The tenacious Indian cricket captain has earned accolades for his prowess with the willow and a match-winning mindset. But he has also been at the receiving end of a lot of flak for being abrasive and short-tempered when things don't go his way. In this Business Standard Special, sportswriter Priyansh explains why, despite his formidable track record, Virat kohli remains largely unappreciated.
In the pantheon of Indian cricket, the personages are monoliths. They either exist beyond reproach or, sometimes, are addressed with derision alone. In the public imagination, rarely do we see observers wrestle within as the various hues of a cricketing star play out. Virat Kohli, though, is representative of that conundrum.
As a cricketer, there is little debate anymore about his genius. Over time, Kohli has pushed the boundaries of reasonable expectation. He is already the greatest ODI batsman of his generation; the Indian skipper’s record in other formats is no less impressive. Kohli manipulates the opposition, bending them to their will. His excellence is self-evident. It would be an exercise in futility to compare him with other greats or wonder what is left for him to achieve. Kohli’s greatness needs no burnishing.
And yet, a monolithic appreciation of the maestro airbrushes much that is in sight. Virat Kohli’s ‘passionate’ demeanour, every now and then, transgresses into sharp exchanges, shouting matches and ill-considered utterances. He is combative on his good days but rather abrasive when his temper reaches its hottest corners.
Kohli’s tenure as captain has pushed his admirers into a tough spot. Drawn to explain his indiscretions away, they themselves in knots. An illuminating exercise is recalling all that used to rub Indian commentators the wrong way about Ricky Ponting as skipper. The aggressive celebrations, the unyielding pursuit of victory and the occasional flirtation with ethically questionable behaviour. Now, Virat Kohli gets a free pass on all of those counts.
But the Indian captain does not make it easy for his admirers to look past the misdemeanours. Over the two and a half years as skipper, Kohli has made his team play in harmful conditions in Delhi when smog enveloped the capital, made an unsubstantiated allegation of cheating at the Australian skipper Steve Smith and been involved in unpleasant arguments with journalists over their questions and observations.
It is fair to say Kohli is not a big fan of criticism. If his recent press conference is anything to go by, he does not want praise either. His achievements are secure but the only assessment Kohli values comes from within or from those he trusts deeply. Ravi Shastri, for example, is allowed inside the Indian skipper’s sanctum sanctorum. It was no surprise to see Kohli demand Shastri’s appointment as India’s coach once his fall-out with Anil Kumble became public knowledge last year.
Shastri’s closeness to the captain is a consequence of his uncritical support for the cult of Kohli. By the looks of it, neither of them is a fan of tough love. Shastri, in fact, often speaks in awe of the star batsman. It seems he was brought back to make Kohli and his teammates feel better about themselves, after their differences with Kumble. If one were to judge by results on the field, the siege mentality fostered by coach and captain is not counterproductive.
The team culture seems to have been manufactured in Kohli’s image. Yet, there are negative manifestations to indulgence of the leader’s agenda. We see it in Kohli’s reckless public pronouncements and the confrontations with match officials and opponents.
His exuberant celebrations, though, are followed by unnecessary criticism. Whenever India makes a crucial intervention in a match, Kohli’s excitable reaction is a common sight now. But it is impossible to see which moral code is violated by a captain who likes winning and pushes his team to attack the opposition with aggression. If anything, this might be Kohli’s enduring contribution to Indian cricket.
To grapple with the complexity of Kohli—for that matter, anybody else—we need to move away from the common predilection for hagiography. One could be a fan of Kohli’s excellence as a batsman and leader, and disapprove of his occasional short-sighted pursuit of his agenda. It remains important to acknowledge that Virat Kohli is not above criticism. He is prone to the demons which beset many and yet, he often rises above the morass when holding a bat.
Virat Kohli may not want praise. He certainly does not like criticism, either. But as we assess one of India’s cricketing greats, it is incumbent upon us to offer accounts that are biographical in the truest sense of the word. This will only add a shine to Kohli’s gleaming star.
Priyansh is a sports writer based in New Delhi. He tweets @GarrulousBoy.