Wednesday, May 22, 2024

‘Pakistan loves you’: Why India’s Virat Kohli wins hearts across the border


Colombo, Sri Lanka – “Kohliiiii! Pakistan loves you!” shouts a man dressed in a Pakistan cricket shirt.

Khursheed Ali bent over the rails of a stand next to the Indian cricket team’s dressing room as he tried to attract Virat Kohli’s attention.

The Indian superstar had just finished his warm-up routine ahead of the resumption of his team’s Asia Cup Super 4 match against Pakistan at R Premadasa Stadium on Monday.

With his eyes locked straight ahead and mind focused on the game, Kohli walked back into the dressing room without a peep.

Ali, a resident of Karachi, Pakistan, was happy to have finally caught a glimpse of his favourite Indian cricketer. He smiled as he turned his attention back to chanting slogans for Pakistan’s team.

“There is no doubt that all of Pakistan loves Virat Kohli,” he told Al Jazeera.

As if sensing the next question, Ali added: “It’s for a simple reason – he does not let petty politics get in the way of friendship.

“How he treats our players and interacts with them is in plain sight, so we must reciprocate the warmth.”

Kohli plays a shot during the Asia Cup match against Pakistan in Colombo [Eranga Jayawardena/AP]

Pakistan and India have been bitter rivals since they were split into two countries at their 1947 independence from British rule. The South Asian neighbours have fought three wars since and have stern restrictions on cross-border movement of their citizens.

Whenever their cricket teams meet in tournaments, the exorbitantly priced tickets are sold out within minutes because fans spend years waiting for the clash.

‘He respects the game, so we respect him’

Later in the evening in Colombo, Kohli scored a stunning century (122 off 94 balls) to help his team to a record-breaking win over Pakistan in the one-day international (ODI) match.

Ali, who travelled to Sri Lanka to watch two India-Pakistan matches that were plagued by rain, said Pakistanis admire the former Indian captain despite his excellent record against their team.

Virat Kohli
Kohli shakes hands with Pakistani players during a match in Australia [File: Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/AP]

Kohli has scored three centuries in 15 ODI matches against Pakistan. His highest ODI score (183) also came against his country’s so-called bitter rival.

But the records do not deter his fan club across the border. In fact, it endears him to the Pakistani cricket fans who are in awe of his ability to sustain his performances at 35.

“His fitness level for a 35-year-old athlete is unmatched in cricket,” Shoaib Khalid, another Pakistani fan, told Al Jazeera after Kohli completed his match-winning century on Monday night.

“I admire the game awareness, intensity and passion he continues to show despite having won every [world] title in cricket. He respects the game, so we respect him,” Khalid said matter-of-factly.

Last year, when Kohli went through a lean patch on the field, he found support in an unexpected corner. A fan at a Pakistan-Australia cricket match in Karachi held up a poster showing his support for the Indian star.

Deafening chants of “Kohli! Kohli! Kohli!” reverberated over the two days of the Asia Cup match on Sunday and Monday.

The chants began when Kohli first stepped onto the field to bat and continued late into the night on Monday as he fielded in front of the boundary line.

Wherever Kohli fielded, the crowd moved with him like a swarm of bees. When he moved to the midwicket boundary, his fans of all ages and nationalities went berserk. They shouted and begged him for a wave. When he did, it was delirium.

Joel Abraham, a self-proclaimed Kohli “fan boy” from India’s southern metropolis of Chennai, said he understands why his favourite cricketer is so popular across the border and all over the world.

“When he exits the field of play, he leaves behind his aggression and shows his true human nature, which is full of humility and respect,” he told Al Jazeera.

“He knows how to separate his professional and personal demeanours, which make him stand out,” the 21-year-old said.

Kohli
Kohli hugs Mohammad Rizwan after Pakistan won a T20 World Cup match in UAE [File: Aijaz Rahi/AP]

‘Respectful towards our players’

Be it his smiles, relaxed demeanour or no-holds-barred interviews, Kohli is a firm favourite because Pakistani cricket fans see him as a player they can connect with.

“He is respectful towards our players and us as fans, which is uncommon for most Indian cricketers but something that all athletes should stand for,” Pakistani Rubab Aijaz said.

“When he completed his century today [Monday], all my friends and family back home cheered for him,” she said with a shrug.

Before the first India-Pakistan match at the Asia Cup, Kohli was seen animatedly chatting with Pakistan players. High-fives, hugs and smiles were exchanged.

When rain suspended play during the match, Kohli stood outside the Pakistan dressing room and cracked jokes with the Pakistani players.

The fact that Kohli has never played competitive cricket in Pakistan – he only has toured the country with a junior squad – has left his fans with no choice but to follow him when he plays the team in green at neutral venues.

India stopped its cricket tours of Pakistan after the 2008 Mumbai attacks, in which 166 people were killed as armed fighters, allegedly from Pakistan, went on a rampage for days at prominent hotels, railway stations and other public places.

Some Pakistani fans say they will make use of any opportunity to publicly request the cricketer visit Pakistan.

It is not uncommon to find Pakistani fans sporting shirts with Kohli’s name at the back.

In 2019, a motorcyclist in the Pakistani city of Lahore was famously spotted wearing the Pakistan cricket team’s replica shirt for the Cricket World Cup with Kohli’s name emblazoned at the back.

Ahead of Pakistan’s first match against India at the Asia Cup last week, sand artist Sachaan Baloch from Gawadar, a coastal city in Pakistan’s sparsely populated Balochistan province, sketched Kohli’s portrait on the beach. Drone footage of the artist and his work went viral on social media.

Baloch later said in an interview with a local television channel that he just wanted to show his love and respect for Kohli.

Ali said he will never forget the feeling of watching his favourite cricketer play in Colombo and hopes he wouldn’t have to wait too long for another opportunity.

Pakistan and India are scheduled to meet at the Cricket World Cup on October 14. And if results go their way over the next few days, they could meet in the final of the Asia Cup on Sunday.





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