As part of a promotional video for a nutrition and weight management brand they both endorse, Virat Kohli was once asked to record a personal video message for Cristiano Ronaldo. Such videos are often full of hackneyed phrases with athletes blurting out what the script demands of them. But, as Kohli’s recent press conferences have conveyed, the 26-year-old likes speaking his mind and tends to not stick with cliches.
Staying true to his irreverent personality, Kohli’s message to Ronaldo perfectly articulated why two of the world’s greatest athletes are strikingly similar.
“I really admire your passion and aggression on the field and that’s something I thrive on as well,” said Virat to Cristiano in a 50-second clip.
Like Ronaldo, Kohli’s passion and aggression on the field have often been misunderstood for arrogance. As they rose to rule their respective sports, the duo sharply divided opinion among opponents, media and fans.
After the 2006 World Cup, Ronaldo, then a Manchester United player, was severely criticized by the British public and press for his part in getting Wayne Rooney sent off in the quarter-final match between England and Portugal.
After the tournament was over, Ronaldo joined his United teammates for the start of the Premier League season. But with memories of that heartbreaking quarterfinal loss still afresh, Ronaldo faced a backlash from English fans on his arrival.
The Portuguese was greeted with boos and jeers across football stadiums in England. The moment the ball landed at Ronaldo's feet, a volley of abuses was fired at him accompanied by deafening noise of chants berating him.
In the hostile environment of British football, Ronaldo passed the ultimate acid test of his mettle, responding with his best ever performance in a Manchester United shirt. Using the hate as fuel, Ronaldo climbed the ultimate step of world football’s superstardom winning the Ballon d’Or in the next season.
From 2006 to 2009, Ronaldo scored 91 goals for United establishing himself as arguably the greatest footballer on the planet.
Virat Kohli burst on to the Indian cricket scene as a brash, abrasive and supremely gifted batsman. Unlike batting greats of a different generation, Kohli is someone who attracts contrasting opinions for his mannerisms on a cricket field.
Pakistani fans took offense to his celebration post a breathtaking hundred to chase down a mammoth total in an Asia Cup match in Dhaka. Kohli took off his helmet on reaching the three-figure mark and mouthed expletives as part of a fiery celebration. In 2013, India conquered the ICC Champions Trophy beating England in their own backyard. As MS Dhoni's men were handed the trophy, a visibly thrilled Virat broke into an impromptu gig of 'Gangnam Style' like his good friend Chris Gayle. That left a bitter taste among the traditionally gentlemanly English fans, who found Kohli' antics over-the-top.
Virat's tryst with Aussie fans dates back to 2012 when he infamously brandished his middle finger on receiving abuse on the boundary line. The cricket public Down Under are known for trying to get under the skin of opposing players, however, Kohli's response clearly didn't go down well with them.
In the recently concluded Border-Gavasker series, Kohli had constant run-ins with Australian players like Mitchell Johnson, David Warner and Brad Haddin. Fans got on his back and he was booed almost every time he came in to bat. Virat retaliated with possibly one of the greatest batting displays by an opposition player scoring three hundreds, all as captain. When he walked off the SCG playing his last knock, the hostile Aussie fans gave him a standing ovation.
Throughout the series, cricket pundits on television channels were critical of Kohli's attitude. They argued that his cavalier approach was tailor-made for self-destruction. Instead of investing so much emotional energy in verbal duels with opposition, Kohli would be better off using it for his batting and captaincy, they said. But Virat made a mockery of their analysis, with consistent formidable knocks.
Both Kohli and Ronaldo find an additional gear to their game in a hostile environment. They deliver a knock-out blow when boxed into a corner. They have a unique ability to put extra pressure on themselves that propels them to outdo their previous best. The duo enjoys the limelight, being in a fish bowl and at a place with nowhere to hide. Because they believe in the arrogance of their genius. Despite playing team sports, the proposition of winning games on their sheer individual might excites them. They are monotonously secure in pressure cooker situations, when fans and teammates are expecting a miracle from them.
Another eerily similar quality between them is how they respond during times of adversity. Athletes have off days – times when they want the referee to blow the final whistle, an umpire to call off play due to bad light, or wish to be substituted – times when nothing seems to come off and they begin to doubt their ability to perform.
Ronaldo, despite being off-color on the pitch at times, always wants the ball, even in the tightest corner. Irrespective of form, the forward pleads for the ball from teammates, even when they know he isn't at his best. Ronaldo believes he will eventually come good, implicitly trusting his skill. Time and again, at United and now at Real Madrid, Ronaldo has shown the desire to be involved in a game even on a day when he can do no right.
Kohli too showcased that side of his game when he was faced with a barren spell during India's tour of England in 2014. James Anderson in particular, was testing Virat's technique in the 'corridor of uncertainty' and often found him wanting. However, in one Test match, Kohli on neatly tucking Anderson's delivery to fine-leg, wanted to scamper back for a second run. There was no second run, but the intent of Kohli to face his nemesis Anderson rather than seeing him off from the comfort of the non-striker's end was admirable.
The three-time Ballon d'Or winner was critiqued for not showing up in big games few years back. Since his move to Madrid in 2009, Ronaldo brutally demolished that myth by scoring more than any other Real Madrid player in the 'El Classico' - considered the most important match on the football calendar. Virat on the other hand has scored everywhere but England, which has given birth to the myth of him not being comfortable when the ball swings. One can be relatively sure, he will tick that box when India tour England next.
Having played out majority of his career, Ronaldo's place in the pantheon of football legends is assured. Statistics suggest, Kohli too will get there by the time he is done playing cricket. The duo belong to that rare breed of athletes who compel fans to go beyond blinding rivalries and prejudice because it is not possible to ignore their brilliance.