Kids putting on the gloves

The public spat between Gambhir and Kohli summed up the ongoing transition in Indian cricket — and hinted at the changing cliques in the dressing room

Written by Sandeep Dwivedi | Published: April 13, 2013 3:49 am

In the Delhi dressing room,seniors are “bhaiyya”,while the juniors are either “Chhotu”,“Pappu” or others along the continuum — an amusing nickname that caricatures their appearance. Seven years ago,Virat Kohli’s chubby cheeks reminded someone of the fluffy bunny from the comic strip,Cheeku. At 17,the baby of the team — one that had men who were almost twice his age,and even several Team India stars he grew up idolising — would do anything to fit in. Least of all,accept a name fit for a kindergarten kid.

Like most cricketing dens in north India,the Delhi camp has never been a place for rookies with weak hearts. Failure on field for a junior would most likely be followed by an evening spent listening to snide remarks and swear words from the seniors. Success,too,would trigger a similar reaction. The only difference: those very same swear words were uttered lovingly this time around. Hierarchy rigidly ruled the atmosphere of intrigue where cliques formed and faded with every debut and retirement.

Cheeku was to go under Gautam Gambhir’s wings,who in turn looked up to the more reputed opener in the side,Virender Sehwag. He survived the crude comments and tough grooming and scored loads of runs to join Delhi’s big two in the India ODI team in a couple of years. That was 2008,Gambhir’s dream year. With an average of about 70 in Tests and nearly 50 in ODIs,the angry young man (that’s what Sandeep Patil,then India A coach,once called Gambhir) wasn’t just skipper M.S. Dhoni’s able lieutenant,but also the obvious heir apparent.

How time flies. It has been five years since Kohli walked out to open with Gambhir to make his ODI debut. These days,it is Kohli who is on Dhoni’s right at most times when India is on the field. Gambhir,meanwhile,isn’t even in the frame.

Now 24,the market loves hyping the heavily tattooed smooth-talker it has in Kohli as a Rs 100 crore brand. He leads a glamorous franchise side owned by Mallya senior and accompanies Mallya junior on vacations. World cricket’s other “cool guys” — Chris Gayle and Kevin Pietersen — see him as their buddy and respect him as a batsman.

The other day Gambhir seemed to forget that his rival captain at the IPL game at the Chinnaswamy Stadium was also India’s vice captain,Mr 10-digit-figure and not the chubby-cheeked Cheeku from back home at Ferozshah Kotla. So when Gambhir gave him an earful after he got out during a tense stage of a tricky chase,something snapped inside Kohli. Going against those unwritten dressing room traditions,Kohli not just stared back,he also spoke back. It was a scene straight from some daytime soap where a young upstart,in a fit of rage,had confronted the ageing patriarch.

Although both Gambhir and Kohli tried to play down the episode,it was clear there was more to the ugly spat than it being another case of hot-headed Delhi cricketers losing their cool. It was a public outburst that summed up the ongoing transition in Indian cricket and hinted at the changing cliques in the Indian camp.

While Dhoni may have secured the slipping crown on his head after the whitewash over Australia at home,tougher away challenges lie in the months ahead,ensuring the power equations aren’t yet permanent. As is the case during most shake-ups,those holding on tightly to their positions of power were asserting themselves,while the challengers,who were waiting for the tide to turn,were looking a shade frustrated.

Not as dramatically as his deputy,but Dhoni too has let it be known that he can’t be pushed around any longer. With most seniors out,he finally has with him “Team Dhoni”. Last month in Delhi,with India leading 3-0 against Australia before the final Test,the Indian captain was on a private stage with Yuvraj Singh at a book launch. In a chatty mood,he spoke about his initial days in the Indian team. “I used to be in awe of Yuvraj as he used to hammer our team at the under-19 level. Once we were together in the Indian team,I used to hit big sixes. Yuvraj used to tell me,‘Bihari,these big shots are fine but you need to win games too’,” he recalled. Such opinions changed,or didn’t matter,once Dhoni was named the skipper. Yuvraj,in turn,spoke about his captain and how shocked he was to see Dhoni run to gather the stumps while he waited for a hug from him after India won the World Cup.

This was a day before Dhoni uttered something that was once unthinkable in Indian cricket. He said that at times,he disagreed with Sachin Tendulkar on captaincy. Chhotu,Pappu and Cheeku were demanding to be called “bhaiyya”.

sandeep.dwivedi@expressindia.com

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