Suddenly the World Cup is about more than cricket. Now it’s personal. Kagiso Rabada’s comments on Virat Kohli have made it so, apparently. And that can only add a layer of compelling drama to the match between India and South Africa in Southampton on Wednesday.
In an interview, Rabada spoke of a confrontation he had with India’s captain when they were on opposite sides during this year’s Indian Premier League (IPL).
“… when you give it back to him, he gets angry. I don’t get the guy. Maybe he does it because it gets him going, but that comes across as very immature for me. He is a phenomenal player but he can’t take the abuse.
“… All it was was a verbal fight. Something like that will not distract me. If anything, it is just going to wake me up to hit my areas a lot more consistently.
“But later that evening, on the bus back to the hotel, I asked myself: ‘That guy [Kohli] always seems to be angry on the field. Is he really angry?’. Then I thought to myself what it would take for me to become really, really angry. That is going to happen very few and far times in between. And becoming angry like that — is that what gets him to play well?”
Predictably, Rabada’s views have not gone down well in India. So much so it won’t help rehabilitate him there that, in the same interview, he also said: “(Kohli) has been phenomenal. He has been a pillar for Indian cricket over the past five years. You can’t fault the guy.”
Except that Rabada did fault the guy, and significantly enough for Indian fans to demand retribution when their captain squares up to the tall fast bowler with the wing-tipped shoulders and the flared nostrils.
This is a peculiarly modern squabble, a made-for-social-media maelstrom of more-upset-than-thou competitiveness. What, honestly, is there to become agitated about? Surely Kohli’s supporters cannot think everyone on the planet is a fan of their man?
You would hope Kohli has better things to do than pay it all much heed. It’s not as if he is short of people who are not on his side.
Rabada, no doubt, thought revealing his unvarnished but nuanced opinion to a respected senior writer was the right thing to do. He would not have imagined his words would loom large, weeks later, on the eve of a match South Africa, already 2-0 down, must win if they are to be taken seriously at this World Cup.
And why shouldn’t he have said what he said? Kohli speaks his mind all the time and no-one takes issue. Simply that he is Kohli doesn’t give him the right to be more expressive than others. If we don’t want cricketers to tell us what they think then we also can’t complain that they are boring. Too many of them are exactly that because they have learned not to tell us what they think.
Players often say they can’t hear the crowd, and it would be better for Kohli and Rabada to block out the noise. Facing Rabada and bowling to Kohli is challenging enough without irrelevant distraction. But Rabada and Kohli are also human, and they would have heard at least some of that noise. What might that do for their reunion on the field on Wednesday?
Kohli needs no additional motivation to excel. You can hear the man ticking on the field. Any more passion and he would quite likely explode. He’s also in ripping form, having scored centuries in two of his last four innings for India — which happen to have been in the relevant format. He couldn’t be any more ready for the World Cup if he tried.
Rabada’s context in this saga is different. He hasn’t taken five wickets in any of his past 41 bowling innings in a South Africa shirt of any description, compared to 10 times in his first 112 innings. That he has played in 124 of South Africa’s 182 games since he made his debut in November 2014 helps explain the flatness that has afflicted his game for more than a year. If the fuss over his comments has any effect on his performance on Wednesday, it could be to spark his memory of the bowler he used to be — or prompt him to try and prove he can be again.
Such are the complexities of cricket today, which spins on an axis of team meetings, marketing work and media engagements almost as much as it does on fitness and strength work, net practices, and performances on the field, that rumours of a serious smouldering unhappiness between Kohli and Rabada are more likely than not to be greatly exaggerated.
But the theory will be trotted out, in every which way, at every press conference from now until after Wednesday’s match, and beyond that should the teams meet again in the tournament.
Because that’s the kind of thing cricket needs to cut through through the banal fog of headlines that dim our days. There are only so many boundaries and wickets and highlights packages and resolutely dead-bat interviews you can put up with before you change the channel or turn the page.
It’s why you’ve stuck with this story all the way until this point, and why it matters what players like Rabada think about players like Kohli. And what happens now that we know all that.
Because, if cricket isn’t a duel between two players who are led into the bigger contest between two teams, why should we pay attention? Why would it matter? Why wouldn’t we be satisfied with a sterile computer simulation instead of messy humanity?
Happily, thanks to players like Rabada and Kohli, cricket is what we need it to be: Personal.