Virat Kohli has become one of the world's biggest sport stars. Photo: AP Photo

Roger Federer, Lebron James, Usain Bolt, Cristiano Ronaldo, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, Virat Kohli. According to renowned American finance magazine, Forbes, those seven athletes were the most popular on the planet in 2017.

Forbes reckons Kohli is more popular than Lionel Messi, Rory McIlroy, Neymar and Jordan Spieth.Forget for a moment the analytics used to measure such things - and given that Forbes have been doing it for years in different social spheres (including company brands and celebrities), you’d trust they know what they are doing - but that is a heck of an achievement for Kohli.

Unlike, football, golf, tennis or even basketball and specifically the NBA, cricket is hardly a sport with a wide global footprint.

The sport owes its popularity to the size of the population of India, and that country’s diaspora. That means that whoever is India’s best player will also be cricket’s most famous.

Kohli was one of four Indian cricketers included on American sports broadcaster ESPN’s list of the 100 most famous athletes in the world this year. On that list he was ranked at 13, again higher than some household global names including Spieth, McIlroy and Serena Williams.

The 29-year-old, who is captaining an Indian side that firmly believes it can become the first to win a Test series in South Africa, has also arrived on the international sporting scene at just the right time as far as being able to take advantage of the fame that now follows sportsmen - or virtually anyone who knows how to effectively utilise social media.

Just recently, Duff & Phelps, a global financial valuation and international corporate adviser, rated Kohli as India’s most valuable brand, ahead of Bollywood performing legend Shah Rukh Khan. Duff & Phelps estimated Kohli’s “celebrity value” at $143-million.

How has a cricketer been able to elevate himself into such lofty status? In the case of Kohli it’s a combination of many factors. At the core though, is his phenomenal batting talent.

When Sachin Tendulkar retired in 2013 many wondered how long it would be before we’d witness someone who’d come close to matching his standing in the game.

Kohli’s still got a hell of a long way to go to get close to Tendulkar’s statistics - even though after the same number of Tests, 63, he’s ahead of the "little master" by 517 runs.

India's captain Virat Kohli celebrates after scoring a century against the West Indies. Photo: AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan

And while Tendulkar, even four years since retiring, remains somewhat of a deity in India, Kohli is outstripping him in terms of endorsements and fame.

The duo emerged at different times as far as India’s social standing in the world was concerned.

There was an oft-utilised comparison between Tendulkar and another former India batting great Sunil Gavaskar - the comparison could be summed up in an old remark about the two - "Sunny saved India, Sachin made India win".

Tendulkar made India believe it could compete with Australia, England and a then-still-very-good West Indies. Kohli doesn’t just want to compete, he genuinely believes India can win in South Africa, in England and in Australia, all tours he is leading the Indian team on in the next 15 months. Those series will come to define Indian cricket, and specifically Kohli.

Since Tendulkar’s retirement he’s rapidly assumed the mantle as India’s "top dog" but he’s done so in a manner that is a great deal different from how Tendulkar used to do things.

In fact Kohli has borrowed more from Sourav Ganguly’s personality than from Tendulkar’s. Ganguly never took a backward step and was fairly calculated in how he sought to get under the opposition’s skin.

Kohli does that and more, showing greater aggression than his predecessors, not just in terms of his playing style, but his on-field personality too. It’s an element that is reflective of India’s society at large, that is seeking to make its mark on the global stage.

That the country’s biggest sportsman, should thus be orbiting in a space with the planet’s biggest sports stars, is thus no surprise.

South Africans can’t conceive of its sportsmen holding such exalted status as is the case with Kohli and even other stars of the game in India.

Right now, in terms of global recognition, Wayde van Niekerk and Caster Semenya are this country’s best-known sports stars, but even they can’t command Kohli’s status.

As for cricket, it’s only AB de Villiers, that can be held in the same bracket as Kohli, and while De Villiers’ popularity in India is enormous, from a global perspective he doesn’t lace Kohli’s boots.

The last time South African sports enthusiasts could feel the warmth from the glow of genuine world star was when Rory McIlroy played the SA Open golf tournament in Johannesburg last January.

Because the likes of Messi, Ronaldo, Woods and Federer don’t come to these shores often to compete - and if they do it’s usually in an exhibition sense - spectators in this country are largely unable to view a genuine global superstar up close, competing hard.

Kohli provides South Africans with that opportunity.

This tour by his Indian team holds huge historical significance for him in particular.

Win here, and he can start to elevate his status even further ahead of Tendulkar, Gavaskar and Mahendra Singh Dhoni as greats of the sport in his country.

Winning here, will also do his global standing no harm either.


Weekend Argus

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