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What makes Virat Kohli the world’s most popular cricketer

Virat Kohli popular
Rupin Kale by Rupin Kale 6 minute read

As Virat Kohli becomes the first cricketer to cross the 100 million Instagram followers, Rupin Kale dissects why he’s the most popular name in the sport.

Let’s begin with a small anecdote. While covering the 2019 Cricket World Cup, I had the opportunity of interacting with a range of players from the 10 sides. On the media days in the build-up to the first game, all captains were required to say a piece to camera for one of the event partners. Every other skipper, like any normal person would, took two to four takes to get it right. It was natural, since the lines were given to them on the spot.

In comes Virat Kohli. He listens to the sentences once and repeats them to himself a couple of times, under his breath. The Indian skipper then turns to the camera and recites the whole thing with confidence and believability, as if he’s been rehearsing it all morning. The entire room is left stunned for a second, before the producer says, “bang on”. It is all done in less than five minutes.

This kind of confidence, charm and media-training has made Virat Kohli a favourite of journalists, brands and photographers not just in India, but across global cricket media. It’s no surprise that he is now the first Indian, the first cricketer and the first Asian celebrity to cross 100 million followers on Instagram.

Having said that, it still remains an extraordinary feat, particularly if it’s looked at in a vacuum. The next cricketer on the list is MS Dhoni, with 30.4 million followers. The second-highest Indian is global actress Priyanka Chopra, who is still 40 million followers short of Kohli. The only sportsmen above him on the charts are Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Neymar Jr – arguably the most famous footballers of modern times. Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson has more followers than the India skipper, but he falls partly under the entertainment bracket.

Virat Kohli remains the most popular brand in cricket currently, and possibly among the biggest in world sports overall. Let’s dissect the reasons behind it.

All-round brilliance across formats

Strong camera presence and brand value is all well and good, but it means nothing if it’s not preceded by mastery on the field. Kohli’s all-round brilliance across formats for over a decade has helped his popularity surge beyond a limit. The India skipper has rarely failed since 2010 and of late, has broken records almost every time he’s taken the field; he was voted the ICC Cricketer of the Decade in 2021. Currently, Kohli is the only batsman to average above 50 in all three formats of the game. This sustained dominance on the field is the biggest factor in his ever growing popularity.

Hails from a country with a massive population

When you are born in a country with over 1.3 billion people and excel in the sport they follow religiously, you are bound to have one of the biggest fanbases in the world. The fact that Virat Kohli hails from India, and leads them, is undoubtedly a massive factor in his popularity.

Additionally, he was born in the right era. He began turning heads just before the inaugural IPL edition and was thrust in the limelight almost immediately. Plus, India’s internet revolution in the last decade has led to an exponential rise in the social media users of the country. This, in turn, has taken the digital personas of celebrities to a whole other level. Kohli crossed one million Instagram followers in December 2015. India’s internet revolution began around September 2016. The growth rate is almost unbelievable.

Excellent media training

Over the years, Kohli has admitted many times that he struggled to speak fluently early in his career. Today, he’s one of the biggest brands across world sport and is one of the most confident athletes in front of a camera. The Duff & Phelps Celebrity Brand Valuation Study ranked the India skipper at the top of its celebrity brand list four years in a row. He beats Bollywood celebrities on the list, valuing $238 million in 2020.

Since his physical transformation, almost everything Kohli has done has been geared towards optimal performance on the field. That trickles down to his brand endorsements. The India skipper gives his time to ads and promotions specifically and is keen on getting them over with in the most efficient way. This has led to excellent media training and exploration of ways to cut his time in front of the camera to a minimum. Being married to a Bollywood celebrity in Anushka Sharma has also given him an excellent understanding of brand management.

Success as a captain

While Kohli’s consistency as a batsman made him a massive celebrity in India, his unique success as skipper has elevated his stature to a whole new level. He was at the helm during India’s rise to No.1 in Test cricket as well as their first series victory in Australia and has more Test victories as skipper than any pervious India captain.

Expressive, explosive and emotive

Kohli is among the most expressive cricketers of all time. His explosive nature also makes him a great person to have in press conferences and interviews.

Additionally, he wears his heart on his sleeve and expresses a myriad of emotions during matches. Be it a Jasprit Bumrah impression in practice or a wonderful moment with Steve Smith during a World Cup game, Kohli has a way of making the news with his actions on the field. The camera loves him and follows him consistently during a game.

This video from the ICC shows the extent of emotions Kohli feels and displays on the field.

The bottom line is that Virat Kohli the brand continues to expand as rapidly as Virat Kohli the athlete.  It will be interesting to see how far a cricketer can grow in terms of global popularity, whilst being against elite players from other, more popular sports.

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