Perrier, trying to calm down.

"One last question about cricket?" an interviewer asks.

"No," Gujral says. "Do you have anything else to talk to him about?"

"From the fan's perspective, one last question," the interviewer parries.

"What is it?" Gujral asks.

"It's about how he's the most followed Indian sports person on social media. And how does it feel to be one of the country's favorite ..."

The question peters out; even the reporters are sheepish at the job they've been sent here to do today. Gujral turns to Virat.

"Do you want to answer that?" he says.

"How does it feel?" Kohli asks.

The reporter addresses Kohli directly now, having been spoken to.

"You're the most followed sports person on social media right now, so much love from the fans. How does it feel?"

"Look," Kohli says finally. "I feel blessed to be where I am."

The interview is over. The interviewer asks for a picture too. The next guy says he just has one question. Gujral asks why come to an interview for one question and throws him out. The door shuts. Gujral just shakes his head.

"Are we done?" Kohli asks.

"Just one last bit," Gujral says.

"I'm not answering one question on cricket," Kohli says.

"I already told them."

Kohli's voice tightens. He wants people to ask him about the expensive watches and his fashion sense or whatever deal his people made in exchange for these hours of his life. That's what he agreed to give away today.

"They're not entering the room," he says.

Kohli gets into the back seat of the Range Rover.

His driver pulls out into the chaos of Mumbai traffic. Gujral sits next to him. His bald security guy sits in the passenger seat next to the driver. People honk horns and weave in and out with no regard to lanes. Kohli looks out the window at the world. He does that a lot, watching people with their briefcases and backpacks, chasing a dream. He loves to see them because that's how he sees himself. That's real to him. Everything else is an illusion.

"It's just one lifetime," he says.

The white-hot burn of his 30th year is a place to pass through on the way to somewhere else, a moment to survive and appreciate and understand. On some future tomorrow, with luck, he will fade away. "It will end one day," he says. "I have a life. I have a family. I will have kids. They deserve all my time. That is something that is very, very clear and close to my heart. I want no part of my career being flashed into my house. I want no part of my trophies, my achievements, nothing in my house when our kids are growing up."

The driver makes a U-turn, headed toward an event where people will push and jockey for a closer view. Kohli is going because that's what global superstars do, because there is money to be made and it's almost irresponsible to those unborn children not to make it. The Range Rover swerves through other cars and passes an enormous billboard with Kohli himself looking out over the city he now calls home. It's an advertisement for Jio, the cellphone company that dropped that bomb into his life.

Wright Thompson A senior writer for and ESPN The Magazine, Wright Thompson is a native of Clarksdale, Mississippi; he currently lives in Oxford, Mississippi. Previously, he worked at The Kansas City Star and the New Orleans Times-Picayune. In 2001, he graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

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