In the six and a half years since Virat Kohli made his debut for India, I’ve spoken to him precisely once. That was for a Wisden India Almanack article on the retiring Sachin Tendulkar. He had promised me 20 minutes. He wasn’t late, he answered every question in some detail and even allowed a couple of additional ones at the end. There was nothing curt or dismissive about his behaviour. He did ask that the final version be sent to him before it went to print, which was fair enough because no one really wishes to be misquoted when it comes to Tendulkar.
I was also at Trent Bridge last July when he addressed the media before the start of the Test series against England. Again, there were no flippant or blasé answers. He was earnest and articulate, and clever enough to steer well clear of anything remotely controversial.
I wasn’t at the Murdoch Oval in Perth when he allegedly launched into a tirade against a journalist that I’ve known for more than a decade. But after reading the story, and the various reactions, all I could think of was this: How angry and upset must he have been to even contemplate such a reaction?
It took me back a decade, to an interview I had done with one of my favourite players. A friend and I had gone together, and after both of us got the material we needed, we were walking back when the player asked me if he could have a word in private. He wanted to talk about something I had written a couple of months earlier, a paragraph in an article that I barely remembered.
He didn’t disagree with my factual observations. He didn’t have a problem with those. He had an issue with the comment that followed the observation, which he felt was unnecessarily harsh. “I thought you were my friend,” he told me. “I thought you were better than that.”
And he was right. The harsh remark was completely avoidable. The facts had spoken for themselves. I apologised, and there was never any awkwardness in our future interactions. But I learned something that day. These blokes might be better looking, better paid and infinitely more talented than you and I, but they hurt and ache the same way. They’re as human as we are.
The story that made Kohli so angry was innocuous in itself, detailing the size of the entourage – including wives and girlfriends – following the Indian team around England. But it was to have unfortunate consequences. A broadsheet newspaper talking about Kohli seeking special dispensation from the board to have his girlfriend alongside him made it a ‘legitimate’ story, and it was then twisted this way and that by those with their own TV rating agendas.
As Kohli struggled from one Test to the next, his girlfriend who had only been there for the first two Tests – neither of which India lost – became something of a lightning rod for public frustration and innuendo. There was the ridiculous remark from the team manager about how girlfriends shouldn’t have been allowed, and almost every story pertaining to Kohli and his partner had a voyeuristic, salacious feel to it. If I had been in his place, I would have been just as enraged.
I recall telling my wife that nobody would have dared publish articles or run half-hour shows if they had been married. That Anushka Sharma was ‘only his girlfriend’ somehow made her, and their relationship, fair game. Only one word comes to mind: hypocrisy.
At the time, I was reminded of Sydney 2008, a Test with a denouement as controversial as any the game has seen. On the second day of the game, Deepika Padukone was in the crowd. Her relationship with Yuvraj Singh was the prurient Indian’s favourite story at the time, and camera crews spent more time documenting Deepika’s emotions and reactions than they did on the game itself.
I don’t remember if she was there on the final evening, but I do recall quite vividly the reaction when Yuvraj fell for a three-ball duck. There was glee on some faces. Glee. Yuvraj had saved a Test for India with a magnificent 169 against Pakistan less than a month earlier, but his fourth failure of the series in Australia – he would never play a Test there again – was cause for celebration in some eyes.
The night before the West Indies-South Africa World Cup game in Sydney, a couple of friends coerced me into a visit to Ding Dong Dang, a karaoke bar. We left at 2am, after a singularly horrendous rendition of The Beatles’ Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds. I was at the ground by 1pm the next afternoon, and the outing didn’t affect my working day in the slightest.
What if that had been Kohli? Front-page splashes in the tabloids, panel discussions on TV, unflattering pictures with wine glass in hand, the cacophonous video clip going viral…you know the drill.
Kohli’s behaviour was way out of line. I’m sure he’s aware of that. But the media also needs to reassess how it represents the players and their loved ones. These are not walking, talking headlines. These are human beings playing under the greatest pressure imaginable in sport.
Friday Night Lights, HG Bissinger’s masterpiece on the football dream in a small Texas town, ends with these lines: “Above all, I thank the players themselves. It is hard for me to express the feelings I have for them, and as I sit here back in the suburbs, I think about them all the time. I remember the first time I saw them in the field house, with no idea of what they would be like and how they would take to me, or, for that matter, how I would take to them. And I remember how I thought of them at the end, as kids that I adored.”
Respect begets respect. As does affection. We can critically analyse what players do on the field. But we need to shoulder arms and give a very wide berth to the off-field gossip and moralising. Without that, the outrage has a hollow ring to it.