It’s common for cricket teams to take on the personality of their captain.
Sourav Ganguly’s India blended flair and aggression, and played their cricket with confidence bordering on arrogance. Ganguly’s India never shied away from a fight. They gave as good as they got, something that came as a pleasant surprise to a generation of fans who had grown up watching nice guys time and again finish last.
In the second half of his reign, Ganguly’s India were also beset by insecurities and infighting.
Unlike Ganguly’s team, Rahul Dravid’s India focused most studiously on getting the small things right. Matches were won not by taking the bull by its horns, but by players putting their collective heads down ball after ball, over after over, session by session. Dravid’s India weren’t boring—far from it—just super organized.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s India played with a silent swagger. Where Ganguly’s team reminded one of a terrier that didn’t know it was tiny, Dhoni’s team did a fine impression of being the biggest dog in the room.
Given all this, it’s not surprising to see what Virat Kohli’s India have quickly become: a belligerent bunch of bearded chatterboxes, always spoiling for a fight.
There’s no judgement here. This is not about whether or not the Indian players have crossed some line of decency, this is not whether they’ve brought the beautiful game of cricket into disrepute, and this is definitely not about the “spirit of cricket”.
This India-Australia series has been supremely entertaining. There have been sublime knocks, mesmerizing spells and passages of play that have made for compulsive viewing. The constant bickering between players—Steve Smith versus Ishant Sharma versus Virat Kohli versus Glenn Maxwell versus Pat Cummins versus K.L. Rahul—has added spice to an already tasty contest.
So why have they managed to ruffle so many feathers? Why the deep sense of discomfort watching this Indian team “bully the bullies”, as the broadcaster calls it?
It’s simple: Kohli is one of India’s finest batsmen. He’s super-articulate on social media, where he even deals with complex subjects such as women’s empowerment with clarity. He’s super-charming on camera…. I’d buy an air conditioner in peak winter if he was in the advertisement.
What this boils down to is basically that, against an Aussie side that has always prided itself on its sledging skills (famously rechristened as “mind games” in the Steve Waugh era), he’s got the chops to play the suave aggressor.
The problem is that the same can’t be said for the rest of his team, and when they try to play the unprovoked antagonist, they sometimes end up looking a little silly. Ishant Sharma’s vaudeville act against Smith in the first Test of the series being a case in point…
For those who missed it, Sharma decided to mimic the Australian captain, contorting his face into a series of comically grotesque expressions. Kohli, standing at slip, couldn’t stop laughing. The commentary box was in splits. Twitter exploded. Smith himself didn’t quite know how to react (though scoring three centuries in the series seems like a fairly coherent response).
The thing, however, is that Sharma wasn’t really trying to get a laugh. He was trying to scare Smith into throwing his wicket away, and ended up becoming an Internet meme.
There’s nothing wrong with Kohli trying to shape this team in his own image…as the provoker rather than the reactor, but if that’s the path they’re going to take, they should try and get good at it. Right now, they’re just coming across as reluctantly petulant kids.
Deepak Narayanan, a journalist for nearly 20 years, now runs an events space, The 248 Collective, in Goa. He tweets at @deepakyen.