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Why Kohli’s anger can be bad news for Indian cricket

Virat Kohli has been so aggressively auditioning for the role of angry, young man that one can’t fault him for believing that the part is his for the taking. But, as the much-vaunted heir apparent to MS Dhoni, he has been identified as the new-age role model for Indian cricketers. Brash, arrogant and feisty – qualities you wouldn’t mind seeing in young Team India. Angry, petulant and even disrespectful – attributes you wouldn’t want emulated in a hurry. But you can’t seem to get the one without the other, it appears, as an alarming trend towards rage shows no signs of abating in this edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL). And, given his position as the future leader of the national team, I think Kohli’s the one who can stem this tide.

Now, I love a bit of drama and tension in a game. Sparring opponents are not supposed to best friends, gentlemen’s game or not. A touch of sledging, clever banter and a few brooding glares – these accessories to a cricket contest never get old. But what we’ve seen so far during IPL-6 are snapshots of an attitude, the beginnings of a culture, that perhaps needs to be reined in to avoid a blow-out in the future. Slapgate-201, if you will. Consider that the players getting all surly and sulky are mostly Indian.

What kind of example is Kohli setting for the other youngsters? BCCI

What kind of example is Kohli setting for the other youngsters? BCCI

The lowest (or highest) point of this trend was seen in the Kolkata Knight Riders vs Royal Challengers Bangalore game. The Kohli-Gautam Gambhir spat was the most visible sign of dissension among players of the same national team and showcased the toll the change of guard is taking on players. The pup had become top dog and Gambhir, never known for a calm temperament, was ripe for a battle. History played its part here, as so well articulated in this article in the Indian Express, which explains, in part, the psychological make-up of the two players concerned. It talks about how Kohli joined the Delhi side as a rookie while Gambhir was already a senior member of the national team. With the new order of things, it doesn’t need a shrink to fathom why Kohli would no longer accept Gambhir’s ‘seniority’ or why the latter still expected some old-fashioned hierarchical respect. Something was about to give and the heated, frenetic atmosphere of an IPL became the perfect backdrop for a standoff.

Then, take yesterday’s Mumbai Indians-Rajasthan Royals match, where the pre-game buzz was less about the cricket and more about the anticipation of a reprise of Slapgate in the wake of Sreesanth’s Twitter rant against Harbhajan, blaming him for ‘staging’ the incident in the first place. If it is indeed true that Rahul Dravid rested the fast bowler in a bid to prevent a controversy from overtaking the sport, then full marks to the wisdom of our former captain.

These are just a few examples of the on- and off-field spats, and they’ll recur no matter what.

The larger question, for me, is the direction the Indian team – and not an IPL franchise – will take in the next few years. MS Dhoni suffers no fools but his manner of managing his team doesn’t require any overt aggression given that his stature as a leader and a match-winner is so well-established. He has the support of the cricket administration and the respect of his senior teammates (of which only Sachin Tendulkar remains). His predecessors, Anil Kumble and Dravid, were mild-mannered cricketers who relied on wisdom and counsel as opposed to rage. Sure, Kumble has been known to lose his cool but only the hapless fielder who dared to drop a catch. But the Indian leadership has never known hot-headedness like Kohli’s.

You’re thinking, what about Sourav Ganguly? But that’s an act I wouldn’t mind seeing any Indian captain follow. As I said, no one wants a pushover. With all his insecurities and the allegations of favouritism (like any captain is exempt from that), and even with the t-shirt swirling at the hallowed venue of cricket, his shepherding of talent is legend and his outward respect for senior colleagues like Tendulkar, Dravid and Kumble a hallmark of his time as India’s captain. Of course he was likely to get animated but there was rarely a touch of ugliness to his attitude. It was the kind of hot-headedness that didn’t set the team culture on fire. It was also balanced by the calm that his peer group brought to the table.

Take this, for example. In a story narrated by Yuvraj Singh at a press interaction yesterday, he mentions how Tendulkar upbraided him for smashing his cricket bat out of frustration at a run-drought. He was asked to keep his cool even if things weren’t going his way and to respect the game that ‘feeds’ him. This kind of thinking will probably be considered weak and too old-fashioned. But don’t these values provide the foundation for a longer, better career?

If and when Kohli’s time to lead arrives, he will be responsible to establishing the team culture and nurturing his juniors in this manner. None of the current senior stalwarts will be around for advice. To my mind, every step towards the big job needs to taken in a measured manner and the captaincy of the Royal Challengers Bangalore is an important one for the young man.

Kohli’s talent is unquestionable as is his commitment. I wish I could be as convinced about his maturity. As an anointed leader of the biggest game in the country, he not only has a responsibility to his team-members but also towards the young fans who may one day want to play the game. I don’t want Kohli to turn the other cheek. No, I really don’t. But he could, maybe, find a way to fight with a little more elegance. The others are bound to follow suit.

The author writes on popular culture, cricket and whatever else takes her fancy. She tweets @abbykhaitan.