No other cricketer has so sarcastically described the barracking of Australian spectators as the frighteningly quick Englishman Harold Larwood. “A cricket tour in Australia would be the most delightful period in your life,” Douglas Jardine’s Bodyline hangman rolled out, “if you were deaf.” In his third tour to Australia, Virat Kohli wouldn’t disagree with Larwood, though over the years the hostility has appreciably dissipated.
For all the genuine words of appreciation and affection they’d bestowed on him in the prelude to the series, the stream of respect that befits his stature, a section of the 30,000-strong crowd start booing him when he sauntered onto the field, shadow-practising the forward defensive. The chorus was not deafening, but screechy enough to drown out the applause from a cluster of Indian supporters.
The Australian fielders, even though they didn’t launch a verbal explosion, even if they lacked a David Warner-like pantomime villain, they ratcheted up the intensity, incessantly chirping and chattering with the sprightliness of a pack of teens in maidan-cricket. Tim Paine kept changing his fielders around, beefed up the close-in quorum, hung too long in mid-pitch, mid-over consultations with the bowlers, kept appealing for non-existing bat-pads or lbws, perpetually wearing that befuddled oh-that-was-so-close expression.
Indeed, there were a few times Kohli had looked tenuous — in the very first over, Hazlewood beat his outside edge with a corker of a delivery. Nathan Lyon thought he’d devoured him with a wriggling worm of an off-break, which took a hefty chunk of his bat to Aaron Flinch at short-leg. After tea, Pat Cummins delivered a perfect text-book leg-cutter, so perfect that it eluded his outside edge. But on none of the instances did the Aussie unleash the verbal-torrent, keeping their pre-series word.
Maybe, it’s a deliberate ploy, for taunting only sharpens Kohli’s focus, galvanises his determination and fuels his ambitions. Besides, the buzzword in Australian cricket now is “culture”. They were doing everything they could to irritate him, or scatter his attention, all in the hope that Kohli would do something silly, something outrageous.
What followed in the next few minutes was the key to another absorbing day. For the baiting had evidently only hardened the captain’s resolve to fight fire with his own most incendiary weapons. But he was far from his usual assured self, kept under the lid by both Lyon and Hazlewood, who interrogated him with a tantalising fourth-stump line. It took him some 30-odd deliveries to breath the usual composure, and a few more to get going. At one stage, he played out 16 straight balls.
Maybe, his mind was playing his first-innings dismissal on a loop. Maybe, he was trying to bat like Pujara, who had charted the course to bat on this increasingly tacky surface. Pujara, maybe, in temperament, but not in method, especially against Lyon.
Pujara would jump out of the crease—jump out more than he’d ever done in his career, and look to smother the spin with those supple wrists of his. Kohli, conversely, would either lean forward or hang back deep to Lyon. Both were not entirely foolproof on this wicket, what with Lyon pitching consistently on bedevilling rough. Lyon would pull back the length by subtle margins against Pujara while Kohli risked the spitting bounce whenever the ball landed on the ragged edge of the rough—the biggest contribution of Mitchell Starc in this match. It eventually devoured him, big spitting bounce brushing his glove and the pad to the short-leg fielder.
He didn’t linger too much, hardly uttered a word or cussed the rough or stared back at the crowd that booed him.
Then these days, he seldom engages in verbal duels when he’s batting; though it’s a different narrative when he’s fielding. Even if he’s shed his motormouth tendencies, his gestures speak more than words, and that’s what supposedly infuriated some of the Australian players and the audience. England skipper Joe Root would readily offer testimony. It’s like how much ever hard he tries to desist, he can’t. He celebrates the wickets with gusto, it’s something so embedded in him that it’s as irresistible as it is spontaneous. Australian wouldn’t have expected a sombre Kohli in their wildest dreams either.
It’s one of the reasons he endears to them. But just that it stretched a little too far, winding up Justin Langer, who told Fox Sports after the second day’s play that “if Australia celebrated like Kohli after every wicket, they’d be considered the worst blokes in the world.”
He then added: “He’s a superstar of the game and he’s the captain. We’ve talked for as long as I can remember in Australian cricket teams that you want to keep the opposition captain down as much as possible. You love seeing that passion in the sport, but there’s fine line.”
Kohli himself had at the start of series disclaimed that they’d sledge only if they’re sledged. To an extent, they’ve kept the word, but Kohli can’t stop being Kohli.
Later in the day, both Ricky Ponting and Travis Head censured the crowd for their unrefined behaviour. “He’s a pretty good player and probably doesn’t deserve to be booed but that’s how it is. It’s probably not needed but that’s the crowd,” said Head.
Ponting, who’d been at the receiving end of so much booing from the English crowd, concurred: “It didn’t worry me as a player when it happened in England a couple times. You’ve almost got to accept it as acknowledgement for what you’ve done in the game. But I’d rather not see that happen at all.”
The needle, inadvertently, may have lit the touch-paper on what could prove to be a feisty Test series. For Kohli surely will not buck down and put an artificial skin of sobriety. Returning to Larwood, the former miner from Yorkshire hardly knew he would eventually settle and die in the country where he was ruthlessly barracked.