Brisbane: There’s an old Indian proverb that goes something like: When I do it, it’s romantic. When someone else does it, it’s adultery.
Cricket can borrow from that ancient irony with the fall-out from the recent spat between Virat Kohli and Steve Smith. From India’s perspective, as they move towards a new dawn, expect more of the same if Kohli is handed the keys to the kingdom. His flashing eyes and steel wrists make for compelling viewing. Is there a better cricketer in the world? Possibly not. Will he rub opponents up the wrong way? Almost certainly, yes. Is this what the Indian public want from their team? Yes and no.
As MS Dhoni exits, a stage left gracefully and Kohli ascends the throne, India evolves from Mr Cool to Mr Red Hot. The Ice Man, renowned for keeping his cool under pressure will be succeeded by the Blowtorch, breathing fire and brimstone as he fiercely defends India’s pride. Perhaps we have seen the last of the meek and mild Indian - the Kohli Generation will not take a backward step. And why should they?
At face value, for Smith to take Kohli to task over a send-off so soon after the World Cup final, might smack of breathtaking hypocrisy. Don’t forget that though that Smith was not captain that afternoon when Brad Haddin and Mitchell Starc spewed invective at departing Kiwi batsmen. Michael Clarke was never one to rein in his hit squad— he was happy enough to allow Mitchell Johnson, David Warner, James Pattinson, Mitchell Starc and Brad Haddin to do their thing.
Whenever he faced a sanction, a quick, mumbled apology about knowing when not to cross the line was trotted out and the ICC looked the other way. In contrast, when Starc went OTT against NZ recently, Smith was quick to call out his behaviour. So to label him a hypocrite might just be premature. Only time will tell if this new Australian team will now stay true to his mantra — no more send-offs.
For some reason, Australia, and to a lesser extent England, seem to bring out the mongrel in Kohli. The South Africans play hard cricket but rarely get under his skin to this extent. NZ have the wonderful knack of being ultra-competitive but they seem to find that balance with dignity and grace. For all the talk of the IPL being the great unifier, the friendship circle that was meant to extend outside the circus tent, when it comes to Australia v India, neither party seems prepared to back down.
For Australia, that is par for the course. It is not part of their psyche to feel guilty about the duality of morality. Romantic and Adulterer. They are not mutually exclusive.
India though will take time to live easy with being both villain and victim. If you play with fire, you will get burnt but so long as you are thick-skinned enough to laugh away the burns, the quality of their cricket is such that they will regularly feel the thrill of torching the opposition. It’s an unedifying spectacle to anyone who prides themselves on the Indian team of old but perhaps it’s time we all got used to the Brat Pack and their style of play.
Whilst Kohli might be a hero for standing up for his young teammates, the danger with this strategy is that you can never go back far enough to figure out who started it first. How far back do you go? This is the sort of niggle that the IPL friendships were supposed to prevent but it is clear that when it comes to Australia vs India, the bad blood runs deep. And that may be because they are both super powers and neither wants to give an inch. It is like a royal family and a power struggle for the throne. They don’t worry so much when it is a minnow because they are not serious challengers.
ICC in mute mode
Throughout all of this, the ICC sit mute. The Spirit of Cricket is nothing but an empty epithet when it involves the Big 3 but wielded with venom to keep the serfs in their place. India, for so long, the perceived victims of injustice, are taking justice into their own hands.
It is a brave move, full of the sort of bravado epitomised by the daring strokeplay of Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan. When it comes off, they will raise their arms in triumph, with sneering lips. And when they cop the blast from the furnace, they will need to accept that when you fight fire with fire, sometimes the game itself gets charred.
Perhaps Kohli is adopting the curious logic of a typical pub fight in Sydney’s Kings Cross. He is trying to get his revenge in first!
Michael Jeh is a Brisbane-based former first-class player