Virat Kohli has been a darling of the Indian media ever since he made it to the national team, and more so since he took over its captaincy.
He is affable enough when the going is good, which – to be fair – it has been rather often. But let us also keep in mind that Kohli has had an extraordinary run of luck with the coin toss.
Rare is the occasion when the Indian team has won despite losing the toss, even at home where the pitches – like everything and everyone else in the world of Indian cricket – are subservient to the orders of the captain.
For the first time since he took over the captaincy, Kohli has had a poor run of form and does not have the luxury of raging at the poor performances of other batsmen while shouldering sole responsibility.
Also for the first time since he took over the captaincy, India has been whitewashed in two tournaments in a row.
Every time the Indian team takes a drubbing, Kohli manages to stay civil during the match presentation, only to make up for it during the press conference. He fumed at a journalist in New Zealand, in response to being asked whether he should not be setting an example as captain for on-field behaviour.
The captain does have a role to play in team conduct. Steve Waugh’s Australian team, nicknamed The Invincibles, may have won more than their share of World Cups, but they were not hugely popular. Everyone has noticed the reduction in sledging and gamesmanship after Waugh’s exit. For all his batting exploits, the Aussie has the dubious honour of being considered the most accomplished at sledging too.
Kohli was not simply “aggressive” on the field. His behaviour was downright ugly. He swore at the crowd, he gave several batsmen send-offs, and he screamed his favourite slur, the subject of the Ben Stokes meme, at Kane Williamson – one of the nicest guys in cricket today. And all this without even the rather poor excuse of the match being a cliff-hanger – India had lost the match well before it officially ended.
The current Indian team has had various verbal and gestural exchanges on the field with the English and Australian teams, neither of which has a reputation for gentlemanliness. But to take on New Zealand, who not only never provoke but also refrain from retaliation, is an extreme step.
The fact that Kane Williamson was so gracious about Kohli’s behaviour only serves to highlight the difference between the two sides. When asked about the send-off, Williamson laughed it off, saying it was in Kohli’s nature. That was not a compliment.
Williamson’s own nature was evident by how he conducted himself in the final of the One-Day International World Cup, a game that New Zealand ought by rights to have won.
The fact that the senior cricketing team, and particularly the captain, sets an example was evident in the recently-concluded Under-19 Cricket World Cup. The final, between India and Bangladesh, ended in ugly scenes before the presentation. In one of the other matches, two New Zealanders carried a West Indian batsman who had just hit them all over the park, off the field because he was struggling to walk.
This justifies the question posed by the reporter at whom Kohli snapped, and the retort betrays an arrogance and churlishness that is unbefitting of any sportsman, let alone someone considered a leader.
Sports are not simply means of entertainment or escapism. They are a crucial part of the societal and political reform of nations.
In a beautifully-written chapter, “What do men live by?”, in his book “Beyond a Boundary”, sports writer C L R James speaks of how organised games have been part and parcel of every civilisation since that of the Ancient Greeks, patronised equally by warriors and intellectuals, as if to underline the notion that the mind is not an entity separate from the body.
It is easy for an Indian cricket captain to let it all go to his head. He is worshipped not only by the media and public, but also given an enormous say in who plays in the team and who coaches it. The captains who stayed grounded – Rahul Dravid comes to mind – have not been particularly successful; their modesty got in the way of the team obeying them, however astute their cricketing minds were.
M S Dhoni, for all his faults – he had his coterie, whose current form seemed irrelevant to their selection – always conducted himself well before, during, and after the match. He seemed to know the difference between sport and war. In a memorable moment, he was the first to come to the aid of Faf du Plessis, who had scored a quick-fire century against India, when the South African batsman found himself cramping. Even before the physiotherapist had run on to the ground, Dhoni was giving du Plessis’ legs a rub-down.
It might serve Kohli well to remember that it isn’t simply winning matches that makes a leader. It is also his conduct when he is on the losing side. It is also taking stances, and reminding viewers that one is with the spirit of the game.
One of the loveliest moments witnessed on the Formula One racetrack almost erased the ugliness of what had gone on before. At the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix, Ferrari had invoked Team Orders to make race leader Rubens Barrichello move aside for teammate Michael Schumacher so the latter would win and strengthen his position in the World Drivers’ Championship.
Schumacher, who had maintained second position for much of the race after starting in third and would have finished second, insisted on Barrichello taking the winner’s stand and handed over his trophy to his teammate. The gesture got both of them as well as Ferrari in trouble with the Formula One governing body FIA, but also led to the cunning exercise of Team Orders being banned for eight years.
That is what leaders do. They become ambassadors of their sport and its spirit.
More Columns by Nandini Krishnan:
Nobel for economist, tailspin for economy
Why the Diaspora has so much love to give
Hindi debate: We are all obsessed with homogeneity
We are choking the earth
When Kamal Haasan endorsed harassment
The Dalai Lama and the death of humour
The delusionary Indian intellectual
India's culture of worship has to end
Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com