India must unite against South Africa. Not Virat Kohli trying to put out fires at home

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Kohli had you at hello. He was classy, a natural leader and his anger was charming. (File)

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. This minor tweak that had seemed to have little effect on the junior team would turn out to be the key to Indian cricket’s complete image-reform.

Kohli was the first to greet you. He was classy, a natural leader and his anger was charming. 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. He would meet a rival bowler at the hotel before the crucial match against England. Kohli didn’t hesitate to react and he was not afraid to do so. He blurted out, “Hey, look at what you’re looking at.” The surprise snub would shock the English boy. The new boy on the block didn’t have any language or ingrained inferiority. He was just the normal, well-mannered Indian cricketer.

At South Africa’s rain-impacted final, Kohli would be hailed as a keeper and get a reputation for volatility. Bradley Barnes, a certain man, should be credited with giving hope to the few who were present at the obscure cricketing venue Kinrara Academy Oval (Kuala Lumpur) – a glimpse into the future.

Between innings, with India out for just 159, South African wicket-keeper Barnes would jump the gun. He would poke fun at India’s low score, and also undercut their chances of winning. These bytes would be carried to the Indian dressing room and used as a spark to light the fires within the Indian captain. The young captain gave a rousing speech in which he encouraged his team-mates, encouraging them to use their collective anger for their advantage.

That day 11 possessed teens, sold to their captain’s call, took the field as if on a desperate mission. Ajitesh Argal, the South African pacer, would open up the batting order with a dream opening run. It was a feat he would never be able to repeat in his entire 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 precise, didn’t concede many runs, and made crucial breakthroughs. Jadeja would become Kohli’s favorite firearm in many street fights over the next few years.

Every South African batter to walk in that day got a hostile reception, an undignified farewell and an earful all through their innings. At the end of the innings, Kohli would burst. It would be Barnes, true to the script. You can see that Little Kohli was animated in the older videos.

Managers and coaches on that trip still speak of the young captain’s motivation in the middle innings. Kohli reminded his team that their skills, which gave them the courage to dream of reaching the next level, were being challenged. They had to fight. It struck a chord and elicited adrenalin. This was the first of many “Us vs Them” addresses Kohli would give in India blues.

Years later he is again in South Africa. He is now in a new space. At the South Africa tour send-off press conference, he contradicted BCCI president Sourav Ganguly. Ganguly isn’t just another ex-cricketer turned administrator. Ganguly is a national hero, a political figure in the region and a constant candidate for West Bengal CM. There’s no one in the world who knows the complex coach-captain-administrator relationship like him. A little history reveals that Ganguly and Kohli have been friends for a while. They didn’t get along during India’s five-year-old coach-swap. It’s not a secret that Kohli wanted Ravi Shastri while Ganguly was keen to retain Anil Kumble.

Kohli has other distractions in his mind space. In a rare social media phenomenon, Kohli has been getting trolled. There has been a hateful and active social media community since he supported Mohammad Shami. They believe that cricketers should keep playing cricket. He has also lost half his kingdom. Rohit Sharma now rules the half that has bright lights and big billboards.

Kohli survived the worst run slumps. He’s not the brooding type. He has a reputation for compartmentalizing his cricket. He believes that a missed catch or a poor loss is part of the game. Kohli doesn’t allow his batting ego to dictate his play. He has also avoided past controversy. He has been a BCCI blue-eyed boy since childhood. The Indian captain now enters a fight with his troops, something that has never happened in his entire career. It’s not Us vs. Them. This is Virat vs Ganguly.

(Twitter/Virat Kohli)

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. The media was often the “Them”, the agenda-driven speculators who climbed the press box for the sole purpose to bring down the team during his tenure. Kohli never missed an opportunity to make the ‘Us feel like the world was against them. The most beloved cricketer in India, Kohli, has been too sensitive to criticism.

Uncoiling, channelling anger

Kohli has been known to get frustrated when things don’t go his way throughout his career. He is so used to the loud cheers when he walks into the ground that the sound of boos disturbs him. He had a running fight with his South African fans in Johannesburg during his last tour. He would then turn to them and pump his fist, giving them a kiss. It was hard to be hostile towards the South Africans playing on the field. They were a friendly group led by Faf du Plesis, who is soft-spoken. Kohli was now a target for his ridicule.

Kohli was a man with a problem of abundance in England. The instigator-in chief James Anderson was always there, as well as the Barmy Army with their bawdy ditties. These gave Kohli and his boys enough reason to shout the verbals. Australia was a great place to stay motivated. They had to learn the game. Aside from racism, Tim Paine was behind the stumps and there was also racism in the stands.

At Wankhede Stadium in the days before franchise sports and changing fan loyalty were still a new concept, Kohli was angry that he was called “cheater” in an away match. “I don’t know what is wrong about people in this venue. It’s strange because you are playing for India, and not to be hated. I don’t understand why they get so excited during the IPL. IPL isn’t the end of the universe. They forget that players they are booing also play for their country,” he said.

Kohli is a champion athlete because of his low tolerance for criticism and ability to channel anger into performance. This is supported by science. 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. The article states that anger resulted in a significant increase in performance. Participants who felt more neutral were able to channel their frustrations into the exercise. 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 may take any minor from his rivals in order to settle scores in the next match.

Yuvraj Singh wouldn’t have hit six sixes if Flintoff hadn’t left him fuming.

But Kohli is angry at the events that lead to his dismissal as white-ball cricket’s chief or is he worried about the consequences of taking on such a powerful man of an influential institution. He will be able to extinguish his anger with his runs, or will he let the talk about his weak crown get in the way?

As the Express e-Adda India head coach, Ravi Shastri was recently asked if Virat vs Ganguly can be sorted out by just sitting down and talking or if they need to wait ki phir ke kab maarna. Shastri said, “It’s not about sitting down and talking. The explanations of one party have been given, the other party must now give their side. Let the public decide.” Ganguly didn’t reply, so the air is still a bit murky. The public awaits the first Test in South Africa.

Shastri would endorse that India couldn’t have a better Test captain than Kohli. He has been an ambassador for Test cricket like no other. He is the closest Test cricket captain to me, judging by his results. I don’t know any captain in the world who leads with that kind of passion.”

This passion is Indian cricket’s most precious heirloom and they must preserve it. A proud captain being subjugated wouldn’t be a BCCI highlight. A subdued Kohli leading India is the worst thing about cricket. Kohli’s challenge is South Africa, where he will be playing as Little Kohli, who has promised to transform the image of Indian cricket forever.

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