Ian Botham fishing

Back in the day, you could catch the likes of him having a drink with a cricket journalist or two

Adrian Murrell / © Getty Images


Behind the superstar

It's hard to get there nowadays, but the interview with Virat Kohli in this issue does

Sambit Bal

On a mellow summer evening in London a couple of years ago, I found myself treated to some golden cricket stories that involved late nights, booze, pranks and male bonding. Not surprisingly, both cricketers and cricket writers were culpable. But readers of recent vintage would find it hard to believe that they were often at it together and, even more incredibly, that not a whiff of it was to be found in the following day's newspapers.

It was the memorial service for the much-loved sportswriter and columnist Frank Keating, whose death brought, in the words of a fellow cricket writer, "an outpouring of something a bit more than respect and affection, more like gratitude and love". Keating was a celebrationist: his prose oozed romance and sparkled with wit, and he would have considered it beneath him to say a cruel word about any cricketer. Those were not the days of the Dictaphone, but it is said even notes were superfluous for Keating: he grasped the essence of what a player said, or imagined what he ought to say, and then worked his magic on it. The players could hardly ever complain about coming off sounding as good as they did.

And Ian Botham, wrecker of glorious mayhem on and off the field, was his chief accomplice on tours. Keating was at hand in Indore on England's tour in 1981-82 to paint a rich and crackling description of his pal's 55-ball blitz against Central Zone that brought 122 manic runs with 15 fours and seven sixes. But the side story, of which there was no mention in the report, was crucial. Botham had spent the previous night in a bar, drinking, as the story goes, till the barman fell asleep on the floor. And who should be giving him company but our jolly storyteller? It was just as well both men were up for the job the next morning, but imagine Keating's professional dilemma had Botham been out slogging the first ball. And can you even begin to imagine a cricket writer as a co-adventurer in Andrew Flintoff's pedalo escapade?

Those were gentler times, of course, when cricket retained its pastoral hues; cricketers were heroes, remote but no less beloved, and the prime purpose of sportswriting was to paint pictures from distant lands. Not all cricket writers were as likeable as Keating, and not all cricketers lived their lives as rambunctiously as Botham, but the stakes were lower those days. Cricketers didn't worry about their brand value and corporate image, and with the exception of the British tabloids, the private lives of cricketers, though they were lived more openly, were not subject to prurient enquiries.

Kohli: uncommon talent, strong individuality

Kohli: uncommon talent, strong individuality © AFP

Today we see a lot more of them but know a lot less. They are ubiquitous on our television screens, in the glossy pages of the newspapers (apart from the back pages, where they originally belonged), in our social media feeds and on billboards, yet a lot of what we hear from them is either inane or choreographed.

In India, where cricketers find it the hardest to escape the trap of their celebrity, and where the scrutiny of their every move is the severest, the relationship between cricket writers and contemporary cricketers ranges between frosty to downright hostile. As a result, cricket lovers rarely get a glimpse into what shapes players' games.

Which is why Nagraj Gollapudi's interview with Virat Kohli is so remarkable, a genuine tour de force. It took a lot of waiting, persistence, a couple of false starts and near misses, but once Kohli sat down, he rewarded Nagraj handsomely. Not hedging or piling on the glibness that is the stock in trade of the media-trained modern cricketer, he provided genuine insights and candour - even about his relationship with actress Anushka Sharma.

Kohli, a combination of uncommon talent and strong individuality, is among the most compelling cricketers of this generation. You don't have to love him - indeed, he may sometimes make you squirm - but it is difficult not to be drawn by him. His skills had always been obvious; this interview takes you past the strut and the swagger, into a keen and enquiring mind, and reveals an earnest and passionate young man determined to live life on his own terms. It feels like we know him a bit better already.

Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo. @sambitbal