“Why do you abuse so much on the cricket field?” Virat Kohli would shift uneasily at the dining table at his mother’s question and not reply. Instead, he says, he would say, “Pass the food, na. What else can I say?” he said in 2011. A Delhi boy doing the Delhi thing, invectives as conversation-fillers, an instinctive reaction to most moments in life — happy, sad, appreciative, or angry.
He developed an abrasive reputation about him, and not many were surprised when he gave the middle finger to the Australian crowd, who had heckled him in 2012. At least one of his team-mates was pretty angry. Later on Virender Sehwag spoke about his ire. “I did get angry at Kohli. I got angry because in that whole series, he was the only player who was scoring runs for us and khuda-na-khaasta ban ho jaata, our batting would have collapsed. Aisi harkatey mat karo… tum toh ban ho jaoge, and team ka nuksaan hoga. (Don’t do such antics, not only would you get banned but the team would be in trouble.),” Sehwag said.
He developed an abrasive reputation about him, involved in confrontations not just with players from other countries but occasionally with his (current and former) team-mates when they were his opponents. Like the tiff with Gautam Gambhir, two competitive Delhiites going at each other. At its core, everyone understood it comes from a white-line fever, fierce competitiveness even though his mother couldn’t understand why had to mouth expletives.
A few months back there was an incident with a virtual fan as well. “”I don’t think you should live in India, go and live somewhere else,” Kohli said in a video recording that he posted on social media after a fan had said he preferred English and Australian cricketers. “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,” Kohli said.
It didn’t go well and Kohli sought to lighten up the situation smartly. “I guess trolling isn’t for me guys, I’ll stick to getting trolled!”
This IPL, there was an incident when he seemed to mock R Ashwin’s mankading after he took a catch but Ashwin saw it as just two competitive guys trying to do their best for the respective teams.
It’s in this context that some were surprised by his statesmanship when he took umbrage at a largely Indian crowd at the Oval in London, when they booed Steve Smith. The Australian has been booed in England (by English crowds in previous games) as the fans showed displeasure at the ball-tampering scandal that ended up with bans on Smith and David Warner, who too has copped it from the crowds here in England. At the Oval, the Indians in the stands had started to boo Smith.
Smith appreciated Kohli’s gesture when the pair walked past each other. “Look, I think what’s happened has happened like long way back, the guy is back, he’s trying to play well for his side,” Kohli said. “Even in the IPL I saw him, it’s not good to see someone down like that, to be honest. We’ve had issues in the past. We’ve had a few arguments on the field. But you don’t want to see a guy feeling that heat every time he goes out to play. What’s happened has happened. Everyone has known that. He’s come back. He’s worked hard. He’s playing well for his side now. So, just because there’s so many Indian fans here, I just didn’t want them to set a bad example, to be honest, because he didn’t do anything to be booed in my opinion. He’s just playing cricket. He was just standing there, and I felt bad because if I was in a position where something had happened with me and I had apologised, I accepted it and I came back and still I would get booed, I wouldn’t like it, either. So I just felt for him, and I told him, I’m sorry on behalf of the crowd because I’ve seen that happen in a few earlier games, as well, and in my opinion that’s not acceptable.”
Time will tell whether it’s a new matured version of Kohli but Smith’s episode was preceded by his reaction to Kagiso Rabada’s statement calling him “immature”. Kohli was asked at the media interaction but he refused to bite. Instead, he played down the incident, saying: “I am not going to use the press conference to talk against Rabada. If there is anything for me and Rabada to discuss, we can do that man to man. He is always a skillful bowler, he has the potential to run through the opposition, so we need to look to play him accordingly.”
The South African journalists were smitten by that and their reactions can be summarised by a quote from the media pack. “That’s how to behave. Rabada brought unnecessary pressure on himself by mouthing off ahead of world cup but Kohli behaved like a leader. It was silly from Rabada, very wise from Kohli.”
A few years back Ray Jennings, who came to know Kohli well during his stint as coach of Royal Challengers Bangalore, had spoken about Kohli’s temperament.
“Virat understands that he does have a hot head and I think he also understands that he needs to look at that. He is a leader and I have seen him change … He can be volatile as we have seen and the Indian public is fanatical about its heroes and cricket. But they will not tolerate failures and what they see as attitude and image problem after a while.”
Jennings talked about how Kohli was aware of the need to change.
“Virat’s not a stupid cricketer, he is a smart guy and he has a vision to captain India. And if he knows people at home are not accepting certain things that he does consistently and he makes the same mistake consistently, he will find out that the system is not going to buy into his behaviour or character. You can go back and have a look at captains in Australia, even in India, that if the behaviour is not acceptable to the market, you are not going to have the full Indian public support that type of character. And if Virat wants the job, he has got to accept that and he has got to learn to change and maybe go through certain programmes.”