What do Steve Smith, Kane Williamson and Joe Root — said to be three of the four best batsmen in contemporary cricket – do when provoked? They steel up, ignore the irritants, focus on the task at hand and usually turn up trumps. Scoring big hundreds, at any level, is about motivation and patience, getting into the zone and responding to the challenges thrown at you, one delivery at a time. ‘Staying in the moment’ is their mantra.
With Virat Kohli, the fourth batsman in that quartet of batting brilliance, it’s different. When provoked or sledged, he reacts. His anger shows, the adrenaline overflows and his pupils dilate. Kohli is never afraid of expressing his emotions, as a skipper, or while batting and fielding. The fact that he succeeds in his tasks despite this speaks volumes about his genius; it’s never easy to do so.
“To sentence a man of true genius to the drudgery of a school is to put a racehorse on a treadmill,” said Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the English poet and philosopher. Kohli’s brilliance stems from his anger; he is at his best when he is annoyed. He comes from the Delhi school of batting, where emotions are openly displayed and reactions are usually in-your-face. It is often said that a show-horse, trained and called expletives, can’t be expected to perform in the ‘dressage’ with sweet nothings whispered in his ears.
Sanjay Manjrekar, former India batsman and now commentator, told me this little story a few years ago: Sachin Tendulkar was returning to competitive cricket after an injury in the Ranji Trophy match between Mumbai and Baroda at the RCF Sports Complex grounds in January 1995. A bit rusty at the beginning of his innings, Baroda’s Mukesh Narula, from forward short-leg, had started sledging the ‘Master’. When Mumbai skipper Manjrekar went over to the batting end, he spoke to Narula and said, “Why are you waking him up? If he does, he’ll make you pay for it.”
Tendulkar woke up, and how. He scored 175 runs with 22 fours and eight sixes. He was batting on 60-odd runs at lunch. Eyeing the sumptuous food at the table for players, he summoned the chef and asked him to keep a bowl of chicken stew aside for him. “I’ll eat that after my hundred,” he had told him. After the big knock, Tendulkar is said to have devoured a couple of bowls of ‘white chicken’. The lesson: You don’t mess around with genius.
Geniuses, I believe, are never good role models. You had to be mad to practice like Tendulkar did. Kohli is eccentric in the way he trains; his vegan diet is a tough act to follow and his monk-like obsession to attain cricketing nirvana is too daunting a task for lesser mortals.
At a recent mind training session for schoolboy cricketers, I asked one youngster what he liked about Virat Kohli’s batting in the first T20 international at Hyderabad against the West Indies. “Sir,” he replied, “I liked his ‘notebook-sendoff’ to Kesrick Williams after hitting him for a six.”
Despite a superbly crafted 94 not-out off 50 deliveries in that match, what the youngster remembered with pride was the India skipper needling Williams with what was in fact the bowler’s personal signature-sendoff. Kohli’s classy, flicked sixes over mid-wicket were forgotten by virtue of being run-of-the-mill.
Growing up in the 70s, we had the original ‘angry young man’ as our role model — Amitabh Bachchan. In his films, he was the epitome of ‘the good always wins over evil’ philosophy that was ingrained in us as kids. Kohli is the ‘angry young man’ for Gen Z; the bold new generation that fears no one. When he pokes fun at the opposition or utters profanities against them — and sometimes against his teammates too — on the field of play, it leaves a lasting impression on young, vulnerable minds.
The India skipper said in a post-match interview after the T20 international at Hyderabad that the players of the two teams go for each others’ jugular during the match but shake hands off it. Sadly, young followers of the game don’t see those hand-shakes; they only see the on-field hostility.
Kohli’s pet expletive has been accorded a bit of decency, with people on social media translating it as ‘Ben Stokes’, but that doesn’t really legitimise his on-field behaviour. What star players like Kohli do, young players follow. The day isn’t far off when young school-level players will prance about on the field, shouting ‘Ben Stokes’ at the fall of every wicket. I hope the India skipper realises this sooner rather than later.
That said, during the recent series, I wondered if Kohli’s strength — his anger — could be his weakness too. The West Indies’ game plan in the T20 series against India was perhaps to upset him mentally. Kieron Pollard’s boys are a very good T20 side and therefore they knew that breaking the India skipper’s focus could win them the series. As it turned out, Kohli played two match-winning knocks to help the hosts take the series, two matches to one. On both occasions, though, he was seen losing his cool quite often.
Was this the first time that an attempt was made by the opposition to enter the six-inch space between the India skipper’s ears? Was Kohli, realising what the Carribbean bowlers were attempting, reacting more than he is wont to? Quite often, he was caught taunting the Caribbean bowlers and even exchanging barbs with them. Moreover, he was finding fault, every now and then, with umpiring decisions too. This can be a worrying sign for the Indian boys, if true, as other teams watching the India-West Indies series would have made a note in their little red books of how Kohli reacted to mind games.
We will know, in the ODI series to follow, if the West Indies persist with their game plan — that of upsetting Kohli mentally. We will also know if the India skipper’s strength, his anger, is also his Achilles' heel. The tourists’ plan could, of course, backfire — let’s wait and watch.
The author is a sportswriter and caricaturist. A former fast bowler and coach, he believes in calling spade a spade.
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