As a professional cricketer, Virat Kohli’s job is to win games and not popularity contests.
Sourav Ganguly scored a hundred on debut at Lord’s. His cover-driving skills had Rahul Dravid comparing him to God. He deposited spinners into the stands at will. As captain, he was a transformative figure who shaped an entire generation of cricketers.
But ask any cricket fan about the lasting image of Ganguly’s career, the most likely answer would be, “Dada removing his shirt after India won that Natwest Series final”. No matter how much we try to reduce sports to technicalities, it’s the personalities of those who participate in its theatre that create a lasting impact.
Björn Borg was called “the machine” for never showing emotion on court. He won five Wimbledons on the trot probably without uttering a word while playing. His arch-rival John McEnroe, in what was termed a “Fire vs Ice” rivalry, was a drama queen on the court, to put it gently. Borg retired at the age of 26 after losing the 1981 US Open final against McEnroe citing burnout as the reason. McEnroe won his last ATP doubles title at the age of 47.
Borg admitted later that he was trying to rein in his emotions to get over his temperamental problems as a youngster, that the same heartless, nerveless Borg was reprimanded for breaking his racket at the age of 14.
This is not to suggest McEnroe’s approach was better than Borg’s. What goes on between the ears of elite athletes is something only they can know. But it’s possible that if you suppress your personality, you may not be able to perform at the highest level for long.
Never back down
Among cricketers of the current generation, you won’t find a better example of a player who brings his personality with him to the field than Virat Kohli. Even on his first tour to Australia, before he became ‘King Kohli’, he didn’t shy away from flipping a middle finger at the hecklers behind him on the boundary.
In one of his interviews after becoming the captain of the Indian team, he said, “You don’t really go out there and take unnecessary things being said to you from anyone. I follow that in life, I follow that in cricket as well.”
Separating Kohli’s personality from his play or expecting him to mellow down is like asking him to come out to bat without his gear.
Kohli never backed down when a menacing Mitchell Johnson tried to get under his skin. When you are going out to face a man hurling a cricket ball at your nose at close to 100 miles per hour, you need self-belief and not humility to survive.
In the same way, he will not back down while responding to a troll who considers him overrated and then says he prefers watching English or Australian cricketers over “these Indians”.
A Dhoni or a Dravid would have let it slide, but that’s not how Kohli operates. He decided to chastise the troll by telling him to leave the country. It’s unfortunate that we live in a time when asking someone to “leave the country” has divisive connotations, but Kohli didn’t seem to have any malice while saying it. It was meant as light-hearted banter. A bit like telling your “angrez” friend to settle in “Amrika” if he only listens to Western music.
But the outrage factory on the internet didn’t spare the opportunity to dissect Kohli’s comments. Footage of his Under-19 days, where he had named Herschelle Gibbs as his favourite cricketer, was exhumed. He was called a hypocrite for getting married in Italy. And as it happens with all discussions on the internet these days, his perceived political lineage was brought into the equation.
Personally, I believe in a world without boundaries and won’t take offence if someone told me to go and live in X or Y country. But that’s beyond the point. It doesn’t matter what you and I think of Kohli’s opinions. As long as he is not saying something abusive or trying to deliberately incite hatred or violence as per the terms of the medium he is using, we shouldn’t have a problem.
As cricket fans still stuck with this mythical utopia of the spirit of cricket, we are the worst offenders in setting unrealistic expectations of our stars.
No diplomat or elected representative
Just the other day, Ross Taylor was criticised for telling the umpire that he thinks Mohammad Hafeez was chucking the ball. Now, a batsman looks at the bowler’s arm closer than anyone else on the field; if he suspects foul play, he should be allowed to bring it to the notice of the umpire. But that kind of common sense would be too much to expect from a holier-than-thou ICC that is still intent on selling cricket as a “gentleman’s game”.
The Australians somehow believe that their cricketers need to follow a superior moral code from the rest of the world, so they handed a one-year ban to their cricketers for an offence that warranted a one-test ban under ICC’s code.
The Australian board is now completely obsessed with this drive of moral cleansing as a PR exercise. In what seems like an Orwellian nightmare, they have now invented this term “elite honesty” and had it pasted on the walls of their players’ dressing room. When asked about it, Shane Warne said it made him “want to vomit”.
In a highly competitive professional sport, expecting players to behave as bots is beyond stupid – it’s draconian. For those who like to watch sports without the distraction of players with potentially flawed personalities, it may be best to follow the rapidly growing industry of professional e-sports.
For Indian fans, it’s tempting to compare everything with the highest benchmark of them all, Sachin Tendulkar, the only true God of cricket. He, of that ferocious bat in his game, but a sagely calm in his demeanour.
All our middle-class values have been formed based on this elusive ideal. But this generation has seen a brash, tattooed brat called Kohli thrash those ideals. If you ask Tendulkar, he wouldn’t mind Kohli’s arrogance and ready tongue so much, just like he didn’t mind seeing how John McEnroe carried himself on the court when he was still a kid.
In fact, Sachin has said on several occasions that as a kid he wanted to be just like McEnroe. Tendulkar probably adopted that reticent mannerism when he figured out that it helps him perform his best.
Like all of us, Kohli is a product of his time and environment. He speaks and argues the way two people bicker on the streets of Delhi. Kohli’s flaws are our flaws, and that fact only makes him more endearing to his fans. He is not a diplomat or an elected representative who needs to be politically correct every time he opens his mouth.
He is a professional athlete who is expected to play the game hard and fair, and stick to the same basic principles of personal conduct as any other professional. Kohli’s unreal batting form has anyhow put him in the realm of superhumans, let him have some human flaws and emotions for mortals like us to relate to!
Rajesh Tiwary tweets @cricBC and is known for his blend of cricket insights and irreverent humour. A self-confessed cricket geek, he prides himself in remembering every frame of grainy Television cricket coverage of the ’90s.