A leading man facing unprecedented pressure extending beyond the field, a coach looking to kickstart the stint by shedding his good boy image, and a buoyant pacer primed to breathe fire into the attack against an opposition led by a dogged man ready for tough contests and tougher conversations at home.
India’s tour of South Africa is set to be the stage for overarching narratives
Just before the 2008 under-19 World Cup, the national junior selectors, in an inspired move, had decided on a leadership change. They replaced Tanmay Srivastava, a soft spoken Lucknow opener who gracefully carried his city’s gentility to the cricket field, with Virat Kohli, a West Delhi boy not known to give undue respect, or an undeserving inch, to rivals. What had then seemed like a minor tweak to the junior team, would prove to be the crucial nudge that gave Indian cricket a complete image-makeover.
Kohli had you at hello. He oozed class, came across as a born-leader and even his anger was endearing. It was amusing to watch the short, well-fed, chubby-cheeked teenager stand up to the taller, broader and leaner boys from England, Australia, South Africa. This one time at the team hotel, before a crucial game against England, he would bump into a rival bowler, who was allegedly staring at him. Kohli didn’t flinch, and of course, he reacted. “Hey, what are you looking at?” he blurted out. The unexpected snub would startle the English boy. No ingrained inferiority, no language handicap, the new kid on the block wasn’t overburdened to be the archetypal, well-mannered Indian cricketer.
At the end of the rain-impacted low scoring tense final against South Africa, Kohli would get hailed as a keeper of lost causes and also get a reputation of volatility. A certain Bradley Barnes should be credited for giving the handful few present at that obscure cricketing venue – Kinrara Academy Oval in Kuala Lumpur – a glimpse of the future.
Between innings, with India out for just 159, South African wicket-keeper Barnes would jump the gun. He would take a dig at India’s low score and also undermine their victory chances. Those bytes would fly to the Indian dressing room, acting as an ember to ignite the fires inside the Indian captain. Those in the dressing room that day speak of the young captain’s rousing speech where he extolled his team-mates to turn their collective anger into advantage.
That day 11 possessed teens, sold to their captain’s call, took the field as if on a desperate mission. Pacer Ajitesh Argal would open up the South African batting order with a dream opening spell, a high he could never repeat in his career. The fact that he never played under Kohli could have been a factor in his 15-minutes of fame.
Ravindra Jadeja showed how he can be gold dust in the game of fine margins under threateningly dark clouds and D/L complications. He was accurate, he didn’t concede many runs and took crucial breakthroughs. Jadeja would be Kohli’s trusted firearm in many such street fight salvos in the years to come.
Every South African batter to walk in that day got a hostile reception, an undignified farewell and an earful all through their innings. Kohli would explode at the fall of the last wicket. True to the script it would be Barnes. Watch the old videos, Little Kohli was much more animated.
Coaches and managers on that trip still talk about the young captain’s mid-inning motivation. Kohli reminded his boys that they were being undermined by their rivals, the skills that gave them courage to dream about graduating to the next level, were being questioned. They needed to fight. It touched a chord, kicked in the adrenalin. This was probably the first of the many “Us vs Them” addresses Kohli would give in India blues.
Years later, he is once again facing the South Africans. Now, he is in a different space. At the South Africa tour send-off press conference, he contradicted BCCI president Sourav Ganguly. He isn’t just another former cricketer turned administrator. Ganguly is a national icon, a regional political influencer and a perpetual CM candidate in West Bengal. There’s no one in the world who knows the complex coach-captain-administrator relationship like him. Kohli and Ganguly have a bit of history. They weren’t on the same page during India’s clumsy coach-swap five years back. It’s an open secret, Kohli wanted Ravi Shastri, Ganguly was keen on retaining Anil Kumble.
Kohli’s mind space has other distractions too. Of late, in a rare social media trend, Kohli was getting trolled. Since the time he supported teammate Mohammad Shami there is a very active and hateful social media community that believes that cricketers should stick to cricket. He’s also lost half of his kingdom. Rohit Sharma now rules the half that has bright lights and big billboards.
