Their teams didn’t finish anywhere near the top, nor did they stand out as batsmen. But two captains — India’s Virat Kohli and South Africa’s Temba Bavuma — grew in stature at this T20 World Cup. Without bulking up their run tally, they added heft to their character and weight to their voice. In years to come, whenever they walk into the sunset, cricket chroniclers are sure to dedicate mentions to the statesman-like articulations by Kohli and Bavuma this past fortnight. They broke away from cricket’s age-old “boys played well” refrains and showed that there were at least a couple of sporting icons aware of real issues outside mammoth stadiums.
The two men in their early 30s went beyond the narrow dressing-room definition of camaraderie: Going hoarse while singing the team song or putting arms around the next guy in a huddle.
When the mob came banging on the door, shouting their mates’ names, both Kohli and Bavuma were brave enough to step out. One confronted them, the other played peacenik. It wasn’t easy. Past greats from their countries have remained spectacularly silent, failing to truly represent their respective rainbow nations.
In India and South Africa, the politics of polarisation, and sport aren’t just married, they are soulmates since birth. If “race” is a hot button no one dares to press in South Africa, for India it is religion. Both Kohli and Bavuma knew what they were getting into when they sat at the press conference. Still, they spoke.
Kohli is a diehard fan of 145-plus quicks who can get India rare and precious away wins. Mohammad Shami has a heavy ball, a devilish bouncer, a scissoring in-cutter that can snap the stumps or cut the batsman in half. He also has the captain’s love. Kohli’s nickname for Shami on the field is “Lala”. A couple of years back at a Cape Town Test, his voice from the slips held a childlike glee when Shami’s ball would take off from the lively turf and make batsmen hop. “Lala, great bowling,” would echo around the Table Mountain. Shami would smile, turn back, eager to impress his captain again — this time with a wicket.
So, when Lala was targeted for his faith in online posts after India’s loss to Pakistan, Kohli couldn’t look the other way. Not heeding the media manager’s intervention, the Indian captain took on the trolls the same way his new-ball bowler would charge at the opposition openers. “Attacking someone over their religion is the most pathetic thing that a human being can do.” It was a key to the lock in a long, heartfelt discourse. For the first time ever, someone flagged that age-old obnoxious behaviour pattern of fans. And when Kohli said, “We stand by him fully … Our brotherhood… nothing can be shaken”, you believed. It wasn’t some lame cliche.
India didn’t seem ready for this. Those on both sides of the ideological divide seemed confused. Kohli, by breaking the mould, didn’t fit into any stereotype, so the anger bubbled. The woke crowd says it was too little, too late and others hinted that defending Shami wasn’t smart. In an article, ‘Dear Virat Kohli, Stick To Cricket Only, Please’, Swarajya magazine wrote: “The problem with Kohli is he lends himself for all the politically charged narratives without being smart enough to understand them. It makes him come out as a hypocrite. His teammates Ravindra Jadeja and Suresh Raina have been attacked for their caste by the same trolls who now shed crocodile tears for Shami. But he didn’t even voice a single word in their support… Maybe, Kohli wouldn’t have been panned so badly on Shami if his team hadn’t bent the knee for Black Lives Matter before the game.”
Will Kohli continue to speak out or will his baiters come around? Rarely has a cricketing superstar given a nation such a dilemma.
The tournament also saw Bavuma face reporters with not much cricket on their minds. Quinton de Kock, a white cricketer from a nation with a history of institutional racial segregation, had refused to take a knee, the BLM-inspired posture of protest.
Bavuma, a rare batting prodigy to emerge from a township outside Cape Town, the country’s first-ever full-time black captain, was under the spotlight. You felt for the 5’3” overly polite man, who sounds like a shy child being forced to recite nursery rhymes in front of guests.
Bavuma needed no booming voice, his words had substance. He could have taken the easy path, but he opted for the correct one. Expected to do for cricket what Siya Kolisi, the first-ever black to lead the Springboks, did for rugby in the townships, he passed the test. Avoiding the question would have added intrigue, amplified black-white mistrust. He stood by his close friend, opting to be colour blind. When de Kock’s stand seemed incorrigibly insensitive, Bavuma spoke of calm and conversations. He didn’t rush to pass judgement.
A South African journalist with apparent disbelief in his tone, asked: “How does it feel when someone can’t do something as simple and as basic as taking the knee?” Bavuma then spoke lines that would have made the founding fathers of post-apartheid South Africa proud. He offered a dignified objection. “I don’t think it is that simple as just taking a knee.” That was the prelude. “We have to appreciate that we live in a country like South Africa that has its own past, that is diverse in its views… decisions that we take, things that we support, are based on our own convictions. As much as we are a team… outside of that we still live our own lives and those lives are different by the very nature that we live in South Africa. My beliefs, the way that I see things, is shaped by my own experience and background, and so is the other person’s. If there is a disagreement in terms of beliefs, in terms of views, that’s why we have those hard conversations. Through those conversations, we will be able to get the comfort to accept the other person’s decision. I can’t force anyone to see things the way I do, neither can they force me to.”
It’s reassuring to hear of reconciliation and harmony from men who come from areas that aren’t exactly race/religion-neutral. Kohli grew up in West Delhi, a part of the capital that hosted victims of a country’s brutal religion-based division. Post Partition, the place has witnessed gruesome religious riots.
Meanwhile, Bavuma’s hometown has seen the worst of the apartheid era. At the end of the Cape Town Test where Kohli kept asking Lala to let it rip, I spent a day at Langa, the black township where Bavuma enjoys cult status. Centuries of discrimination by a white minority loom large in this poor neighbourhood with the old pigeonhole slums — a reminder of the apartheid era. Not far from Bavuma’s home in Langa is the Sharpeville massacre memorial. In 1960, 69 black anti-apartheid protestors were killed by police bullets here.
Kohli and Bavuma didn’t allow the surroundings to harness biases in them. And for them, watching a teammate’s back was a far bigger responsibility than refusing a single early in the over during a hostile spell.
This column first appeared in the print edition on November 11, 2021 under the title ‘Taking a knee, standing tall’. firstname.lastname@example.org