“All this going around is not aggression. If you want to see aggression on a cricket field, look into Rahul Dravid’s eyes.” — Matthew Hayden
Every time I read about how wonderfully the Indian cricket team’s aggressive attitude is honed and channelised by its star captain Virat Kohli, I am reminded of Hayden’s observation about a man widely considered among the greatest gentlemen to have ever played the game.
It isn’t a comparison between an outspoken player and a well-mannered legend. It’s about what we perceive as aggression and what we tolerate and justify in its name.
It’s also a reminder of the role culture plays in raising people to cope with their aggressive side. As a Tamilian sitting in Mumbai, I would love to make this a North versus South issue. But that would be lazy stereotyping given that some of the most genteel people I’ve met have been from the North and some of the craziest, belligerent people I’ve met belonged to the Southern states. Therefore, as much as conventional wisdom would quickly justify Kohli’s “Delhi boy level” obnoxiousness that masquerades as constructive aggression, that cannot and should not be the primary marker of what is essentially, being poor mannered.
He may be the best player in the world today and reports have it that he allegedly made it a point to highlight that to stand-in captain Tim Paine. Reportedly, he is said to have sledged: “I'm the best player in the world and you're just a stand-in captain.” The jury’s still out on whether or not these exact words were uttered, but are we even surprised?
We may argue that sledging is in the Australian team’s DNA and we seem to get our knickers in a twist when an Indian gives them a dose of their own medicine. That defeats the purpose because no one is questioning the need to sledge. By all means do because we as Indians drop regional derivatives of the maa-behen gaalis at the drop of a hat, so why wouldn’t some version of that slip out of our mouths when the pressure and stakes are as high as they are on the cricket field? We can pretend to be outraged by Ravi Shastri’s inappropriate “g**ey moon mein the” but we all know that left to our own devices, we’d completely identify with the “b**ls in my mouth” phrase as a way to describe a particularly tense situation.
So we fake outrage — as is the norm for matters that don’t need a second thought — but we allow and perpetuate boorish behaviour from the very people who are to represent us to the world. But it’s not even the ambassadorship nature of their work that makes the behaviour untenable. It’s the fact that on such a public platform, from the dizzying heights of success, we believe that we can get away with it. The entitlement is beyond nauseating. It is humiliating, it is indefensible, and most shocking of all — it is the stunning reality of our times.
This is the India of today. Where popularity, success and attitude are more important than old-fashioned concepts like grace, humility and respect. You see it all around you. Kohli has been a decisive captain, leading the team from one victory to another, making tactical decisions that have often worked in favour of the team. Nobody is grudging him that. In fact, he is lauded the world over for his brilliance. Yet, that gives him no reason to act like the completely crass cricketer that he is.
All his travels across the globe have not given Kohli the exposure and the perspective to the best this world has to offer. It has instead made him parochial in the very nationalist way that resonates with the political climate of today.
Blinded and completely lacking-in-nuance supporters of the government (also pejoratively called “bhakts” in the digital world), are quick to issue tickets to Pakistan for anyone who deems to have a counter narrative to what those at the Centre are propagating. When Kohli, while promoting his new app, read a message from a fan who didn’t think too much of his talent and said he preferred cricketers of Australia and England, he employed his most mild-mannered voice to deride, “I don’t think you should live in India, go and live somewhere else. Why are you living in our country and loving other countries? I don’t mind you not liking me, but I don’t think you should live in our country and like other things. Get your priorities right.”
His churlish behaviour found a strongly worded rebuke from veteran actor and cricket fan Naseeruddin Shah on Sunday, who wrote on his official Facebook account: “Virat K is not only the world’s best batsman but also the world’s worst behaved player. His cricketing brilliance pales beside his arrogance and bad manners. And I have no intention of leaving the country by the way”. Of course, many cricket fans asked the Muslim Naseer to not-so-politely get out of the country and made this the Hindu-Muslim debate that it isn’t.
Virat, in fact, is only representative of what we’re increasingly becoming. A world so full of itself, so quick to be offended, so swift to judge, so lacking in grace and overcompensating with confidence, so insular that the idea of The Other (other person, other opinion, other culture) is repulsive because it somehow dilutes our understanding of ourselves. We’re spiralling into an era where pride is a virtue and politeness is a sign of weakness. Where aggression in actions and in words — whether on the cricket field, in politics or on social media — is to be celebrated. But a measured debate is the preserve of the much-derided intelligentsia as it spins into the labyrinth state of whataboutery.
Forget winning on the field, we want to win a Twitter war like our entire existence depended on it. Winning no matter what it takes and worse, what it makes of us. All the fanciest clothes and the riches one has accumulated through their success, pales in front of their despicable behaviour.
This is representative of some kind of behavioural nouveau riche attitude; where the optics of one’s new success is far more important than the inherited good virtues imbibed from one’s solid upbringing. This new, young Indian is in such a hurry to show the world that he’s so aggressive and still so successful, he knows that no matter what he does, “manners” isn’t something one has traditionally associated with Indians in the first place. The Lucknowi tehzeeb aside, Indians have always been associated with being impatient in queues, unapologetic about inconveniencing others and tone deaf to their own vulgarity (read entitlement), oftentimes without an ounce of accountability.
For an image-conscious generation that is so clued in to how it wants to be seen, noticed, or perceived, that its abject lack of manners doesn’t even figure in its thought process, is a stinging testimony to how little importance we pay to good behaviour. Don’t deride Kohli. We have collectively raised him this way.