'Virat Kohli, captain, right-hand middle-order batsman, right-arm quick bowler and my favourite cricketer is Herschelle Gibbs'. This is how a chubby-faced 19-year-old Kohli describes himself in a video from the ICC U19 World Cup 2008. That he went on to lead India to the coveted title is part of India's glorious cricket history. Though it is hard not to make fun of the fact that he called himself a 'quick bowler', for the purposes of this piece we will stick to the latter part of his introduction that has gained a new lease of life during the past couple of days.
When the current Indian captain asked an online critic to 'leave India' if he doesn't like Indian cricketers, the video of his decade-old intro started going viral with a number of people asking why he didn't leave the country if he liked a foreign cricketer. But anyone who has followed the No.1 Test and ODI batsman's career would know that it is a mistake to expect the phenomenal class in his batting to bleed into his worldview.
On the 2011-12 tour of Australia, Kohli announced his arrival on to the world stage by hitting a magnificent 112 runs in the Adelaide Test. Even though India lost the match and the series by a huge margin, his century remained the only bright spot amidst India's gloom. In the ODI tri-series that followed Kohli played one of the best one-day innings ever while treating us to a superhuman display of batting when he devastated Lasith Malinga - arguably the finest one-day bowler in his prime - while leading India's charge to the finals.
However on the same tour during the second Test in Sydney, the maverick batsman courted controversy when he flipped the middle finger to the Australian spectators behind him who were having fun at his expense behind the boundary line where he was stationed while fielding. Anyone who has played cricket at a higher level will tell you that the crowd behaviour can at times border on the extremes but Kohli's mode of retaliation was caught by the cameras and spread widely around the world in no time. It's just his aggressive on-field behaviour you say? Well, on that note why is his 'aggression' the only thing that we talk about when we discuss his captaincy skills? In the recent past for instance, in England and South Africa, there were sessions where the same aggression took a backseat as a clueless Kohli watched the opposition pile on the runs. Maybe aggression is the only captaincy trait that Kohli possesses. Until India start winning more matches overseas who can say otherwise. Fine, let's not digress any further and return back to the topic at hand.
Just over a year after his Adelaide heroics, Kohli was dazzling the Indian Premier League (IPL) where he went on to score more than 600 runs including six fifty-plus scores. This was a time when Kohli was slowly improving upon his T20 hitting. In a game against Mumbai Indians, his runout of opposition batsman Ambati Rayudu, after the latter had fallen on the ground following an unfortunate collision with the bowler sparked a furore amongst a large section of MI fans.
Kohli responded to the criticism by saying: "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. They forget that the players they are booing for also play for their country. It is only creating hatred among the players. When I come back and play for India, they are going to cheer for me. It doesn't work that way."
First things first. Regarding the hallowed 'spirit of cricket' angle, Kohli was totally justified in running Rayudu out within the rules of the game. After all, as the Australians are finding out, the 'line' of sportsmanship is in essence imaginary and if MS Dhoni recalled Ian Bell in England then that doesn't mean that Kohli has to follow suit. But the point that the RCB batsman seemed to have forgotten is that in the crazy world of IPL, city-based loyalties rule the roost and the spectators are totally justified in criticising his actions. Blaming solely the crowd at Wankhede for booing him is not the quality of a great player. The latter take such incidents into their stride and don't cringe about it at press conferences.
At the 2015 ICC World Cup, Kohli was once again on fire as he led India's charge to the semi-finals only to be outdone by the brilliance of eventual winners Australia. But while he was vowing the crowds Down Under with his exquisite strokeplay he couldn't stop himself from being in the news for all the wrong reasons when he abused a reporter during a nets session mistaking him for a journalist from another publication who wrote about his personal life. Visibly shaken due to the verbal onslaught, the victim filed a complaint with the BCCI forcing the board to come out with a stinging rap on their star player.
"The BCCI has been in touch with the Indian team management on this issue, and has advised that this kind of incident should not be repeated," BCCI's then-secretary Anurag Thakur said in a release, while adding: "The BCCI respects the role played by the media in covering and popularising the game of cricket, and acknowledges the support of the media, in its mission to administer and promote the game of cricket in India."
Even the usually sedate former India batsman VVS Laxman was of the opinion that Kohli's conduct was unbecoming of a Test captain, when he told NDTV: "It is not right on Virat's part, irrespective of what has happened. He has to remember that he is a role model and people will be watching him, will be following him, and will be wanting to emulate him and that he had to learn to keep his emotions in check while representing the team."
One can be forgiven for believing that public condemnation on the sports' biggest stage would have knocked some sense into the fiery batsman. Sadly, it wasn't to be. Later the same year, Kohli masterminded a historic Test series win over the visiting South Africans. It was the first time in almost two decades that India had won a Test series against the No.1 ranked Proteas. The series victory, however, was marred by the ICC rating the pitch for the 3rd Test in Nagpur as 'poor' after the match finished inside three days. According to the match officials, the surface offered uneven bounce along with variable pace and turn from the 1st day itself. Even for the sake of argument if one is to believe that the decks used in the series were nothing short of minefields, the fact that India won the four-match series 3-0 meant that India still played better cricket than South Africa over the duration of the rubber. Instead, Kohli aimed his guns at the media for focussing on the pitches rather than revelling in their 'own country's' triumph.
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"It is a pity. The series happened in our country and our own people are looking for weaknesses and areas of criticism, and not speaking enough about the kind of good cricket we played," Kohli had said regarding the media. He also targetted ex-India cricketers for their comments about the pitches saying: "Growing up, you have looked up to these people, and when you hear such comments from them you lose a bit of respect for them. It would be more respectful of them to come up and speak to a player individually if they feel there is some flaw that needs to be corrected."
What was even more shocking was his comment questioning cricket journalism itself. In his own words: "...someone who hasn't played for the country has no right to comment on an international cricketer anyway. I don't think that has any kind of logic. You cannot sit there and say how you would have done something different when you have not been in that situation yourself and don't have the mindset of a cricketer." Logic, you say? Essentially what Kohli's logic meant was that only cricketers have the right to comment on other cricketers and journalists can only talk about other journalists. Does that sound logical to you? Well, it did to Kohli.
In 2016 when PM Narendra Modi announced the demonetisation of 500 and 1000 denomination bank notes overnight, the country as a whole grappled to come to terms with the move and its after-effects. But when the Indian captain was asked about his views on the issue, he casually replied: "For me, it's the greatest move that I've seen in the history of Indian politics, by far. I've been so impressed by it, it's unbelievable what has happened." Kohli's elation came as a surprise to many as he was lambasted on social media for his naivety.
And now this:
The above chronicle shows that even though Kohli remains virtually insurmountable on the field, his off-field antics keep reminding us that he is human after all. In a way, it's not that bad as we as a nation often tend to go overboard with our emotions whenever we see one of our own making huge strides in his/her sphere. We often attach countless hyperboles with such personalities, sometimes turning them into larger-than-life caricatures. That's what we have done with Kohli by calling him names like 'GOAT' and whatnot. But if Kohli's career has taught us anything till now, it is that he is certainly not the GOAT (remember Don Bradman's 99.94), neither does he look like ending up as one unless he focuses on the only thing he seems to be good at - batting - and knowing that it's not necessary to speak every time you are asked to. Though the way he is going, it doesn't seem like anything is going to change in the near future, not just in his batting (which frankly none of us wants to change a bit) but also his perspective. Who said it was actually a gentleman's game anyway!
(Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article solely belong to the author and do not necessarily represent the views of IndiaTV Digital)