“He’s the only player in the history of the game to go berserk and play better. What’s the incentive to behave if that’s how you play your best?”
The ‘he’ here was quite the genius, a left-handed magician of such craft and cunning, such guile and skill, that all you could do was watch open-mouthed, in envious admiration.
But you could never separate the athlete from the man, the sinuous touch from the extraordinarily witty but also deeply cutting barbs. John McEnroe was a magician on the tennis court, he was also a raving lunatic if you so wished to pigeonhole him. No one has immortalised a phrase like Mac the Mouth did ‘YOU CAN’T BE SERIOUS!’ If he wasn’t as outrageously gifted, the joke might have been on Johnny Mac. But no one could ever shout back at him, ‘YOU CAN’T BE SERIOUS!’, could they?
It is impossible for the average cricket follower in this time and age to not immediately think of Virat Kohli on reading George Plimpton’s pithy assessment of McEnroe. The late American journalist, writer, literary editor and part-time sportsperson neither knew nor knew of Kohli when he left the earth for a better place, in 2003. And yet, he could so easily have been talking Kohli, not McEnroe.
McEnroe needed to gee himself up; he needed to feel that it was him against the rest of the world. He had to get angry – if it was all an act, maybe he didn’t mind the disqualifications and the hefty fines? – to release the inner tennis demon in him. To delight as equally as he had infuriated just seconds back. To mesmerise as readily as he had put you off a couple of rallies previously.
In individual sport, that probably works much, much better than it does in team sport, but that again might be very basic, convenient generalising. Through his acerbic but rib-tickling tirades – ‘If that ball was in, you got hair on your head,’ he once told a bald linesman – and his running battles with fans and officialdom, McEnroe invariably kept his game-head firmly fixed. Unlike, say, a Nick Kyrgios.
Kohli is not in the lonely world of dog-eat-dog individual professional sport. Even at his loneliest, he has a batting partner 20 yards away; when he is fielding, he has ten other gentlemen for company, many of them snarling and sniping like the example-setting captain. He has glared and growled at and sledged the inanimate Decision Review System even though the review has been favourable to his team. That is just his nature – not every celebration has to be accompanied by a nice smile. To him, the odd f*** is perfectly fine. Just as it is to his head coach, too.
Ravi Shastri has been a straight-shooter all his adult life. He has led his life on his own terms, and been innately proud of that, no matter what anyone else might think. He hasn’t felt the need to walk on eggshells or throw a spin of respectability around himself. With Shastri, what you see is generally what you get.
Or, maybe, what you saw was what you got.
Virat Kohli ko gussa to aata hi hai, but Ravi Shastri ko kyon? Why is the head coach such an angry clearly-not-very-young-man in his second innings in charge? Why does he keep insisting that he doesn’t give a ‘crap’ about what anyone outside of the dressing-room thinks of the decision-making? And what gives him the right to say that in our country, ‘people are happy when you lose’?
Ten days after the September 11 attacks on the twin towers in New York in 2001, George W Bush thundered in a passionate, emotional speech, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” It was a very simplistic demarcation of the global order; the American president was lashing out in understandable anger and pain. The very fabric of democracy, not just in the United States but around the world, had been brazenly questioned.
Within the Indian team, a loose extrapolation of the Bush axiom seems to have taken deep root. ‘Either you are with us, or…’ Meaning you are not allowed to have a different point of view from ours when it comes to selection. When it comes to field placements. When it comes to batting order. When it comes to personnel manning the slip cordon. Of if you do, keep it to yourself. There is just one way of thinking, which is the team management’s, and if anyone dare have a contrasting point of view, you can take it and do you know what. Questions at press conferences are often met with glib, aggressive counter-questions. Siege mentality? Possibly. But why? Why the assumption that people are jealous of this team’s success? Why the feeling that people don’t want them to win?
As journalists, we are supposed to be neutrals, taking the good with the bad. But travelling with a successful team is any day a far more pleasant, welcome, fulfilling proposition than with a team desperately searching for good fortune in lottery tickets. A dear friend reported on the tour of England in 2011 when India didn’t win a single international – the closest they came was a tie in the fourth ODI at Lord’s. He was on tour also when India spanked Sri Lanka 9-0 across formats last year. Every time he felt a little bored of the sameness of the result, we transported him back to 2011, to the deep despair of a journalist travelling with a beaten, broken team.
The players’ job is to play, the analysts’ to watch and analyse, to discuss and dissect. You don’t need to have played 50 Test matches to systematically dismantle Kohli’s batting – if that was the criterion, no soul in this or any other earth is allowed to even utter the words Sachin Tendulkar – or debate the merits of Ajinkya Rahane ahead of Rohit Sharma in a Test match XI. ‘Ask him to play an over from Kagiso Rabada,’ as has been suggested, is both churlish and immature. If I could, I would, right?
More than a decade and a half back, during his wonderfully entertaining stint as India’s first overseas head coach, John Wright revealed during a relaxed conversation that one of the first things he told his wards after taking charge was that they were responsible not just for the brand of cricket they played, but for also how they conducted themselves and how they shaped the character of the team. Wright clearly didn’t need to, not when the team was populated by Tendulkar and Kumble, Dravid and Laxman, Ganguly and Srinath, but he went ahead and said so, nevertheless. These gentlemen respected the fact that you had a job to do, and that you were neither a cheerleader nor a member of the team’s unofficial support staff. If, occasionally, they took offence at what you wrote, they would politely seek an explanation in private. They didn’t single people out or take pot-shots. Maybe they spoiled us. Maybe they shouldn’t have given a crap, too.