The involuntary chuckle that escaped his lips was of as much import as the words that subsequently flowed. As he accepted the 2019 ICC Spirit of Cricket Award, Virat Kohli must have been seized with the irony of the situation.
His uninhibited takedown of Australian counterpart Steve Smith in the immediacy of the infamous Bangalore ‘brain fade’ of 2017 had thrown up the most volatile flashpoint of a feisty Test series. To be rewarded with the Spirit of Cricket Award for standing up for the same cricketer on a much larger canvas must therefore be particularly satisfying for India’s skipper, still an enigma of sorts despite much of his life playing out in full public glare for the better part of a decade now.
Spirit of cricket has forever been a fascinating topic of discussion amongst connoisseurs and laymen alike. Because it’s an intangible, it sparks extraordinary emotion and opens up a wide spectrum for heated debate. The line between the spirit and the laws of the game is often miniscule, occasionally non-existent. How can something that’s within the laws of the game not be in the right spirit? And, if it’s not in the right spirit, why on earth is it in the laws?
Points of view will differ, as is inevitable in areas where there is no clear demarcation of black and white, where there is not just scope for but prevalence of the grey. And yet, there are certain actions beyond the ambit of the sacrosanct laws that simply gladden the cricket-lover’s heart. Kohli’s appeal to Indian fans booing the returning Steve Smith during a World Cup fixture at The Oval in June last year, a gesture that won the appropriation of the ICC’s jury members, unquestionably falls in this category.
The World Cup in England and Wales marked Smith’s return to international cricket after serving out a one-year ban for his complicity through silent inaction when Cameron Bancroft used sandpaper to illegally alter the shape of the ball during the Cape Town Test against South Africa in March 2018. Smith and his then deputy David Warner, also banned for the same duration for allegedly instigating Bancroft’s misdemeanor, had been roundly booed in previous games at the World Cup.
At The Oval, as Smith walked over to patrol the boundary, several blue-clad Indian supporters let loose a barrage of ‘cheater, cheater’. Surely hurting inside, the sensitive Smith flashed a without-malice thumbs-up at the fans – all this in clear view of Kohli, who was standing at the non-striker’s end. As soon as Hardik Pandya was dismissed and there was a break in play, Kohli walked a few steps in the direction of the fans seated beyond Smith and threw his hands wide as if to ask, ‘What’s going on?’ He then indicated that the spectators should clap and applaud rather than have a go at Smith, who had both served out his sentence and expressed genuine contrition and regret for his part in ‘Sandpapergate’.
With India fans giving Steve Smith a tough time fielding in the deep, @imVkohli suggested they applaud the Australian instead.
— ICC (@ICC) June 9, 2019
Kohli has been at the receiving end of boos and jeers, particularly in Australia, from the time he made his first senior appearance Down Under on the 2011-12 tour. His image as the new bad boy of world cricket took deep root when he flashed the middle finger at a particularly tetchy SCG crowd in January 2012. By his next visits in 2014-15, a tour he started as stand-in Test captain and finished as full-fledged skipper, and then 2018-19, he had become the man the Aussies loved to hate as he snarled and glared and got involved in scraps not always of his own making with little impunity. He greeted international centuries with a string of abuses, seemingly indifferent to the dichotomy between his subliminal batting and his irascible conduct.
Having copped unbridled hostility in Australia, Kohli couldn’t have been faulted had he turned a blind eye to the Smith-bashing from the Indian followers. For some reason, maybe because of his own experiences, the taunts seemed to both annoy and disturb him, driving him to stand by a fellow cricketer in strong solidarity. And never mind if the person in question was the man he himself had just stopped short of calling a cheat a little over 27 months back.
Smith had looked towards the Australian dressing-room for guidance and help on whether to opt for a review after being adjudged leg before to Umesh Yadav during Australia’s unsuccessful victory bid in the second Test in Bangalore in March 2017. Kohli led a vociferous Indian protest at what by all accounts was an under-handed attempt by Australia’s then skipper to seek external validation, and the acrimony spilled over both to the post-match press conference, as well as the post-series media interaction after the Dharamsala Test, which Kohli missed because of a shoulder injury.
Prior to the start of that four-Test showdown, Kohli had said he was ‘really good friends’ with some of his Australian colleagues, the relationships possibly stemming from a shared dressing-room during the IPL. After India clinched a tense 2-1 series win, he was asked if those friendships remained intact. “No, it has changed,” he had replied, with feeling. “I thought that was the case, but it has changed for sure. As I said, in the heat of the battle you want to be competitive, but I’ve been proven wrong. The thing I said before the first Test, that has certainly changed and you won’t hear me say that ever again.”
Friendships might have gone out the window, but Kohli’s empathy and sense of right and wrong hadn’t, as was evidenced by his deeds at The Oval. Had he not reacted in the manner in which he did and not appealed to Indian fans to treat Smith with the respect his cricketing deeds merited, it would have gone unnoticed and unmentioned. That, in the heat of World Cup battle, he was both aware and willing enough to go out of his way and seek empathy for a fellow competitor, from the opposing team, was suggestive of a statesman-like streak that hadn’t always been a Kohli calling card. It wasn’t lost on Smith either, as he responded with a grateful clasp of the batsman’s gloved right hand and an appreciative pat on the back
— ICC (@ICC) January 15, 2020
The self-deprecating guffaw and the initial amusement in his acceptance video of an honour he should wear with great pride were endearingly honest. “First, I am surprised that I have got it,” Kohli said, “after many years of, you know, being under the scanner for wrong things.” He then held forth on understanding Smith’s situation, of how no one should want to take advantage of it, and of how it was important for fans of Indian cricket and the national team to conduct themselves in the right manner and send out the right signals. Oh, how the one-time enfant terrible has grown, how much he has matured.
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