Guilt and atonement. Sympathy and judgement. Pride and prejudice ...?
Looking at Indian cricketer Virat Kohli’s stunning decision to quit Test captaincy, I keep asking myself a whole lot of questions as to what would and should be a true reading of this cricketing behemoth’s shocking move to suddenly relinquish a position that, according to many, is the most coveted after that of the Prime Minister’s Office in the world’s largest democracy.
And the one word that has been constantly coming up in my mind, like a momentary glimpse of a name or face on a sorcerer’s crystal ball, is ‘passion’.
Lording it on the cricket field
Twenty years ago, when the then India captain, Sourav Ganguly, yanked off his shirt on the famed Lord’s balcony in London and kept swirling it over his head after an improbable win against hosts England in the final of Natwest Trophy, it was — and still is — considered as one of the most brazen acts ever committed in the cricketing arena — more so, since it came at the haloed Lord’s.
Sixteen years after that incident, as I stood on that same balcony on a quiet, wet, March afternoon, during my guided tour of cricket’s most celebrated and iconic venue, I realised that only someone who plays the sport with such immense intensity and passion is capable of an act as daring as that.
“That evening, Sourav didn’t just stop at opening his shirt on the balcony, but went swirling it all the way down the prestigious Long Room and into the ground. Believe me, it takes some doing to be able to do that at a place like Lord’s,” my tour guide told me. And I told myself, ‘Yes, it does take some doing ...!’
For me, watching Kohli rage into the stump microphone on the third day of the just-concluded Cape Town Test against South Africa was no less than a Conradian ‘Lord Jim’ committing a ‘hubris’.
Like me, millions across the globe who were watching the live action that afternoon from Cape Town realised that this ‘hubris’ most certainly marked the culmination of perhaps months of being torn apart — more psychologically and circumstantially than what the bad patch with the bat would entail. For someone who has played the sport with all his heart and whose raw aggression on the field is worth every ounce of sweat and blood he produces, there can never be a middle-path, a ‘safe’ decision, a compromise.
And just like Lord Jim in Joseph Conrad’s novel of the same name, whose hubris with the ‘Patna’ debacle was more-than-atoned for by his heroism in Patusan, ‘King Kohli’ too has now more-than-atoned for all his fallibilities and his Cape Town ‘hubris’ by tossing aside the coveted crown of Test captaincy with his trademark chutzpah.
The Delhi ‘daredevil’
If the issue of captaincy in white-ball cricket was used by the powers that be in the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) as a stick to beat Kohli with — tormenting Kohli to no end by the way he was being sidelined of late by the mandarins in the world’s richest and most powerful cricket board — then the Delhi ‘daredevil’ raised his stature several notches higher by leveraging the issue of captaincy in red-ball cricket as a powerful antidote to counter that humiliation.
Like a Conradian Jim, Kohli too has settled his own ‘Patna-Patusan’ dichotomy in one fell swoop of a grab-and-go at professional pride — fighting off all those ‘cobwebs’ of doubts for good with an existentialist ‘leap through the unknown’. Yes, it is a ‘leap through the unknown’ because no one knows how the next few months and the rest of the career will pan out for this braveheart.
By relinquishing captaincy he may have creaked open the door just that fraction of an inch wider for his eventual ‘easing out’ from the team — if his poor form with the bat continues, that is. But then, for someone who has never thought twice before looking the enemy in the eye, whose ‘take-no-prisoner’ attitude on the field is hard-wired into his customary swagger as a leader of men, ‘a leap through the unknown’ is any day more glorious than a cushy permanence built on compromise.
Even if one keeps the cricketing angle aside, in sheer personal, financial terms, too, Kohli’s decision to quit captaincy is steeped in courage and a huge element of risk. After the Mansour Ali Khan Pataudi-Sharmila Tagore pairing, the Virat Kohli-Anushka Sharma duo comprised the biggest box office through a cricket-Bollywood nuptial tie-up in India.
However, the worlds that these two sets of celebrity couples inherited were as different as Pataudi’s convertible Jaguar was from Kohli’s favourite Audi R8! According to a conservative 2019 estimate, the combined net worth of Virat-Anushka was around $165.85 million (Dh610 million), lion’s share of which was from Kohli’s endorsements.
As the captain of the Indian cricket team, Kohli’s advertisement contracts bore astronomical price tags — but they also came with their own set of cut-and-dried ‘conditions apply’. The primacy he had in the Indian team and in public life as the ‘captain’ was baked into determining his endorsement values. With the tag of captaincy gone from his name, Kohli’s endorsements will now be subject to a revaluation for sure. And it indeed takes a lot of courage and guts to self-inflict such a blow.
As a power-couple, the stakes were always sky-high for ‘Virushka’ and one must admit that the couple walked the talk, in every sense — whether it was walking hand-in-hand in Adelaide after India’s famous series win against the invincible Aussies or publicly confronting a motorist on the streets of Delhi for littering.
You have been immensely brave, Kohli, and unbeleivably transparent — never for once squirming from wearing your heart on your sleeve, sometimes even bordering on arrogance. And yes, before I forget, in it’s 145-year history, Test cricket probably hadn’t had a player who quit captaincy on the cusp of his 100th Test. That for sure takes some doing. That’s ‘King Kohli’. Thank you — O Captain. My Captain!