There was action aplenty for Indian cricket in what was clearly a year of reckoning. It began on a sour note with defeats in New Zealand early in the season, followed by the midway surrender in England and the capitulation in Australia — the rout complete with Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s retirement from Test cricket this week. That India also lost the Asia Cup and the World T20 final, both in Bangladesh, was no surprise either — playing out the all-too-familiar drill of being the roaring champions at home, yet timid overseas.
The energy and vitality of cricket at home was woefully absent every time the team travelled. The lack of sting in its bowling line-up exposed, for instance, by the punishing blade of New Zealand’s skipper Brendon McCullum, who smashed a staggering 224 and 302 in Tests that his team dominated. Worse was in store in England. A draw was followed by a rare win at Lord’s. The promise of redemption — a century by Ajinkya Rahane and a match-winning spell by Ishant Sharma — though, was soon quelled by defeats in the next three Tests.
It was a phase of transition for Indian cricket. With the departure of stalwarts like Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, VVS Laxman, Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh, the cracks in the side were beginning to show. The young brigade was just about learning to understand the intricacies of playing overseas. It was a time for everyone to introspect. But you don’t learn by clinging to the past. You have to accept the follies, try to improve your game and move on, as Dhoni routinely propagated in the dressing room.
A lesson at least one player in the team seems to have learnt well. Unwilling to take things as they came, he was in a hurry to make a statement, even if it meant resorting to aggression and shocking the cricket fraternity at large. In Virat Kohli, Indian cricket discovered the antithesis of the submissive amateur. “I believe in giving it back,” said Kohli in a conversation last year. Described variously as brash, a spoilt brat, volatile (remember his on-field altercation with Gautam Gambhir during an IPL match?), Kohli symbolises the times we live in. There’s a rush to grab space, and the means to the end don’t matter.
“ In Virat Kohli, Indian cricket discovered the antithesis of the submissive amateur ”
The aggression that Kohli brings to the field is India’s newfound mantra. The Ravindra Jadeja-James Anderson spat in England took the cricket world aback, but not the Indian team management. Dhoni backed his player. Kohli privately justified the act. He even carried the attitude Down Under, as spectators witnessed his run-ins with Mitchell Johnson.
Of course there was a precedent in Sourav Ganguly. His bare-chested shirt-waving from the balcony at Lord’s after India beat England in the NatWest Series final in 2002, is a case in point. Slammed by old-timers but hailed by the younger generation — players would take off their shirts in neighbourhood contests, a la Ganguly — the incident set in motion an inevitable shift. The change was perceptible and profound. It is a different matter altogether that Ganguly, a mature commentator now, regrets that episode.
But Kohli — with scores of 115, 141,169 and 54 in Australia — has no such qualms. “They were calling me a spoilt brat. I know you guys hate me and I like that. I don’t mind having a chat on the field. Argument on the field brings the best out of me. Someone who doesn’t respect me, I’ve got no reason to respect him.” This was in reference to Johnson. But it was certainly no way to play a series seen as a tribute to Phil Hughes (after the 25-year-old succumbed to a head injury sustained on the field).
This was not village cricket. It was a contest involving two of the best teams in the world and the legendary Sunil Gavaskar made no secret of his displeasure at Kohli’s outburst. “I thought the press conference should have been about cricket rather than what went on the field. Generally, what happens on the field stays on the field. I am not too sure it was the wisest thing to do. He might get fired up by all this and score a 100, but how does it affect the rest of the team? Are you trying to suggest that the likes of Sachin [Tendulkar], [Rahul] Dravid and VVS Laxman didn’t let off steam. They were also very tough.”
Seasoned commentators may not have supported Kohli’s brashness or his bold statements from Melbourne, but former captain Ganguly viewed it differently. “I like Kohli’s passion. You’ve got to have passion. It should mean something to you, any job you do. I like him, I like what I see.”
It should, however, be remembered that Kohli is now the captain, a job that brings with it responsibility and dignity. It is for Kohli to choose his path and give the team direction. With the nucleus of a younger, more dynamic line-up, Indian cricket could have a great run in the next few years, if it plays to its strengths. It’s time to ring in new measures and transform the image of India when playing overseas. A World Cup triumph in 2015 would be a good place to start.
(Vijay Lokapally is Deputy Editor, Sports, The Hindu)