Just as the talk about Virat Kohli and his shoulder injury was dying out, and the focus was shifting to the 22 fellows actually playing, Brad Hodge, coach of the Gujarat Lions added some new masala to a dish that was already too spicy by far. His comments on an Australian sports talk show, suggesting that it would raise questions if Kohli was fit to play the Indian Premier League (IPL) after missing the deciding Test at Dharamsala, have raised the old ghosts of the club-versus-country debate. To an extent they are valid concerns; Hodge knows that cricket in India does not work the same way it does in his home country Australia.
In England and Australia, cricket is interlocked in the fabric of society; it begins as a weekend pastime, extends into a social habit, and then, for some, becomes a career. In India though, cricket is the monolith in the skyline of Indian sport, built on one singular factor: Star power, and the financial draw that it provides.
Hodge referred to how injuries have not stopped some players playing in crucial games in the past. “It’s happened before,” said Hodge. “There are certain players that will limp in, to IPL time, to make sure they get there and perform well, because it is an important tournament for everyone around the world.”
He as a point. Think Gautam Gambhir, who played the entire IPL 2011 season, despite carrying two injuries. Think also Sachin Tendulkar and the IPL final of 2010, in which he played with a split webbing and stitches in his hand. Tendulkar had scored 570 runs in that season for Mumbai Indians at 47.50. In both cases, the stakes were too high for the players to consider missing any cricket; both were central to their team’s plans.
While the mind-over-matter stories of so many players who play despite injury are admirable, it is a symptom of a deeper problem, that of star power overruling professionalism. And let’s not forget the pressure from owners with millions of rupees invested in these players.
This was what Tendulkar is quoted to have said before that final in 2010: “I have decided to play. It is fantastic atmosphere. I am excited to be here.” In a letter to the BCCI about Gambhir’s condition, Andrew Leipus, who was then the Indian physio, clearly advised a four to six-week rest and rehabilitation for Gambhir. Yet both were perceived by their respective teams as too valuable, and played nevertheless.
To see players playing with injuries is not uncommon is a system where there is a lack of depth. In my experience with women's cricket, where the player pool is tiny, certain players seem to become vital to the success of a team, and thus many a times soldier through pain in search of victory. The fact is that with a small talent pool, the possible replacements often aren’t nearly as good as the players who carry injuries. This is not a problem that male cricket faces though. With India’s vast domestic system and multi-layered junior cricket programs, the competition is such that there is always someone waiting to get their chance and show off their skills. Just look at how Karun Nair put pressure on Ajinkya Rahane was the latter missed a few games injured.
The BCCI has not revealed the exact nature of his, but Kohli himself mentioned that he was able to bat. “Certainly, at this stage, the injury has an element of being aggravated in the field. While batting, there is no problem whatsoever of it getting aggravated.” Given that he said he could bat without discomfort, it might have been tempting to risk him in such an important game. His shoulder could have been sheltered by him fielding in the slips for the most part. Certainly Kohli, who has inherited the adoration that we thought would never be bestowed on another after Tendulkar, could have said as well, ‘I have decided to play.’ So when Indian cricket’s biggest star, is left out in the season’s biggest match, it tells you that things are different. But unlike Hodge, I believe the reasons were not the IPL, but Kohli’s egalitarian captaincy itself.
Kohli has on a number of occasions emphasized a 'team first' attitude. “When we put these things in place the first thing I said was I'm not different from anybody else," Kohli said the day before the fourth Test."The same process applies for me as it does all the other members of the team. There's no special treatment for anyone. If I'm 100 percent fit for the game is the only condition that I will take the field”
Even the fact that he was carrying drinks, while derided and criticized by some pundits, spoke to me differently. During my playing years, I have seen some senior players reluctant to carry the drinks if they ever were required to; their egos would get in the way. Kohli, by donning the yellow bib and ferrying the bottles, made a statement, that no job is too small for the team. It was also a smart way of being tactically more involved, and there was nothing wrong with that.
Since he has been captain, he has also emphasised how the team is playing more selfless, less personal milestone-motivated cricket. “Our team has developed this (selfless) attitude, and we will have to keep working on the same thing as we go forward if we are to become the strongest team in the world. If we drift from that plan, and everyone gets too involved in their own personal preparation, then the team's plan gets disturbed”, he said after India’s tour to the West Indies in 2016. The in December last year, he said, “One thing that I really wanted the team to do was express themselves in Test matches and not think about personal performances.”
Kohli has been both talisman and chief architect of India’s near perfect home season so far. While the BCCI has been quite unprofessional in its secrecy about the severity of the injury, not playing a less-than-fully-fit Kohli was a bigger statement the captain and the team management have made than any in press conferences so far. It showed professionalism, faith in the bench, and it helped shape the long term culture of the team over the short term benefit. Like the decision to play Kuldeep Yadav, this move was fearless and meritocratic, and will pay dividends in the coming years. Even in his absence, Kohli’s (and the team management’s) contribution to this game is immense. For the biggest star to make a move away from the star based culture of this Indian team gives us a glimpse of what Kohli’s vision for India in the long run is.
While some of what Hodge said may be justifiable due to the actions of some cricketers in the past, this next line was not. “You would think that your captain would get out there and get amongst the fight and get in there.” It was a comment that went in line with what Allan Border said when Matt Renshaw took a toilet break in Pune, implying that despite his injury, Kohli should fight on. Ironically, not playing unless 100 percent fit was a very Australian decision. Professional, logical, and far sighted.
His injury is an impact injury, not an internal or chronic one which he has been carrying. It was pure bad luck that it came at this time, and should it heal in time for Royal Challengers Bangalore's first game in the tournament, it will hardly be Kohli’s fault.