Aggression in sport manifests itself in different ways.

In most cases, the explosion happens in the heat of the moment. Zinedine Zidane, for example, would never have been described as an aggressive footballer. Through his career, he struck an endearing balance between genial and genius.

Yet, in the 2006 Fifa World Cup final, he was sent off for headbutting Italy’s Marco Materazzi. That moment felt bizarre, but it was also understandable at some level—a bit like the whistle going off on a pressure cooker (except that the pressure in this case was built up over a career spanning decades rather than a few minutes on the stove-top).

Then there are sportspersons who wear their aggression on their sleeve like a badge of honour. Rafael Nadal is pumped the moment he steps on court. In Rafa’s world, every forehand cross-court winner needs a fist-pump, and every backhand down-the-line must be followed by a “vamos" (come on).

This doesn’t mean, obviously, that someone like Roger Federer is not aggressive. Federer’s aggression is more geometric—it’s in the angles the single-handed backhand generates, or the number of times his shots catch the lines.

Sunil Gavaskar would never perhaps be described as an “aggressive" batsman, but scoring 774 runs in five Tests in his debut series in the West Indies does count as being fiercely competitive.

Virat Kohli is clearly more Nadal than Federer where the expression of aggression is concerned. He seems genuinely angry each time he scores a hundred, or when one of his bowlers dismisses the opposition’s key batsman. Even as a batsman, he exemplifies the phrase about offence being the best form of defence.

After India lost the first Test against South Africa earlier this month, he said the Indian batsmen needed to put more pressure on the bowling—suggesting that seeing off deliveries, overs, sessions was a meek objective; the real target was dominance.

This kind of attitude is great on the field. India have, after all, won 20 of 34 Test matches played under Kohli’s captaincy, and he has built a team that doesn’t give an inch once umpires call play.

However, the team selection for the first two Tests does indicate that Kohli has let this in-built aggression influence key decisions. Captain Kohli will always prefer a Rohit Sharma—smasher of attacks in the shorter formats—to the more measured Ajinkya Rahane, for example. Also, a Bhuvaneshwar Kumar might lose out because he doesn’t stare batsmen down as well as an Ishant Sharma.

Is this prudent? It’s hard to say—at the end of the day, it’s the results that will speak for themselves. In both Tests, India found themselves in positions from which they could have forced a win.

As things stand, however, it is yet another series defeat in South Africa. They’ll have to wait a while yet to complete the “hisaab pachees saal ka".

There’s little doubt that Kohli, the batsman, will go down as an all-time great. But he —and coach Ravi Shastri—will do well to realize that aggression doesn’t just lie in boundaries and sixes and full-throated expletives. Cheteshwar Pujara seeing out a session or Kumar nagging away just outside the off-stump...these are signs of intent as well.

Deepak Narayanan, a journalist for nearly 20 years, now runs an events space, The 248 Collective, in Goa. He tweets at @deepakyen.

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