The Australianness of Virat Kohli

Virat Kohli at the toss Getty Images

Virat Kohli's white-line fever is ridiculous. When he walks across the rope and out onto the cricket field, it's reckoned his whole persona changes - his mannerisms, body language, his eyes, the window to the soul. Kohli becomes a cricket-playing beast.

Off the field, according to Australian cricketers who know, he couldn't be more different. "Funny," they say. "Humble," they add. Even the ultimate Aussie epithet: "Top bloke."

That might surprise many Australian fans who think of Kohli as they once did Javed Miandad and Arjuna Ranatunga and dear old Dougie Jardine: the villain. Feisty, competitive, confrontational.

On the field Kohli might not always endear himself. But Australian cricketers are largely forgiving of the man because they identify with him: Kohli reminds an Australian cricketer of an Australian cricketer.

So if you're an Australian cricket fan looking for a reason to like and better appreciate the man, the bat, then it would be this: he plays cricket like an Australian.

Kohli, it's clear, is a cricketer who relishes the fight. And Ryan Harris admires him for it.

"He can carry on a bit, I suppose. But if he's on your side you don't mind. It's a tough one, 'the line'," Harris says. "I think if you say something about someone's family or their country or religion, that's over it. Otherwise you can say what you want. If it puts someone off, that's what it's for. That's the idea - you're competing against them. You're trying to put them off, distract them. You're trying to win."

It's wasted on Kohli anyway, adds Harris. "Other batters, you might mutter a couple of things. But with him you don't. He loves it. He wants to get in the game. He looks for a fight. He won't pick one. But he's waiting for it."

"The Australians under Darren Lehmann thought they could pick a fight with India and win. It was stupid, really dumb. If Virat comes in, don't talk to him, don't engage him, take the wind out of his sails." Trent Woodhill

Kohli's not above a send-off. Any game of cricket he plays, he isn't afraid to have a few words with the opposition - and team-mates. He's easily frustrated by errors on the field. He expects a lot of them. He expects to win. Yet his send-offs and verbals look uglier than the reality, says Harris. "It's his passion coming out. He wants to win so badly. You can sit back and watch and think he's carrying on. But it's hard to describe. You can be criticised for not caring."

Trent Woodhill, the former Royal Challengers Bangalore batting coach and mentor of David Warner and Steven Smith, spent five years with Kohli at the franchise and never knew him to be antagonistic. Unlike the Australians of 2016, according to Woodhill. "That series in India, Australia went over with a view to be antagonistic, and Virat didn't understand why," says Woodhill. "He knows in the heat of the battle things can be said - he's said them himself. But he couldn't understand it as a plan.

"The Australians under Darren Lehmann thought they could pick a fight with India and win. It was stupid, really dumb. If Virat comes in, don't talk to him, don't engage him, take the wind out of his sails."

Kohli's former RCB team-mate Moises Henriques agrees Kohli plays cricket like an Australian - to a point. "He's probably a lot more emotional than most Aussies on the field. People say it's his passion that makes him so good. I don't necessarily agree. He's so good because he works so hard and has done for a very long time. He's a smart cricketer and gets the game. He learns extremely quickly on the run."

"He's just very passionate on the field and very normal off it," says another former RCB team-mate, Dirk Nannes.

When they made Kohli captain, though, some thought, what were India doing? "But you talk to blokes and he's been absolutely brilliant," says Nannes. For example, India had a reputation for not taking physical training as seriously as skills. But Kohli has brought an insatiable work ethic: running, skipping, boxing, lifting weights, performing footwork drills, plyometrics.

"He's also very in tune with escaping cricket when he can," adds Henriques. "When he gets quiet time he looks to learn about some fairly off-centre things. He has a huge appetite for learning, about anything. Philosophy, psychology. He's a big reader."

He's carrying on the forthright approach of MS Dhoni. Woodhill believes if Dhoni were Australian he'd be touted in the same breath as Mark Taylor. Dhoni's won everything - IPL tournaments, World Cups, Champions Leagues. India were the No. 1 team in all formats. Kohli has run with that and added polish.

"Under Dhoni they found their own way," says Woodhill. "The players would run through walls for him. Now they'll do the same for Virat. There's eleven players on the same page: a group that wants to do well. There's warmth for individual achievements. Their cricket is hard but fair. Virat drives that. There's such burden as captain of India. Virat is befitting of the role."

Matt Cleary is a freelance journalist based in Sydney. A version of this story first appeared in Inside Sport magazine.