City City Bang Bang, Columns

A Resignation Foretold?

Virat Kohli’s resignation from the captaincy has been in the works for a while now. It has been clear for some time that his relationship with the BCCI has soured, and that his departure was only a matter of time. His ouster from ODI captaincy was handled in an unsavoury way; hardly the kind of reward that someone with his track record deserved. Although his resignation is voluntary, it is difficult not to believe that he has been pushed into a corner and that this was the only way out for him.

We will never know for sure what has led to this development. Was it Kohli’s stepping down from T20 captaincy that precipitated a chain of events? Ganguly now says that they had asked him to reconsider that decision, something that Kohli denies ever having happened. Was it Kohli’s growing unpopularity with the vocal supporters of this government because of his advocacy of a cracker-free Diwali and his standing up for Shami when he was being trolled communally? There were many who believed that his end was nigh once he stepped across this invisible but very palpable political line, and that forecast seems to have come true.

In many ways, the current development is the victory of mediocre self-interest over the integrity of talent. To his chosen profession, Kohli displays a fullness of commitment that even his worst detractors cannot challenge. That he gives more of himself than virtually any other cricketer, often to the point of dysfunction is apparent in every moment that he is on the field. His training regimen and the lengths to which he goes to attain a level of fitness are legendary.

Kohli is not the kind of player who can be universally liked. He has pointy edges, his on-field manner can be brash and excessively confrontational and his desire to win can sometimes result in over-the-top behaviour, like the recent controversy around the DRS decision in South Africa. He is not a cuddly presence by any stretch of imagination. But there is a deeper integrity that he possesses that compels admiration, a desire to do the right thing by his team that shines through.

Kohli seems to enjoy the battle more than virtually any captain ever. Ganguly himself created the mould, but Virat adds to the desire to outcompete, the willingness to put in as much effort as it takes, something that Ganguly did not quite have.  Kohli thrives on combat, he takes most pleasure in besting the most difficult competition. What is striking is that despite having reached many memorable milestones in his career, Kohli does not seem as invested in personal records as much as many other Indian greats for whom that was clearly a priority.

For much of his career, when Kohli used to reach a milestone he would celebrate not with joy but with anger, letting off a string of abuses that one need not be a lip-reader to understand. It was perplexing, this flood of negative emotion at a time normally associated with joy, or at the very least, relief. But in that anger lies the key to what drives Kohli- a relentless sense of being in pitched battle against circumstances. Scoring a century is less a personal achievement and more an occasion where he has put an abstract enemy in its place.

Kohli is all in, all the time. As viewers, it can be exhausting for us to see that sustained level of intensity, but he never lets up. He has thoroughly disliked by most fans of other countries, who see in him an obnoxiousness that is unsettling. Nobody, not even the staunchest fans of rival countries could have an issue with Sachin, for instance. Or Dravid for that matter. But Kohli is always at war, on the field. We can see this attitude reflected in the team too- not just aggression on the field, but a new kind of resilience that has helped conjure up some impossible wins, sometimes even in his absence.

Which is why he has a record that speaks for himself. 40 victories in 64 test matches is the kind of track record no other Indian captain comes close to. Victories abroad has become a feature rather than a miraculous exception. Even in the smaller formats, Kohli outperforms all recent captains who have had a stint of more than 50 games. In both T20 & ODIs, he has a stronger victory record than his mentor MS Dhoni, widely regarded as one of canniest captains in the game. The only format where his captaincy record is poor is when he is not representing the country, in the IPL.

Indian cricket administrators have long excelled in this, creating a problem where none exists. Deliberately opaque communication, ‘sources’ leaking rumours of all kinds, senior players kept guessing, one team member being played off against the other, withholding information till the very last minute- all in an effort to exercise control- not in the interests of the game or the team but so as to maintain their grip over the game in a narrowly political sense.

At a time when the team has been doing well, the BCCI has decided to do what politicians excel at- insert itself into the situation and mess it up thoroughly. The Ganguly-Shah combine, apart from staying on in power in contravention of the BCCI’s rules, has taken it upon itself to bring Kohli down a peg or two for his perceived transgressions, whatever they might be. And it has done without having any kind of plan. There is really no clear successor in place.

What would be really sad is if this curmudgeonly act of politicking eventually leads to Kohli quitting the game itself. There is no reason to believe that that will happen, but Kohli is an all-or-nothing player. He is too much of an individual to try to fit into a mould that others have prepared for him. For now, pettiness has won.