The history of sport is littered with scores of examples of player aggression helping win moments, battles, matches, series, trophies, titles and tournaments. In fact, moments of explosive aggression have seen the tide turning gloriously and altering the course of many a sporting event.
Tennis great John McEnroe, for instance, the epitome of bristling aggression, termed his aggressive streak on the court as “a rage for perfection”. He did not win too many friends with his aggressive behaviour. But his talent, focus and aggressive take-no-prisoner attitude won him scores of world titles.
Ironically, some former cricketers who were no paragons of virtue are now having a go at Indian captain Virat Kohli for similar aggressive traits, most of which are actually a retort to Australian needling.
The criticism from these ‘saints’ of cricket is a bit of a joke actually. International cricket these days is played under stringent supervision by ICC-appointed match referees and any transgression of conduct cops fines, suspensions or code-violation warnings.
That said, guess how many warnings or punishment Kohli has picked up in Australia for his so-called “excessive aggression”? Zilch. Absolutely zilch. So what are these former cricketers carping about?
Sanjay Manjrekar, the same former Test cricketer who once tried to run down Sachin Tendulkar but clammed up after the latter responded with a match-winning century against Australia, has been vocally against Kohli’s on-field behaviour.
“Had Virat Kohli not been the champion player he is, some of his antics on the field would have created quite a stir. You have to behave responsibly at times though. There are others ways to score runs. What I mean is brand Virat Kohli helps him get away with his on-field behaviour,” he commented during a lunch time show on Sony Six.
This is rich coming from a player who was sent off the field for sledging an umpire in a Ranji Trophy match. He probably was unaware that Karnataka umpire, international VN Kulkarni, spoke and understood Marathi perfectly well and was caught out with his comments. Kulkarni promptly sent the Mumbai skipper off the field.
Another Kohli critic, Sunil Gavaskar was so peeved at being declared leg before wicket in a Test in Australia that he tried to get his partner Chetan Chauhan to walk off the field. Had that happened, India would have conceded the Test over an LBW decision. And what a disgrace that would have been. We would not have been able to live it down even now.
In this era, Gavaskar probably would have been banned for a few matches for that sort of public outrage and behaviour. He must be thankful that he played in an era when ICC, BCCI and the cricketing set-up were a lot more lenient and forgiving.
It is not that aggression of the kind which Javed Miandad and Dennis Lillee practised when they almost had a go at each other with fists and bat has to be condoned or winked at. But there are varying kinds of on-field aggression and not all of them are condemnable.
Sports pundits believe that while hostile aggression is not welcome in a non-contact sport, instrumental aggression could be the key to success in many situations.
The difference between hostile and instrumental aggression is that hostile aggression is aimed at causing injury and harm to an opponent. This could be alright in boxing (again within rules) but it would be dealt with strictly in most other sport.
On the other hand, instrumental aggression is welcome, particularly if the aggression is used to achieve a goal.
Take football for instance. A defender aggressively going for a sliding tackle to deprive the opponent of the ball makes for pleasant sight and is within the rules of the game. He is trying to win the ball back, not injure the opponent. However, the same defender cannot go after the rival’s feet rather than the ball. That sort of aggression when he plays the man instead of the ball is expected to be penalised swiftly; sometimes with a red card.
Genevieve Coulomb and Richard Pfister in their late 1990s study on aggression in high-level sport published in the Journal of Sport Behavior found that experienced athletes used instrumental aggression to their advantage. They also used self-control to help them with their aggression.
The great Tiger Woods brought a passive game like golf to life with his aggressive intent. In his prime, he went for shots with an aggression that was unmatched. Others could not even dream of playing some of the aggressive shots he went for in a bid to get the better of the course.
It is important that arrogance is not mistaken for aggression. When former England captain Tony Greig said he would make the West Indies team “grovel”, that was arrogance and insensitivity to their slave heritage. They rubbed his nose in the dirt for that remark.
Cricket does not want hostile aggression like Michael Holding kicking at stumps on not getting a decision going his way or Colin Croft deliberately running into the umpire and sending his sprawling or even Clive Lloyd behaving so boorishly that he refused to budge from his spot in slips when summoned. The umpires had to go all way up to him to try and get him to cool down his players and get them off their riotous behaviour.
Certainly, the days of a skipper Bishen Singh Bedi repeatedly flighting the ball only to be slammed for huge sixes by Imran Khan and then applauding those shots are long gone. India lost that Test to Pakistan following this sort of charitable bowling.
These days if any Indian or IPL franchise player bowls in a similar fashion and then applauds the big sixes he’d most probably be sent home. The spectators, supporters, owners and other stakeholders would want a lot more passion, aggression and assertive behaviour in approach.
Kohli has all those traits. And as long as he does not cross the line or bring the team and game into disrepute he must be given the space and freedom to operate in his own style. Former cricketers turned critics would do well to hold a mirror to their erstwhile antics before they speak out to try and belittle him on the world stage.