Kohli has survived the worst of run slumps. He isn’t the brooding kind. He is known to compartmentalise his cricket. For him, a dropped catch or a bad loss are part of the game. Kohli also doesn’t let his batting ego dictate his play. He has also dodged past controversies. However, he has never been anything but BCCI’s blue-eyed boy. Now, unlike anytime in his career, the Indian captain goes into a fight without his troops. This is no Us vs Them, it’s Virat vs Ganguly.
Often during the press conferences, when Kohli is asked about stories of dressing room intrigue he has dismissed them as “outside noise” that doesn’t bother him or his boys. In his tenure, the media, very often, was the ‘Them’, the agenda driven speculators climbing the press box with the sole purpose of pulling down the team. Kohli never missed a chance to make the ‘Us’ feel that the world was against them. India’s most-loved cricketer now, has been over-sensitive to criticism.
Uncoiling, channelling anger
Several times in his career, Kohli has seemed worked up when the world around him hasn’t moved the way he wishes. So used to the deafening roar of cheer when he walks into the ground, the sound of boos unsettles him. During the last tour to South Africa, he had a running battle with a bunch of fans at Johannesburg. After the fall of every South African wicket, he would turn towards them, pump his fist and give them a lip. It was difficult to be overly hostile with the South Africans on the field, a friendly bunch led by the soft-spoken Faf du Plesis. That’s why Kohli had found a new target of his scorn.
In England, Kohli had a problem of plenty. There was always the instigator-in-chief James Anderson, and even the Barmy Army, with their borderline bawdy ditties. They gave enough reasons for Kohli and his boys to let out the verbals. Australia too was an easy place to remain motivated. They played the game the hard way. Besides, there was racism in the stands and Tim Paine behind the stumps.
Once at Wankhede Stadium, during the days when the concept of franchise sports and changing fan loyalties had yet to sink in, Kohli was upset that he was called ‘cheater’ in an away game. “I don’t know what is wrong with people in this venue. It feels a bit weird because at the end of the day you play for India and you don’t come here to be hated. I don’t know why they get so worked up during the IPL. IPL is not the end of the world. They forget that the players they are booing for also play for their country,” he had said.
Kohli’s low tolerance to criticism and his internal mechanism to channelise the anger into performance makes him a champion athlete. There is a bit of science to this. A BBC article, headlined ‘How anger can be put to good use’, leans on a 2009 experiment by UK-based sports scientists, to prove it. It says: “The anger led to a significant boost in their performance, as they channelled their frustration into the exercise, compared to participants who felt more neutral. Later studies found similar benefits in ball pitching, and jumping: the angrier they felt, the faster their pitch and the higher they jumped.”
Michael Jordan is said to take any slight from his rivals to settle scores in the next game.
Yuvraj Singh wouldn’t have hit six sixes if Flintoff hadn’t left him fuming.
But is Kohli angry with the sequence of events that led to his sacking as white-ball cricket or will he be anxious about the repercussions of taking on the powerful chief of an influential institution? Will he flush out his perceived antagonism with his runs or will he get bogged down by the talk of his shaky crown?
At the Express e-Adda India’s head coach till very recently Ravi Shastri was asked if Virat vs Ganguly will be sorted by sitting and talking or they are waiting ki phir palat ke kab maarna hai? Shastri replied: “It is not about sitting and talking. One party has given one part of his explanation, now the other party needs to get up and give his side of the story. After that, let the public decide.” Ganguly hasn’t replied, the air hasn’t been cleared, the public now waits for the first Test in South Africa.
Shastri would endorse that India couldn’t have a better Test captain than Kohli. “He has been the ambassador of Test cricket like no one else. If you go by the results, who is close to him? I don’t know any captain in the world who leads with that kind of passion.”
That passion is Indian cricket’s priceless heirloom, which they need to preserve. The subjugation of a proud captain wouldn’t rank among BCCI’s glowing achievements. There can’t be a worse sight in cricket than a subdued and second-guessing Kohli leading India. Kohli’s challenge in South Africa is to be that Little Kohli who promised to change the image of Indian cricket forever.